Boredom, Not Just in Your Head

Watching grass grow. Observing paint dry. Falling asleep during a particularly bad television show. Everyone has experienced boredom. In German, the word for boredom is "langeweile," or "long time period." But boredom is more than a temporary feeling. It can cause significant stress, and is associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and compulsive gambling. Worse, boredom can often lead to fatal accidents and mishaps, even among highly trained and focused professionals like airline pilots or military personnel handling nuclear-powered equipment.

Despite boredom's serious consequences and ubiquity, the mental state is not well understood, according to a new report led by John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University in Ontario, Canada. In fact, there is not even a good definition of boredom for researchers to work with. They did find, however, that boredom is based on problems with attention and awareness. The brain's attention networks, which usually help with focusing on tasks, fail when a person is bored, creating "an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity," the researchers wrote. "It's an amazingly under-studied area given how universal the experience is," said Mark Fenske, a co-researcher from the University of Guelph, Ontario. "We need to have a common definition, something we all can agree on, of what boredom is."

By examining what little existing research has been done on boredom, the group found that:

o Boredom can set in when a task is easy enough to be completed even with distractions. in fact, a distraction can relieve boredom in this case
o When a distraction does affect the task, however, people report feeling more bored.
o People who are aware that they can't pay attention report boredom more than people who don't report problems focusing.
o Boredom, often associated with low states of arousal, can also be triggered by higher states of arousal (like feeling irritated or restless).

While no studies have specifically investigated the parts of the brain that might be involved in boredom, it is possible that areas of the brain that handle focused behavior could be involved. Alternately, nerve cell circuits in the brain called the "executive network," that manage complex tasks, could also be affected. Knowing how these networks react to a bored state could go a long way towards the goal of alleviating long-term boredom and its risks.

P.D. The image above is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov of "The Princess Who Never Smiled", a Russian fairy tale.

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