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The science and value of boredom

Diagram of brain activity during boredom.
Diagram of brain activity during boredom.
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When we are bored, we can no longer focus our attention on our surroundings. Scientists have found that this shift in attention hinders areas of the brain that are associated with self-control and vision and language processing (1). As a result, we tend to feel like our brain has entered a dormant state. However, even during the dullest of moments, the brain remains quite active. In fact, according radiology professor Dr. Mark Mintum, the amount of energy the brain consumes only decreases by 5% when we are bored (2).


Even with this slight decline, certain regions of the brain actually become more active during times of boredom. Specifically, signals are exchanged between the medial prefrontal cortex, which is located in the front of the brain, and the posterior cingulate and precuneus, which are located in the back of the brain (3). Collectively, these brain regions are known as the default network (3). Stimulation of the default network is believed to be the brain's way of turning away from the external environment in order to explore itself (3).


In today's busy culture, which is rooted in constant progress, this type of introspection may seem like a waste of valuable time. However scientists believe that important processes occur during boring moments. For example, studies of the default network reveal that opposite parts of the brain use this time to connect unrelated thoughts and sort through information (2)(3). Many times this reflection brings us a new sense of clarity. Perhaps this was best exemplified by Dr. Albert Einstein, who developed the Special Theory of Relativity when he was in a bored state of mind, while daydreaming (2). Studies also suggest that boredom fuels productivity and creativity because it forces us to look for solutions to tedious tasks (4). Many amenities that we enjoy today were conceived due to frustration with boredom (4).


Another reason why boredom can be worthwhile is because it is essential for sleep. When our default network becomes active, our sense of time is altered (5). Every second feels uncomfortably longer than it really is (5). In order to alleviate this irritation, our body tends to utilize sleep (5). If our brain was constantly engaged in its surroundings, it would be very difficult for us to fall asleep, get enough rest, and function optimally during the day (4).


Overall, whether boring moments are used to contemplate existing thoughts, to spark new ideas, or as a precursor to a good night's sleep, they have a lot of potential. For most, feeling bored is a very unpleasant experience. This is especially true because our society encourages busyness and insists that one must constantly be moving forward in order to succeed. Many of us do all we can to avoid boredom due to a fear of falling behind in today's fast-paced world, but it is to our own detriment. Instead, maybe the best way to deal with boredom is to embrace it.
 

References:

  1. Boredom Disconnects Parts of Your Brain
  2. How to be Bored and Constructive - Simultaneously
  3. Boredom
  4. Boredom Can Be Good For You
  5. You're Bored, but Your Brain Is Tuned In

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