When was the last time you were truly bored? Not engaged in disinteresting activity but real mind-numbing, gazing out of the window bored.
It doesn’t happen anymore, we are under-stimulated if we are only mono-tasking. Watching the tv without googling the soundtrack or the actors’ social feed or something. We are over-stimulated almost all the time and that is the new normality. I say new but it has been that way since we got the internet in our palms.
If you grew up pre-internet era, you will remember what I’m talking about. When you had a handful of tv channels and your mum wouldn’t let you watch them. You had to search for something to do. In my day, we would play with mud and paper bags. And, kids today don’t know how lucky they are! (Sorry, fell into dad mode) But, in many ways it’s true. Long journeys were spent arguing with siblings or looking out the window. Rainy days were spent arguing with siblings or looking out of the window. School holidays were spent… you get the picture. In most cases, we would find something to do or make or just daydream.
Today, I will go walking with a podcast, driving with an audiobook even toilet with YouTube. Our aversion to boredom is easily medicated.
But, boredom is an important state of consciousness, it allows the mind to wander, get creative, find solutions to problems but more importantly it makes us think about our social connections.
In 1997, Gordon Shulman and his team at Washington University were playing with some new tech they had acquired to study which parts of the brain lit up when engaged in various mental processes. Their results were a little disappointing (this is science speak for they didn’t prove their thesis). They changed tack and decided to focus on what parts of the brain became active when not involved in these processes and made some surprising discoveries. They discovered the brain’s screensaver. One part of the brain became reliably active when the subject was on downtime. Shulman called this the Default Network and it was very active. The function of the Default Network, they found, was Social Cognition, in other words, when we are not engaged in stuff, we think about others. Why? Because social connection is the most important part of our evolution, building communities is how we got where we are today and it’s the same impulse that has made Zuckerberg one of the richest and most influential men on the planet.
Social Cognition is also the true key to Personal Development.
During lockdown many experienced unprecedented boredom and reacted with unprecedented creativity. Whether it was your grandma discovering Tik Tok or Robert and Toyah’s Sunday lunch lunacy, many of us found ways to break the tedium. Dr. Sandi Mann of Central Lancaster University studies boredom and found that subjects placed in states of sensory deprivation experienced pain then immense creativity. Shakespeare reportedly wrote King Lear, arguably painful for literature students but undeniably creative, in quarantine during the plague years.
But, lockdown boredom has also been the catalyst for a spike in domestic violence.
Dr. Sandi Mann equates boredom with stress, there is good boredom and bad boredom. While boredom allows the mind to create neural connections without the conscious suppression that occur during activity, it can also drive us to self-harm to break the monotony. One study showed that participants preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than endure boredom. Boredom can be the catalyst for anti-social behaviour and vandalism. If you live in an inner-city, you probably see it all around you. If you live in a rural area, the problem is probably drugs and alcohol.
So, boredom has a dark side.
For many career-focused individuals, the pace of modern life has made our access to boredom decline. We may be involved in more banal, repetitive activities but they are still activities and our brains are not getting the downtime they need to create, innovate and nurture social cognition. Sometimes social cognition is the source of innovation (Read HERE about how one brought the other).
Boredom has been rebranded.
Clever people keep changing our perception of things by rebranding them, Amazon’s Fulfilment centres would once have been just warehouses.
Meditation is the new boredom. The top movers and shakers all swear by meditation. They have a time allotted each day to clear their minds and focus on nothing. This is a habit of the rich and successful (and I know I’m going to get some flack here) but it is just rebranded boredom. Not the kind that will cause you to go out and break windows or beat your kids, but it gives the brain time to clear, to ignite the default system and get creative. Meditation has kudos, boredom is just something that is suffered by boring poor people.
Our brains crave downtime, not to be lazy but to be unshackled from banal activity so they can innovate and see the solutions that have been hiding in plain sight. They hunger for the Social Cognition that nurtures connections, to rationalise the frustrations that we have with those around us.
With the new normal of our remote working, always-on, always contactable, profile updating lives, is it any wonder that social skills are suffering. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is reportedly on the rise. Self-Help Gurus are telling their disciples to work harder on themselves and imposter syndrome is a thing. Maybe a healthy dose of Social Cognition is the way to go. (See my views on that HERE)
Go now to the central fuse box in your house, or office (If you dare!) pull down the main circuit breaker, turn off your phone and sit for 10 minutes in the dark. I promise it will turn on the lights in a place you had forgotten existed!