By Kate Hakala
Fall has arrived. September is just the first stop on the long road to knitted sweaters, copious amounts of chai tea, common colds, and of course, boredom. For most of us, this season is synonymous with the beginning of school and the return back to the 9 to 5, beach-free, cubicle crack down. In order to assure we don’t go completely mind numb and sink into our own solipsistic cesspools, we go on Facebook every 20 minutes and enjoy the onslaught of Instagrammed pet photos while at our respective desks. But while we whine that “work was so boring” and thus not worth our time, in fact, it may be in these moments of watching water boil and pondering drying paint that our brain finds creativity and inspiration.
Boredom is the state of feeling we have nothing to do or lack stimulation. Though not a unified concept across cultures or individuals, boredom is very much felt when the mind no longer needs to be actively engaged in something. It hits when you’re waiting in line or when you feel a deeper rooted Rolling Stones-esque sense of dissatisfaction with life. I’ve heard the the old adage, “if you’re bored, you’re boring,” too many times. And I’m here to tell you that it just isn’t true! In fact, bored people might seek out the most meaningful tasks of all.
That’s because the newest studies show that activity in numerous brain regions increases when our mind wanders due to boredom. In fact, when we daydream, our brains are much more active than when they are focusing on routine tasks. In a recent study, subjects were put in an fMRI scanner and were asked to a push a button when they saw numbers on a screen — a very boring task, indeed. The study found that daydreaming allows us to unconsciously turn away from mundane tasks and instead focus on our inner lives. That means being bored puts to good use the brain’s default network, which is a system linked to routine and basic activities.
Let’s talk about the default network: a specific and only recently defined brain system that deals with internally-focused cognition. Some of these me-centric brain activities include personal memory retrieval, when we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and when we conjure different and future scenarios. Essentially, a daydreamer’s brain system. All the systems collaborating add something to this network. The medial temporal lobe gives you memories, the medial prefrontal system uses this personal information and makes it relevant to an individual, and the posterior cingulate cortex is the area where these two previous systems meet. So, why do we need the default network? It’s sort of our stage manager. It’s setting up the props and painting future sets that we might need in life. It imagines a future, it navigates possible social interactions, and it engages us in moments where we would normally be cognitively picking our nose.
Though initially the default network was thought to be the only part of our brain’s active when daydreaming, the study found that the brain’s executive network is also activated. This system is associated with problem-solving and high thought, and includes the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Usually these networks act on an either-or basis, but daydreaming seems to be an exception where they begin parallel, tandem work. Though it feels like our mind is hibernating, the amount of energy the brain requires for thought only reduces by 5% when we are in states of boredom. There really is that much work going on up there. The study saw that the less subjects were aware that their minds were wandering, the more likely both default and executive networks were in use.
Do you have drool running down your chin yet?
Some studies contend that we spend 1/3 of our waking lives daydreaming, some estimates even report that our minds are wandering 46.9% of the time. No matter how huge the percentage of time we are spacing out is, we know that electrical sparking is occurring between usually distant parts of the brain, connecting seemingly unrelated artifacts from our life. Thus, it can be said that productivity, relaxation, and the sustenance of relationships can been attributed to the power of daydreaming. The brain allows itself to encounter more complexities when it is dealing with passive life, and therefore the whys and and what ifs are much more apparent than when we are actively engaged with the world around us.
In a world where we are now basing satisfaction and success upon the ways in which we achieve instant gratification, it may seem detrimental to our quick-paced lifestyles to slow down and look inward. When we aren’t paying attention to our surroundings, we are preventing the utilization of areas of the brain associated with self control, vision, and language processing. This isn’t a bad thing. It is only in this down time that our brain’s default network allows for the connection of seemingly disparate thoughts and therefore new, deep information to come to light. Maybe idle hands do become Satan’s scooters and puzzles, leading some to drug abuse and gambling, but listless bouts can lead to some of humanity’s best creations. We invent because we want to rid ourselves of boredom. It is said that Einstein thought of the Theory of Relativity when he was bored stiff.
Another secret advantage to feeling dull is that boredom helps you snooze. When the default network is activated, our temporal perception slows down, and often we fall asleep in order to put an end to this slow-mo stagnancy. If we were always “on”, we’d never get to sleep.
But, isn’t there a downside to stewing in our own lack of interest? Why else would people bemoan it? And how else would Ben Stein’s voice have become so ubiquitous?
We all know Bored to Death is a phenomenal TV show, but it is not quite an enviable state to be in. A new study even shows that the more bored you think you are, the more likely you’re going to die younger. Inside your brain, there is an area which processes memory and emotional reactions called the amygdala. The metabolic state of the amygdala determines where information goes. If it is in a state of stress, and therefore very active, most of the information we take in will be sent to the lower part of the brain, the more animal and involuntary region. Here we mainly react to things with our handy fight-or-flight response system. While major stresses might include fear and anxiety, scientists have discovered that boredom incites this same hyperactivity of the amygdala.
What happens to a brain that has neuronal ants in its pants? A 25-year-long study conducted in London found that those who reported being bored at work were 2.5 times more likely to die of a heart condition than those that never reported being bored at work. This sounds as if boredom can be as deadly as publicized grim reapers like alcohol, smoking, and obesity. But not so fast. It’s much more likely that bored people die early because they let themselves remain bored. And who is the first to pick up a pack of smokes and eat yet another slice of pizza? Probably someone in the midst of malaise. A bored person’s brain degenerates when it no longer challenges itself or seeks out the golden ticket of a healthy, active mind: novel experiences. Degenerative brain diseases are far less common in the Curious Georges of the world. The most common outlets for seeking novelty include food, art, sexuality, travel, weather, and social interactions.
What can we garner from this? Being bored is absolutely positively okay. But if someone constantly complains of being bored, develops a permanent fist-under-chin posture, they’re probably going to die a very tedious and early death because they just aren’t channeling their down moments properly. As I said, neurologically, mind wandering is most pronounced when the individual is unaware it is happening. However, it is in these unaware individuals where the creativity closely associated with daydreaming is not as exceptional. What science is saying here is: don’t bore yourself into an oblivious k-hole.
Filter your moments of ennui into awe-worthy bouts of creativity and innovation. Bring a waterproof notebook into the shower. Bring a tape recorder in the car. Catch yourself slipping off through the window sill of your default network’s imagination. Don’t just say you’re bored; do something. I see countless amounts of people falling into the depths of their iPads and other gadgets on the subway. And while, yes, we might be learning in these times, the glow of a screen and our near ADD-level need for stimuli might stop us from getting at the minutes where we become truly divine daydreamers. So, hopefully you have learned something from all of this. And, hey, if not, at best, you let your mind wander and developed a cure for cancer while this article bored you half to death.
ExpliKate is a column running on Kate-book.com every other Monday at noon. It is written by the hyper-inquisitive Kate Hakala, who seeks to answer questions ranging from “What is kombucha?” to what you read above. Follow her on Twitter here.