As a child, I frequently complained of boredom. I whined to my mum and to my dad and to my siblings, begging them to give me something entertaining to do. Sometimes they would. Other times, my mum would try to console me with the comment, “Robin, boredom is good for you. Sit with that feeling for a bit, and you’ll find something good to do.”
This did not console me at all as a child. As an adult, I still don’t heed that advice (the instant I’m at risk of boredom, I go on a wiki/youtube/twitch/ps4 trip), but I see now that there is perhaps a lot of truth in it. When I give in to my impatient impulses I sit at my computer. I play games. I eat. I waste time. I do this until I fall asleep, often later than I should. However, if I allow myself to experience the boredom, I often end up finding something more stimulating, more creative, and generally more worth-while to do.
Why is this? Well often the quickest, easiest path is the least interesting – in life, and in passing time. Playing a repetitive game that’s brought me satisfaction before is a safe, easy way to pass those hours. The bright lights of youtube, and the draw of the related-video freeway, is like a very mild addiction – click, and get a laugh. Click again, no laugh. A random reward-laugh here-and-there is enough to motivate mindless clicking ad infinitum. But what’s been gained? Sleep deprivation, and not much else. By contrast, when we suffer boredom, we have to use our own resources to cure it. Often we look inward to fight this boredom, and then we explore our environment. This is when I tend to end up going for a walk, reading a new book, or writing something. The empty space begs to be filled. Whereas the filled space – even if only filled with fluff – doesn’t motivate anything greater.
Science supports this theory.
There may even be negative physiological effects of choosing a quick fix for my boredom. As I noted, these options usually involve screens, and randomised reward systems (for me at least). The blue light emitted by most computer monitors is known to inhibit melatonin release. Melatonin is an important sleep hormone secreted by the pineal gland, and is usually triggered after sundown. This hormone tells our body that it’s time to sleep. By contrast, sunlight, some foods, caffeine, exercise, etc. tend to block melatonin release, and can produce the release of energising hormones such as adrenaline. This of course, will inhibit sleep. The blue light emitted by computer screens has been found to affect the pineal gland in a similar way to natural sunlight – by inhibiting melatonin release and thereby keeping us awake, as if it were day time. So in short, sitting at a computer screen well after sundown is likely to push your circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) back, give you a poorer night’s sleep, and make it harder to get up on time (assuming you want to arise in the morning).
The other dangerous element of my night-time routine is that it sometimes involves addictive activities. Some of the games I play are a huge time-sink, because they randomly reward repeatable actions. Therefore I’m motivated to repeat as many times as I can for the chance at that reward. This leads me to get hooked into the cycle, so much so that I want to keep playing even when it negatively impacts my life. When we consider that the reward is also physically thrilling, due to release of adrenaline, we also have a recipe for chemical addiction. The outcome of this cocktail of blue lights and randomised euphoria-inducing rewards is that I feel more awake than I should, later into the night. In turn, this of course impacts my ability to function effectively the next day.
Dr Neel Burton (see The Surprising Benefits of Boredom) notes that…
…boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities… Indeed, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spent time in prison, intimated that prison may be the ideal setting for a creative person. Said Russell, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”
Russell raises a different idea here – that boredom returns us to nature. Distancing ourselves from stimuli for a moment allows us to pause, and bask in the slowness of reality. This might also take us back to our ancient ancestors, who surely dealt with more boredom than we do today. This raises issues of evolutionary psychology. We have adapted to function in a world with intense action and problem-solving, but then also stretches of nothingness. These are the conditions under which our brain evolved, and so perhaps this stop-start lifestyle is the one for which we are best suited.
David Burkus (The Creative Benefits of Boredom) explores some research into this issue. He notes that studies have found those who experience boredom are more likely to perform well on tasks of creative or lateral thinking immediately post-boredom, than those who had been more engaged or entertained.
Boredom as an artful pause.
If boredom is a chance to stop, think, reflect, and stimulate creative thought, then I think it can play an important role in movies. In most cases, a mundane shot is used to establish a new setting, or to clarify a scene transition. However, in Yasujiro Ozu’s films, for example, I think it provides a moment in which the viewer can engage creatively with the film. This moment allows for reflection on the previous scene, and priming for the next. I think Miyazaki and Tarkovsky also use empty moments to this effect.
My attention-seeking mind still tends to reach out for the easy, quick fix. So I will try to remember my mum’s advice, and choose sometimes to just sit with my boredom, and perhaps even learn to embrace it.