July 20, 2019   12:17am

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Boredom is good for your brain

Boredom is good for your brain

With the non-flagging energies of the Obamas (not to mention the Clintons) keeping us in a state of awe, this New York Times article made me feel better:  “You’re Checked Out, but Your Brain Is Tuned in” by Benedict Carey*.  Here are highlights:

” … Scientists know plenty about boredom … Much of the research on the topic has focused on the bad company it tends to keep, from depression and overeating to smoking and drug use.

Yet boredom is more than a mere flagging of interest or a precursor to mischief. Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information – an increasingly sensitive spam filter … research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive.

In a recent paper in The Cambridge Journal of Education, Teresa Belton and Esther Priyadharshini of East Anglia University in England reviewed decades of research and theory on boredom, and concluded that it’s time that boredom “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity.”

Psychologists have most often studied boredom using a 28-item questionnaire that asks people to rate how closely a list of sentences applies to them: “Time always seems to be passing too slowly,” for instance.

High scores in these tests tend to correlate with high scores on measures of depression and impulsivity. But it is not clear which comes first – proneness to boredom, or the mood and behavior problems. “It’s the difference between the sort of person who can look at a pool of mud and find something interesting, and someone who has a hard time getting absorbed in anything,” said Stephen J. Vodanovich, a psychologist at University of West Florida in Pensacola.

Boredom as a temporary state is another matter, and in part reflects the obvious: that the brain has concluded there is nothing new or useful it can learn from an environment, a person, an event, a paragraph. But it is far from a passive neural shrug. Using brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5 percent less energy in its resting “default state” than when involved in routine tasks, according to Dr. Mark Mintun, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

That slight reduction can make a big difference in terms of time perception. The seconds usually seem to pass more slowly when the brain is idling than when it is absorbed. And those stretched seconds are not the live-in-the-moment, meditative variety, either. They are frustrated, restless moments. That combination, psychologists argue, makes boredom a state that demands relief – if not from a catnap or a conversation, then from some mental game.

“When the external and internal conditions are right, boredom offers a person the opportunity for a constructive response…”  Some evidence for this can be seen in semiconscious behaviors, like doodling during a dull class, braiding strands of hair, folding notebook paper into odd shapes. Daydreaming too can be a kind of constructive self-entertainment, psychologists say, especially if the mind is turning over a problem …


*The New York Times, Health, “You’re Checked Out but Your Brain Is Tuned In” by Benedict Carey, Tuesday, August 5, 2008, pg F5

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