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What does boredom do to your brain?

We’ve all been there before. You’re halfway through a chunky book/accounting seminar/overly-hyped Netflix series when you notice it creeping in. That distinct feeling of boredom; a waning of interest, a loss of motivation.

It’s not a pleasant state. One that can induce anger, frustration, even quiet internal panic. Whether it makes you drowsy, annoyed or impatient, boredom is not something we humans like to endure. We’re a naturally active species constantly seeking stimulation, consciously or otherwise.

But if we’re to believe the age-old theory that every emotion has a purpose – an evolutionary benefit – then what’s the point of boredom?

Boredom: emotional friend or foe?

Deakin University’s Professor Peter Enticott likens boredom to a subconscious motivation alarm.

‘The key here is to think of it like any other negative emotion: it motivates our behavior. It’s a way of keeping us on our toes, and aware of what’s going on around us,’ Prof. Enticott says. ‘It might also motivate a useful shift in our attention or help us seek new experiences, which could be beneficial to us in the long run.’

Like Prof. Enticott suggests, although we instinctively categorise boredom as a negative emotion, it can often lead us to a positive outcome. ‘Negative emotions are still incredibly useful. Think of the role of fear in avoiding harm, anger in driving behaviour, or disgust in avoiding spoiled food,’ he says.

Bored people: uninspired souls or creative geniuses?

Multiple experiments researching the evolutionary purpose of boredom has validated an interesting theory – people who are bored think more creatively than those who aren’t. So, does boredom fuel imagination?

‘It might. It could be a powerful motivator to seek more mental stimulation,’ Prof. Enticott muses.

Take a bored child, for example. Given nothing to do they’ll most likely concoct a wacky game or fictitious story to entertain themselves.

‘Certainly, some people get bored easier than others, and psychologists have devised ways to measure this. One influential theory is that boredom reflects a failure to engage with our environment. This could promote behaviour that leads to better attention toward a task, or even toward our own mental processes,’ he continues.

 

'The key here is to think of it like any other negative emotion: it motivates our behaviour. It’s a way of keeping us on our toes, and aware of what’s going on around us.'

Professor Peter Enticott,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we’re all susceptible to boredom. It’s not something we can often avoid or actively control. It’s a strong emotion; one that affects our brain in very different ways. It may creep up on you when you least expect it, or suddenly hit with such force that you’re propelled to instantly change tasks or just close your eyes and gently drift off to sleep.

So, what if we were to shift our preconceived attitude towards being bored and consciously start to recognise it as our brain’s way of telling us to get creative or productive?

‘Neuroscience is beginning to investigate what happens in the brain during boredom,’ Prof. Enticott says. ‘Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, we see the activation of areas linked to negative emotions like fear and disgust.’

‘But we also see activation within various regions of the prefrontal cortex, which is largely responsible for our planned, goal-directed behaviour. In this instance, it might reflect motivation to behave in a way that changes our environment, and thus reduce the negative state of boredom,’ he says.

The boring generation: a technology hangover or modern mental health risk?

While propensity to boredom is also linked to psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, addiction, and even heart disease, the cause-and-effect of these links is still being debated.

‘It’s interesting that we seem to be increasingly less tolerant of boredom,’ Prof. Enticott says. ‘Think about people constantly on smartphones, whenever the opportunity arises. The longer-term outcome of this will be very interesting, especially with each new generation who grow-up with these devices.’

So, what does this say about the future state of society’s collective mental health? If we continue our constant attempts to evade boredom through mobile phones and social media, could it kick-start an evolutionary regression of human creativity and productivity? Let’s put our phones down and find out.

Does boredom inspire your inner creative genius? Read about how creativity can benefit your mental health.

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Professor Peter Enticott
Professor Peter Enticott

Associate Head of School, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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