Why boredom is anything but boring

Jan 16, 2016

Illustration by Patrycja Podkościelny

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

In 1990, when James Danckert was 18, his older brother Paul crashed his car into a tree. He was pulled from the wreckage with multiple injuries, including head trauma.

The recovery proved difficult. Paul had been a drummer, but even after a broken wrist had healed, drumming no longer made him happy. Over and over, Danckert remembers, Paul complained bitterly that he was just — bored. “There was no hint of apathy about it at all,” says Danckert. “It was deeply frustrating and unsatisfying for him to be deeply bored by things he used to love.”

A few years later, when Danckert was training to become a clinical neuropsychologist, he found himself working with about 20 young men who had also suffered traumatic brain injury. Thinking of his brother, he asked them whether they, too, got bored more easily than they had before. “And every single one of them,” he says, “said yes.”

Those experiences helped to launch Danckert on his current research path. Now a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, he is one of a small but growing number of investigators engaged in a serious scientific study of boredom.

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17 comments on “Why boredom is anything but boring

  • Boredom is indeed fascinating.

    I often claim my Dad cured me of boredom by the age of 7. I remember aching boredom before (say when the weather was bad) but nothing after. He systematically proved that everything was interesting, you just had to find a problem to solve. Why did that happen? Why are they behaving like that? Isn’t there a better way to…? Why did I think that, see that, feel that? Once you had your problem detector kit and your brain to hand, you were set for train journeys, tedious lectures, rainy days and Meg Ryan movies. Only when filling in Tax Returns were there opportunities for suicidal thoughts. My ability to care about understanding the forms completely eluded me though I did conceive a book of suicides less toxic than filling in the forms. A bit like Bunny Suicides if you ever saw those cheery books. My suicidal protagonist was Einstein who famously claimed that he couldn’t understand IRS forms. (Of course he could but a veritable Everest of boredom stood in his way.)

    How did I turn out so lucky? Not working for other people helped, but was the foundation nature or nurture? I like to think it was mostly nurture. Taught to find and own problems when young has kept me engaged for half a century.

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  • Phil,

    How did I turn out so lucky?

    I think I’m lucky too. I’m never bored and in fact it’s the opposite. There aren’t enough hours in the day to work through all of the projects I have going and I want to double my reading time. I want to ski more often, walk for an hour every day, spend more time in inspirational places I love. I currently have one large canvas that is half way done and a couple more to finish a series that I’m working on for my nephew. I have two quilts underway and the gardens in three seasons.

    All of those activities were learned when I was a kid. If I hadn’t learned to sew, draw, paint, refinish furniture, reading for pleasure, renovate old houses, walk in the woods and love the natural world then I can’t imagine what I’d do with my time. It was my parents and grandparents who passed these skills to me individually.

    So I agree with the nurture part of this question. But I see the nature part of this too. I was a quiet child. A bookworm with creative tendencies. Maybe it’s just the brain I got that set me up for this situation.

    After I read this article this morning I spent the day with a couple of kids, one of whom has the shortest attention span I’ve ever seen. She bounced from one distraction to the next and she exhausted me with her chattering every minute of the day. At least once in every half hour she stated that she was bored. I thought to myself, How is that my problem? Why is she saying that to me so often? I can’t relate to this at all. I thought, if she spent some time with even one of the ten distractions and slowed down her mouth and her mind she wouldn’t have been bored at all. If I spend time with her on a regular basis I wonder if she would be able to learn self-entertainment skills, one on one, the way I learned them. I’m not sure about this at all because at the end of the day I was convinced that there was some sort of profound difference in our nature and that too much time spent together would drive us both crazy in the end.

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  • How did I turn out so lucky?

    Love it. I had a similar journey. My mom says that my first word as a baby was “Why?” My brain never shuts down…. which can be annoying at 0300 hrs, but sometimes I come up with great solutions during that time. I suspect the brain never stops processing, just turns off the lights for a while.

    I hear ya Phil on the tax returns. In my last incarnation, I was a financial intelligence analyst, but would glaze over at tax returns. I outsourced mine very early on. Happy to pay an accountant to fill in all the forms… (Electronic Lodgement nowadays.) I collect all the supporting documents. Get them in order. Sub total receipts and bag them. Present it all to the Accountant and walk the walk of a relaxed man. I am his shortest duration client.

    He systematically proved that everything was interesting

    Wisdom here… I was listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage this morning and there was a quantum physicist who had teamed up with a biologist and they have written a book explaining that the process of taking energy from the sun, passing it through a plant, employs some of the weirder aspects of quantum theory. They went on to say that the process is almost 100% efficient and it has inspired them to try and replicate the process in some form of solar PV collection system. Nature took a few billion years but they’ve now got a cracker of a process.

    But he said that while he had the idea for around 5 years, it took him a long time to speak publicly. That was only after some John LeCarre like clandestine meetings with a biologist trusted friend. He said that Scientific Credibility is like your virginity. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back. But he persisted and has written the book.

    Anyway…. the point of this long story is you never have to be bored. Even sitting in a doctors waiting room is great, because then you can write novels in your head, speculating about the other waiting patients idiosyncrasies and how they would fit into the plot.

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  • …was the foundation nature or nurture? I like to think it was mostly nurture.

    The foundation is always nature, which nurture works with/against/upon… It’s always an interplay. You were indeed lucky to have been born with your “nature” and in an apparently nurturing early environment.

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  • Yep. A really poor formulation. I should have said-

    …was the preponderance of effect nature or nurture?

    which question still stands.

    I do like speaking clearly. Thank you as ever for helping, Doug.

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  • I could be remembering wrong but I don’t ever remember using the words “I’m bored”. I do remember going to the window on a rainy day and trying to emulate the films, adverts and posters I’d seen depicting bored children looking out of a window with rain running down it but, I found I liked watching the rain and experienced none of the emotions I thought I was supposed to.

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  • @ Laurie

    Not finished the book you recommended yet Laurie (not finding much time for reading at the mo) but this all fits in very nicely with the book “Quiet” in terms of levels of stimulation extroverts and introverts need to find their “sweet spot”.

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  • …the preponderance

    I suspect in your case the effects were (have been, are still, will continue to be) fairly equally balanced.

    One of the things I consider a “wonder of the world” is the ability of those who manage to thrive (and contribute to the thriving of others) despite the difficulties presented by the environment they happen to have been born into. Clearly, in those cases, nature “preponderates”.

    Another thing I consider a “wonder” is the ability of those who manage to transform (mostly) people who apparently lack the “nature” to thrive (or contribute) into people who can and do.

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  • Boredom is often a mask for deep emotional pain and fear of facing that pain. Depression is often a mask for anger– and all that psychoanalytic stuff.
    I am a depressive with a lot of unresolved issues; consequently I get bored and irritable quite a lot. I admire and envy your exuberance, Laurie, and your love of life.
    As I said before, you sound like a beautiful person. (o_O?)
    There’s now a harassment thread. Worried that I sound like a Republican! (I could be wrong, but the comments and the article “bored” me! Maybe you can take a look later, if you have the time.
    Bye, for now.

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  • Dan

    love of life.

    Years ago, when I consciously accepted as truth that there is no heaven nor hell and that I have only a short, limited time to be alive, I realized that I can’t waste a single minute of it. Telling people that this life is irrelevant and that there is a beautiful eternity beyond this current reality is a despicable con game. So since this is all I’ve got then I need to make the best of it. Then spending time living in N.Africa showed me how fragile our lives are and in the past decade I’ve added the understanding that there are people all around us that can influence our happiness for good and for bad. I think that you can relate to that Dan. I don’t want to let assholes wreck the time I have left. So this is what I’m working on now. How do I balance that statement with the fact that some of those people are the very ones that need my help the most? hmmm. o_O

    Certainly we have both suffered some upsetting circumstances as I’m sure you agree, but I really work hard at framing this in my mind as a “normal” part of life. I have learned to be resilient. I practice that. Mostly I’m afraid that I might be crushed by adversity and this thought is too frightening and I won’t allow it. Having personal interests and being productive has to do with using my limited time wisely and efficiently. All of my creative and intellectual pursuits are definitely all about me. I make myself happy when I do those things, I admit that. But I feel like I’m putting happiness in the bank to guard against the inevitable times in the future when grief will send me running to that bank to make a withdrawal. Crappy metaphor but that’s how it feels! Boredom is never going to happen with this going on.

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  • Don’t know Laurie. Bought it in book form but then gave it to the son of my cousin for around £10. When I went to buy it on Kindle, they were almost giving it away. Very interesting book that has me drifting off in thought both with my own life and trying to connect it to other ways we behave. That’s another reason it’s taking so long.

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