Boredom Apr 2, 2013

By Rick Rader, MD

The hope is that with an enlightened appreciation of the dynamics of boredom, psychologists will be able to devise strategies to prevent, overcome or reduce the impact of being bored.


The word is so reflective of its meaning that it causes us to pronounce it in a dramatic fashion. When something is "boring," we simply cannot help ourselves by not exclaiming, "bowwww-ring." Even aliens with no English proficiency would get the drift.

What's not true about "boring" is the study of boredom being boring.

In fact the study of boredom is one of the hottest areas of psychology. A recently held "Boring Conference" attracted over 500 attendees, and there were over 100 references in a recent journal article proposing a theory on boredom. A noted social psychologist at the University of Virginia offered, "There is a lot of research on attention and mind wandering but, until now, no attempt to bring it together under the topic of boredom per se."

Why would we be interested in "boredom?" To so many of us leading high paced, high stakes, frenetic lives in the support of people, ideas, policies and programs relating to complex disabilities, we only wish we had the time to be bored. But boredom certainly has its consequences in the area of safety and health.

For nuclear power plant safety engineers sitting in front of monitors waiting for blinking red lights, the perils of being bored and becoming "screen numb" are manifold. The specialty of anesthesiology is described (by anesthesiologists themselves) as "hours of boredom broken up by moments of terror." One cannot be "boredom blind" to subtle changes in a patient's blood gas values. Exceptional parents cannot become "battle bored" due to long, drawn out IEP battles that can have elements of boredom.

Researcher John Eastwood (York University, Ontario) and colleagues define boredom as "an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity." This inability has its roots in brain networks responsible for "attention." The research offers three elements that contribute to boredom:

• We have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (i.e. thoughts or feelings) or external information (i.e. environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
• We're aware of the fact that we're having difficulty paying attention.
• We believe that the environment is responsible for our aversive state (i.e. "this task is boring," "there is nothing to do").

The hope is that with an enlightened appreciation of the dynamics of boredom, psychologists will be able to devise strategies to prevent, overcome or reduce the impact of being bored. Alternatively, if we begin to understand how we can manipulate "boredom," we may be able to titrate it (like we do with drugs) and use it for enhanced relaxation techniques which may have a place in medicine, psychotherapy and personal enrichment. It might also lead to innovative therapies in treating autism, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disabilities where focus is a key issue in knowledge acquisition and retention. A recent study revealed that people who are more easily bored are two-and-a-half times more likely to die of heart disease than people who are not.
Of particular interest to the study of boredom is the relationship between depression and boredom. Depression is almost exclusively a "first world illness," while the incidence of depression in third world societies is practically non-existent. Hunters and gatherers appear to experience less boredom (and less depression) than commuters and cubicle dwellers.

One of the great things about working in the field of developmental disabilities is the lack of days one can describe as boring. Much of that is a result of the pursuit of answers from neuroscience, psychology, medicine, kinetics, engineering, therapeutics, education, technology and genetics; and applying them to ethics, athletics, economics, justice and spirituality. But there is another component:"people." The "people" we find attached to those disciplines (neuroscience, psychology, medicine.....) are not boring. They are engaged, attentive, directed, focused and vigilant....the antidotes of boredom.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen may have the true insight into why engagement in the disabilities world is devoid of boredom and tedium (beyond the expanding and often elusive content) and it may be a reference to the other "people" in the equation. The "people" assigned to carry the challenges, obstacles, limitations and barriers related to their disabilities. They are an amazing, fortified, ongoing, relentless, persistent and resourceful group.

According to Quindlen, "A finished person is a boring person."

There are no finished people in the "exceptional" world we have either chosen or have been assigned to live in.

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