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When wielded correctly, boredom can be a powerful tool

Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom

James Danckert and John D. Eastwood
Harvard University Press
2020
288 pp.
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On 13 May 1982, Valentin Lebedev was launched into space, where he would spend a record-breaking 211 days. It took only a week for the astronaut to confront a surprising problem: He was bored. Lamenting the “drab routine” and tedious “busy work,” his space diary documents his struggles and his
intense anticipation of a video camera that he hoped would relieve his boredom.

Although we may not be adrift in space, boredom is often inescapable these days, as social distancing guidelines keep many of us at home. The key to mastering boredom, write John Eastwood and James Danckert in their intriguing new book Out of My Skull, is understanding its purpose. They argue that boredom is an important signal that “we need to act to fully realize our potential.”

Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University, and Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, introduce boredom as “the uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Defining it as a “feeling of thinking,” they argue that boredom stems from four situational sources: monotony, constraint, lack of purpose, and lack of optimal challenge. When these contexts interact with individual internal states, such as motivation and attentional capacity, the same conditions can be experienced as either boring or deeply engaging.

Drawing a rigorous distinction between the feeling of being bored (“boredom”) and the tendency for some people to be bored more easily than others (“boredom proneness”), Eastwood and Danckert systematically review empirical evidence in an attempt to determine whether boredom is good or bad, ultimately concluding that it is neither. Just like play, they argue, boredom serves important functions across species, guiding behavior away from inaction, toward novel and potentially rewarding outcomes.

Bored minks, for instance, behave very much like bored humans in lab experiments. When housed in unenriched cages, they become curious about exploring any and all new objects, from plastic water bottles to a moving toothbrush (which, the authors assure us, a mink finds quite exciting). And, like humans who are willing to self-administer painful electric shocks when bored (1), minks, too, show as much interest in aversive items, such as the smell of a predator, as they do in more positive ones.

Evidence that boredom propels exploration and learning also emerges from computer science. Programming artificial intelligence with the capacity for boredom provides a self-regulatory feedback loop that encourages optimal challenge and discourages programs from persisting at tasks that are either too complex to be feasible or too easy to offer new opportunities for insight. Indeed, when pitted against each other in computational models, it is boredom, not curiosity, that drives learning agents to make the most discoveries.

What does this mean in an age when we can easily suppress boredom with a few swipes on a smartphone? Eastwood and Danckert urge readers to heed the possibility that technology may offer a tempting but temporary solution. Brushing boredom away with “solutions,” such as social media, does nothing to solve the lack of purposeful engagement that gives rise to boredom in the first place. While skeptical of claims that boredom is particularly harmful or beneficial—duly noting that experimental evidence is still in its infancy—they argue that we should take it seriously, by making room for it in our lives and responding appropriately when it arises.

One clue to remedying boredom lies in its emotional opposites: interest, enjoyment, and optimal “flow” experiences. By occupying our minds with activities we care about and finding ways to effectively pursue our desires and goals, we can act not only to address boredom as it occurs but also to prevent its occurrence in the first place.

Although Eastwood and Danckert take pains to clarify that they do not consider boredom to be an emotion, their approach is highly consistent with modern theories in social psychology and affective science that define emotions as “situated affective reactions,” whose purpose is to provide information about whatever is in mind at the moment, our own thinking included (2–5). Drawing from this broader literature on emotion, and related work on the psychology of meaning and motivation, would have enriched the book’s already broad approach to understanding what boredom is, why we experience it, and what happens when we do. Overall, however, Eastwood and Danckert’s synthesis is an engaging and timely read that is anything but boring.

References and Notes:
1. T. D. Wilson et al., Science 345, 75 (2014).
2. S. Schachter, J. Singer, Psychol. Rev. 69, 379 (1962).
3. L. F. Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
4. A. Ortony, G. L. Clore, A. Collins, The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).
5. G. L. Clore, J. R. Huntsinger, Trends Cogn. Sci. 11,393 (2007).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.