When’s the last time you were bored? Maybe it’s been too long says Brenda Bernstein
Early on a Saturday evening, I admitted to a friend that I had watched a Netflix movie the night before, and was likely going to watch another one that night. For many people, watching videos two nights in a row would not be a remarkable occurrence. But for me, it was an anomaly – a rare sign of boredom. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that before,’ said my friend.
Indeed, it is not unusual for me to go a month without finding a single two-hour block of time to sit and watch a video. What did it mean that I had two such blocks of time to fill in one weekend? Had I failed in some way by not scheduling something more ‘important’?
In fact, I think my unexpectedly empty time meant that I had gotten enough done and was sufficiently on top of my schedule that I felt unpressured to fill that time with productive activities. A success, not a failure! Yet my inner voice was saying, ‘Brenda, you’re bored. You had better do something to occupy your brain.’
I considered my options. Should I watch my Netflix video, The Blind Side? Or find something on my business task list to tackle on this Saturday night? Surely there must be something for me to write or edit! I let the wheels in my brain spin for a while. And, after a few minutes of ‘boredom,’ I settled on a new idea: a blog article about this very topic. I wondered if other people had identified boredom as a positive emotion or event, and if so, what factors were at work in our bored brains?
The Value of Boredom
Not long ago, I heard someone complain of being bored, and I explained to him that I celebrate boredom despite the discomfort it may entail. I see boredom as an opportunity to rest my brain – an empty place that is necessary for the spark of creativity to take hold.
I discovered quite a lot of interesting material that supported my opinion. First was a TED talk by Genevieve Bell.
Ms. Bell explained that the experience of boredom is a moment when, neurochemically, the brain lights up. The bored brain is almost as active as the engaged brain! Boredom is an opportunity for the brain to reset itself, and this reset is apparently a very active process.
Ms. Bell also referenced Heidegger, who argued in 1929 that being bored is a fundamental state of being human – and that we should spend less time putting it at bay and more time embracing it.
The Quest for Boredom
Nowadays, it’s hard to be bored. A text message or Facebook update awaits us at every moment. If we don’t like one thing, we move on to the next. We are more likely to be overloaded than bored. For me, this overload shows up as the inability during most months to find time to watch the Netflix video sitting on my desk. Yet those times of disconnection, when the brain gets a rest, are often the most pleasurable times in life. As Peter Bregman stated in his Harvard Business School blog article, Why I Returned My iPad:
“Being bored is a precious thing, a state of mind we should pursue. Once boredom sets in, our minds begin to wander, looking for something exciting, something interesting to land on. And that’s where creativity arises.
My best ideas come to me when I am unproductive. When I am running but not listening to my iPod. When I am sitting, doing nothing, waiting for someone. When I am lying in bed as my mind wanders before falling to sleep. These ‘wasted’ moments, moments not filled with anything in particular, are vital.
They are the moments in which we, often unconsciously, organize our minds, make sense of our lives, and connect the dots. They’re the moments in which we talk to ourselves. And listen.
To lose those moments, to replace them with tasks and efficiency, is a mistake. What’s worse is that we don’t just lose them. We actively throw them away.”
An Astonishing Feat!
Finally, I discovered a June 13, 2011 On Point episode with Tom Ashbrook, featuring guest Peter Toohey who wrote an entire book about boredom (Boredom: A Lively History). Callers largely agreed that boredom is the key to creativity. Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer jumped on to share that boredom is the precursor to daydreaming, an ‘astonishing mental feat’ wherein, he confirmed, just as much brain activity occurs as when we are focused on something. I suppose the daydreaming phenomenon occurs whether boredom comes from having ‘nothing’ to do or from disinterest in whatever we are doing.
From my cursory research, I found that there is a clear connection between boredom and the birth of new ideas. Reportedly, many of the best ideas arise when we can untether ourselves from the constant stream of information that bombards us every minute.
I’m glad I chose not to put that DVD in my computer. It’s still there when I want it, and I found a friend who asked to watch it with me. In the end, by allowing boredom to set in for just a few short minutes, I created a fascinating, brain-lit-up Saturday evening.