Has your smartphone become your BFF? Do you feel bored when you’re not checking Facebook or Instagram? Bored and Brilliant: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spacing Out explains the connection between boredom and original thinking, and explores how we can harness boredom’s hidden benefits to become our most productive selves.
In 2015, WNYC Studio's 'Note To Self' host Manoush Zomorodi led thousands of her listeners through a week of experiments designed to help them reassess their technology habits, unplug for part of each week and jumpstart their creativity. Throughout the book are a series of challenges that will help readers rethink their relationship to their devices without completely leaving the digital world.
Zomorodi also explores why putting greater emphasis on “doing nothing” is vital in an age of constant notifications and digital distractions. She speaks with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists about “mind wandering”what our brains do when we're doing nothing at all, and the link between boredom and creativity.
Bored and Brilliant is about living smarter and better within a digital world. Technology isn’t going anywhere, and who would want it to? Bored and Brilliant teaches us how to align our gadget use with what we hold dear and true, and find equilibrium in this new digital ecosystem.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Boredom
I like boring things.
— Andy Warhol
Teenagers whine about it constantly. Office mates step out multiple times a day to Starbucks to escape it. Parents die of it every night as they try to get small children to fall asleep. We use the word "boring" so often these days, it's hard to believe it appeared for the first time relatively recently, in 1853, in the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House. While some historians believe the term "boredom" emerged as a response to the Industrial Revolution (when people in the Western world, who were becoming less religious, had more free time — including more time to feel, yes, bored), it's only common sense to presume that the feeling has existed since the dawn of man. (Well, maybe cavemen who lived in fear of everything didn't get bored.) As one of my listeners, Deacon Michael G. Hackett of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, told me, boredom "has been around since the desert fathers, who lived as hermits, and were very often bored in their caves."
Just because the word doesn't appear in writing until the Industrial Revolution doesn't mean people throughout the ages weren't "bored"; they just used different terminology to describe the same sensation. Depression. Existential crisis. Nausea (also the title of Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel about philosophical boredom and my favorite book in high school — not sure what that says about me).
The neuroscience age, in which we are only beginning to really get to know our brains, is redefining boredom all over again in exciting and positive new ways. That's where we'll spend most of our investigation. But before we dive into contemporary concepts of this murky and magical world, it will be helpful to take a trip back in time.
A Very Brief History of Boredom
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and boredom by any other name is, well, just as boring. Whatever terminology they used, linguists, writers, and thinkers throughout the ages have grappled with the idea of boredom. My guide to the history of boredom was Peter Toohey, a classics professor at the University of Calgary, who curiously became interested in the topic because it is totally absent in the ancient world. "It always struck me as such a conundrum that the Greeks, Romans, and parallel cultures never talk about boredom," Toohey says. "They see it as so trivial, it's hardly worth mentioning."
Toohey's initial interest grew into an entire book, Boredom: A Lively History, which firmly places boredom in those ancient cultures through examples both high (Seneca describing boredom as nausea or sickness) and low (graffiti found in Pompeii that says in Latin, "Wall! I wonder that you haven't fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers"). Latin taedia turned into the Christian acedia, the "noonday demon" of listlessness and restlessness, which became the full-blown sin melancholia during the Renaissance only to mellow out later into the French idea of ennui.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the emotion as "a tame longing without any particular object," while Søren Kierkegaard, who preferred the word "idle" to "bored," believed it was a central state of being in that "everyone who lacks a sense of it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level."
"There are lots of ways of saying you're bored," Toohey sums up.
In contemporary thought, the German psychologist Martin Doehlemann divided "situational boredom" from "existential boredom," a distinction picked up by the Norwegian historian-philosopher Lars Svendsen in his seminal book A Philosophy of Boredom. For both thinkers, situational or simple boredom describes the mild sensation produced by temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances such as a long road trip or dull dinner party talk. It's manageable, because you know it'll eventually come to an end.
The other kind of boredom is the existential and spiritual kind — a powerful and unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation, and alienation. Like depression but different. Toohey, however, explained how the soul-crushing variety of boredom has been embraced by philosophers like Martin Heidegger, who believed it a necessary process leading one to a deeper understanding of the world and one's place in it.
I don't know about that, but the acute discomfort of the latter kind of boredom certainly helped explain its current bad rap. When I first told friends, family, and coworkers about my plan to rediscover boredom, they looked at me as though I were crazy. As my friend Maria Popova — the creator of the influential Web site Brain Pickings, an ongoing compendium of thought-provoking material drawn from a wide variety of subjects and sources — said, "We treat boredom as Ebola, something to be eradicated."
Even Note to Self listeners were put off by the idea. Why not just call it "daydreaming" or something else that sounded more positive, many wrote me. Some seemed angry that I insisted on referring to boredom as such. I tried to explain that the sensation I was missing wasn't actually fun. It made me feel uncomfortable, or slightly disgusted, as Toohey put it. To separate that yucky feeling from the magic that it could lead to seemed disingenuous to me. No, I wanted to bring back "boredom" in every one of its multifaceted and confusing aspects ... along with my tolerance for it. I think Kierkegaard and Heidegger would approve.
Your Brain on Boredom
"Every emotion has a purpose — an evolutionary benefit," says Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good. "I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion."
That's how Mann got started in her specialty: boredom. While researching emotions in the workplace in the 1990s, she discovered the second most commonly suppressed emotion after anger was — you guessed it — boredom. "It gets such bad press," she said. "Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom."
As Mann dived into the topic of boredom, she found that it was actually "very interesting." It's certainly not pointless. Dr. Wijnand van Tilburg from the University of Southampton explained the important evolutionary function of that uneasy, awful feeling this way: "Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand."
"Imagine a world where we didn't get bored," Mann said. "We'd be perpetually excited by everything — raindrops falling, the cornflakes at breakfast time." Once past boredom's evolutionary purpose, Mann became curious about whether there might be benefits beyond its contribution to survival. "Instinctively," she said, "I felt that we all need a little boredom in our lives."
Mann devised an experiment wherein a group of participants was given the most boring assignment she could think of: copying, by hand, phone numbers from the phone book. (For some of you who might never have seen one of those, Google it.) This was based on a classic creativity test developed in 1967 by J. P. Guilford, an American psychologist and one of the first researchers to study creativity. Guilford's original Alternative Uses Test gave subjects two minutes to come up with as many uses as they could think of for everyday objects such as cups, paper clips, or a chair. In Mann's version, she preceded the creativity test with twenty minutes of a meaningless task: in this case, copying numbers out of the phone book. Afterward, her subjects were asked to come up with as many uses as they could for two paper cups (the kind you get at an ecologically unscrupulous water cooler). The participants devised mildly original ideas for their cups, such as plant pots and sandbox toys.
In the next experiment, Mann ratcheted up the boring quotient. Instead of copying numbers out of the phone book for twenty minutes, this time they had to read the phone numbers out loud. Although a handful of people actually enjoyed this task (go figure) and were excused from the study, the vast majority of participants found reading the phone book absolutely, stultifyingly boring. It's more difficult to space out when engaged in an active task such as writing than when doing something as passive as reading. The result, as Mann had hypothesized, was even more creative ideas for the paper cups, including earrings, telephones, all kinds of musical instruments, and, Mann's favorite, a Madonna-style bra. This group thought beyond the cup-as-container.
By means of these experiments, Mann proved her point: People who are bored think more creatively than those who aren't.
But what exactly happens when you get bored that ignites your imagination? "When we're bored, we're searching for something to stimulate us that we can't find in our immediate surroundings," Mann explained. "So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going off someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It's really awesome." Totally awesome.
Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming. Researchers have only recently begun to understand the phenomenon of mind-wandering, the activity our brains engage in when we're doing something boring, or doing nothing at all. Most of the studies on the neuroscience of daydreaming have only been done within the past ten years. With modern brain-imaging technology, discoveries are emerging every day about what our brains are doing not only when we are deeply engaged in an activity but also when we space out.
Mind-Wandering or the Default Mode
When we're consciously doing things — even writing down numbers in a phone book — we're using the "executive attention network," the parts of the brain that control and inhibit our attention. As neuroscientist Marcus Raichle put it, "The attention network makes it possible for us to relate directly to the world around us, i.e., here and now." By contrast, when our minds wander, we activate a part of our brain called the "default mode network," which was discovered by Raichle. The default mode, a term also coined by Raichle, is used to describe the brain "at rest"; that is, when we're not focused on an external, goal-oriented task. So, contrary to the popular view, when we space out, our minds aren't switched off.
"Scientifically, daydreaming is an interesting phenomenon because it speaks to the capacity that people have to create thought in a pure way rather than thought happening when it's a response to events in the outside world," said Jonathan Smallwood, who has studied mind-wandering since the beginning of his career in neuroscience, twenty years ago. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the year he finished his PhD was the same year the default mode was discovered.)
Smallwood — who is so enamored with mind-wandering, it's his Twitter handle — explained why his discipline is still in its infancy. "It has an interesting place in the history of psychology and neuroscience simply because of the way cognitive science is organized," he said. "Most experimental paradigms and theories tend to involve us showing something to the brain or the mind and watching what happens." For most of the past, this task-driven method has been used to figure out how the brain functions, and it has produced a tremendous amount of knowledge regarding how we adapt to external stimuli. "Mind-wandering is special because it doesn't fit into that phenomenon," Smallwood said.
We're at a pivotal point in the history of neuroscience, according to Smallwood, because, with the advent of brain imaging and other comprehensive tools for figuring out what's going on in there, we are beginning to understand functioning that has until now escaped study. And that includes what we experience when we're off-task or, no pun intended, in our own heads.
The crucial nature of daydreaming became obvious to Smallwood almost as soon as he began to study it. Spacing out is so important to us as a species that "it could be at the crux of what makes humans different from less complicated animals." It is involved in a wide variety of skills, from creativity to projecting into the future.
There is still so much to discover in the field, but what's definitely clear is that the default mode is not a state where the brain is inactive. Smallwood uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore what neural changes occur when test subjects lie in a scanner and do nothing but stare at a fixed image.
It turns out that in the default mode, we're still tapping about 95 percent of the energy we use when our brains are engaged in hard-core, focused thinking. Despite being in an inattentive state, our brains are still doing a remarkable amount of work. While people were lying in scanners in Smallwood's experiment, their brains continued to "exhibit very organized spontaneous activity."
"We don't really understand why it's doing it," he said. "When you're given nothing to do, your thoughts don't stop. You continue to generate thought even when there's nothing for you to do with the thoughts."
Part of what Smallwood and his team are working on is trying to connect this state of unconstrained self-generated thought and that of organized, spontaneous brain activity, because they see the two states as "different sides of the same coin."
The areas of the brain that make up the default mode network — the medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the posterior cingulate cortex — are turned off when we engage in attention-demanding tasks. But they are very active in autobiographical memory (our personal archive of life experiences); theory of mind (essentially, our ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling); and — this one's a doozy — self-referential processing (basically, crafting a coherent sense of self).
When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we're not shutting down. We're tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are. It feels like we are wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective.
This gets to the heart of why mind-wandering or daydreaming is different from other forms of cognition. Rather than experiencing, organizing, and understanding things based on how they come to us from the outside world, we do it from within our own cognitive system. That allows for reflection and the ability for greater understanding after the heat of the moment. Smallwood gives the example of an argument: While it's happening, it's hard to be objective or see things from the perspective of the other person. Anger and adrenaline, as well as the physical and emotional presence of another human being, get in the way of contemplation. But in the shower or on a drive the next day, when your brain relives the argument, your thoughts become more nuanced. You not only think of a million things you should have said, but, perhaps, without the "stimulus that is the person you were arguing with," you might get another perspective and gain insights. Thinking in a different way about a personal interaction, rather than the way you did when you encountered it in the real world, is a profound form of creativity spurred on by mind-wandering.
"Daydreaming is especially crucial for a species like ours, where social interactions are important," Smallwood said. "That's because in day-to-day life, the most unpredictable things you encounter are other people." If you break it down, most of our world, from traffic lights to grocery store checkouts, is actually governed by very simple sets of rules. People — not so much. "Daydreaming reflects the need to make sense of complicated aspects of life, which is almost always other human beings."
The Dark Side to Spacing Out
Talking to Professor Smallwood had me more convinced than ever that it's destructive to fill all the cracks in our day with checking e-mail, updating Twitter, or incessantly patting our pockets or bag to check for a vibrating phone. I saw why letting one's mind wander really is the key to creativity and productivity.
"Well, that's a contentious statement," Smallwood said. "I mean, people whose minds wander all the time wouldn't get anything done."
Excerpted from "Bored and Brilliant"
Copyright © 2017 New York Public Radio.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Case for Boredom 1
1 What We Talk About When We Talk About Boredom 15
2 Digital Overload 33
3 Out of Sight 55
4 Making Memories 73
5 App Addled 85
6 Doing the Deep Work 111
7 Reclaiming Wonder 133
8 Wander Away 149
9 You Are Brilliant 167