Here’s Joseph Brodsky (via Kottke), praising boredom:
A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom. The reason I’d like to talk to you about it today, on this lofty occasion, is that I believe no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. Neither the humanities nor science offers courses in boredom . At best, they may acquaint you with the sensation by incurring it. But what is a casual contact to an incurable malaise? The worst monotonous drone coming from a lectern or the most eye-splitting textbook written in turgid English is nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.
But Brodsky tells us not to flee from ennui and tedium. Boredom, he says, can be a profound source of insight:
Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for
alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that
you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all,
has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub,
however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with
your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.
There is yet another way out of boredom, however. Not a better one, perhaps,
from your point of view, and not necessarily secure, but straight and
inexpensive. When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit
bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit
bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the
worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure,
undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to
the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s
infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw
it wide open.
Our culture abhors boredom, which is why we surround ourselves with portals of entertainment. Last week, I was stuck in a hotel room with a broken television. I finished my novel at midnight but still wasn’t sleepy. I felt a wave of panic wash over me. What should I do? How could I pass the time without SportsCenter and Top Chef reruns? The night suddenly seemed impossibly long.
And yet, as Brodsky points out, boredom can be a crucial mental tool. In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we’re not preoccupied with something in our external environment. (That’s another way of saying we’re bored. Perhaps we’re staring out a train window, or driving our car along a familiar route, or reading a tedious text.) At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn’t what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel. In particular, there seems to be an elaborate electrical conversation between the front and rear parts of the mind, as the medial prefrontal cortex fires in sync with areas like the posterior cingulate and precuneus.
What’s the point of all this activity? Why are the disparate parts of the cortex talking to each other? One likely answer is that brain is busy generating new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Instead of responding to the outside world, the cortex starts to explore its inner database, as it starts to think in a more relaxed manner. Virginia Woolf, in her novel To The Lighthouse, eloquently describes this mental process as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:
“Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, life a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space.”
This “spurting” can have real benefits. In a recent review, Randy Buckner outlined some of the mental talents that are engaged when we’re bored:
The implications of these functional and anatomical observations [the activity of the default network] are discussed in relation to possible adaptive roles of the default network for using past experiences to plan for the future, navigate social interactions, and maximize the utility of moments when we are not otherwise engaged by the external world.
While there’s some tantalizing evidence linking daydreaming, the default network and creativity, I think the most tangible benefit of boredom is probably social. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates “what if” scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn’t lost our temper, or had superpowers, or had used a different pick-up line. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.
So Brodsky was right: boredom can have important benefits. We should learn to savor the slowness of time: all those long nights and tedious drives are a great chance to slip into our “default” mode of thought. We banish boredom at our own peril.