The Frontal Cortex

Vacation

I’m going to be away on vacation for the next week or so. I’ll be putting up some old posts in the meantime.

Here’s one from 2009 on “Boredom”:

The great poet Joseph Brodsky, 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. 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Joey
    May 10, 2010

    Is this a new name for double-scope integration?

  2. #2 Anibal
    May 11, 2010

    Enjoy your days off!!!

  3. #3 Niklas
    May 11, 2010

    I suppose we should wish you a boring vacation then.

  4. #4 Brandon Hidaka
    May 11, 2010

    I often ponder how the ubiquitous use of ipods and other portable gadgets (iphones, blackberry’s, etc.) are changing creativity on a massive scale via a persistent abolition boredom. While waiting in queues, riding on airplanes, buses, and subways, people are often completely tuned out from the world around them. After overcoming an inordinate amount of fear of boredom, I’ve stopped listening to my ipod when I ride my bike and exercise. Not only is it safer, but I’ve also experienced moments of insight (as insignificant as they may be) that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The brain is always processing, be it external stimuli and/or memories. Today’s environment is awash in information, if we don’t take the time to stop the incoming flood and process it, then we can’t use it to it’s maximum benefit.

  5. #5 Nick Kokoris
    May 11, 2010

    You may have wanted to mention in connection with boredom, one of my favorite quotes by T.S.Eliot: ” A fundamental premise for the creation of great art is boredom, passionate boredom.”

  6. #6 Brian
    May 12, 2010

    As a child I would spend the first weeks of every summer vacation vapidly sleeping, eating, and watching tv without any real motivation. I completely agree with the idea that you do not regain a sense of motivation until you “hit bottom.” I, in fact, recognized this, and by my teenage years I learned how to manipulate it. On the first two days of summer vacation, I would spend every possible waking hour in front of a tv until the tedium of sitting on a couch and watching the drone of late-night reruns galvanized me into action for the rest of the summer.

  7. #7 Kevin Vogelsang
    May 20, 2010

    Hmmm, not so sure about all this. This seems to suggest “boredom” and “day dreaming” are essentially the same thing, does it not?

    I interpret “boredom” to mean a lack of stimulation.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.