Brains behind boredom

Boredom is something we all have experienced, whether it is days-on-end when we feel there is nothing worthwhile to do, to the brief bouts of lethargy when we lack productivity or cannot focus on a given task.

Scientists studying boredom now say that it is not the length of time we feel bored that is important, but how we respond to the boredom. They add that in people prone to boredom, this state can also have an impact on their mental health. “Everybody experiences boredom, but some people experience it a lot, which is unhealthy,” the researchers point out.

To study boredom in more detail and to identify the best ways to cope with boredom so it does not impair our mental health, the researchers turned to the brain. Previously, scientists believed that people were ‘hardwired’ in how they reacted to boredom — with some people responding more negatively, in others boredom had no discernible impact. However,  in their study the researchers could not discern any specific brain waves unique to people who are more negatively impacted by boredom.

Ruling out ‘hardwiring’, the researchers decided that the most likely explanation was individual response: some people simply reacted poorly to being bored, which could affect their well-being. Previous research on the subject had also suggested that individuals who are often bored are also more prone to poor mental health, and particularly to conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Based on these premises, the researchers argue that it is possible to find ways of coping with states of boredom so that they become less likely to affect mental health. But what might these strategies be?

But before they could find strategies to cope with boredom the researchers had to first out what boredom looks like in the brain. For their study, the researchers recruited 54 young adult participants. The researchers asked the volunteers to fill in a survey asking questions about boredom patterns and how they reacted to feeling bored.

Then, after a baseline EEG test measuring normal brain activity, the researchers assigned the participants a tedious task: they had to turn eight virtual pegs on a screen as the computer highlighted them. This activity lasted approximately 10 minutes, during which time the researchers used EEG caps to measure participants’ brain activity as they carried out the boring task.

In assessing the brain-wave maps obtained via the EEGs, the researchers looked specifically at activity levels in the right frontal and left frontal areas of the brain. These two regions are known to become active for different reasons. The left frontal part becomes more active when an individual is looking for stimulation or distraction from a situation by thinking about something different. Conversely, the right frontal part of the brain becomes more active when an individual experiences negative emotions or states of anxiety.

The researchers found that participants who had reported being more prone to boredom on a daily basis displayed more activity in the right frontal brain area during the repetitive task, as they became increasingly bored.

One clear strategy that will allow people to cope better with states of boredom, which emerged from the study was to do things that keep you engaged during the bout of boredom, rather than focus on bored you feel. In other words, proactive thinking could be a good way of coping with boredom. The trick, however, is getting individuals to learn how to do more of this, and succumb to boredom less.

“The results of this paper show that reacting more positively to boredom is possible. Now we want to find out the best tools we can give people to cope positively with being bored,” explained the researchers. “If we can help people cope with boredom better, that can have a real, positive mental health impact,” the researchers said.