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Flat Out Bored? ---There's a Name for That

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November 3, 2017

By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist


Boredom is something that almost everyone experiences occasionally. But being chronically bored, until recently, was not seen as a problem, let alone a medical problem.

Enter Canada. In 2012, Dr. John Eastwood of York University decided to give boredom a scientific definition. He distinguishes between those who have nothing to do and those who have nothing to do but who want to be stimulated. He calls boredom " the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity ".

There are different types of boredom and different levels of boredom. Boredom can be fleeting or it can be chronic. Boredom can mean that you are bored with the things or people in your life or that you are bored with life itself.

If nothing about life interests you, you could have "existential boredom" or "anhedonia", the inability to derive any pleasure from things you used to find pleasurable.

What Purpose Does Boredom Serve in Evolution?

For humans, or any other species to survive, we have to travel light through time; Over time, we keep only those things that help our species to survive. We gradually discard things that don't help, that drag down our ability to survive. Anybody seen our tails around lately? How about those fins we used to have to help us breathe under water?

All things that exist have to be explained in terms of why they were allowed to exist, in terms of their evolutionary benefit.

So how does the emotion of being bored help us humans?

Well, boredom, when you think about it, is like hunger. Boredom is a call from our brains to feed them with stimulation, just as hunger is a call from our brains to feed our bodies food.

We need stimulation. Stimulated brains create. Stimulated brains explore.  Stimulated brains are motivated to survive.

With our stimulated brains, we humans experimented, discovered how to use tools, how to create new tools, to create art, to create language, to explore outside our caves, to reach new worlds.  We advanced.

So, if stimulation is so vital to human advancement, why do we still have boredom hanging around? Why haven't we evolved to eliminate boredom entirely from the range of human emotions?

Boredom Is Needed to Give Us Downtime






















It could be that we need boredom -- and not just to make us aware of stimulation.

We may need boredom to power down. Much as computers need downtime to avoid burningout their circuit boards, our brains may need periods of zero stimulation. In fact, we may need more downtime than we consciously know.

For example, our healthiest most like-sustaining triggers for thirst work pretty well when we are babies. Infants cry when they're thirsty.

As we get older, our thirst triggers also get old and don't work as well. By the time we sense that we are "thirsty", our bodies are already dehydrated.

It could be that boredom works the same way. We live in a world of 24/7 stimulation. We no longer even sit across from each other and talk 5 minutes before we're all checking our smartphones.  We're plugged in every minute of the day, terrified to miss any nugget, any update, any new message, any new photo, any new thing. Did I miss something?

Along with the escalating omnipresent access to connection, to stimulation, has come the rising trend of boredom.

How is that possible?

I think that the type of stimulation matters. Drawing a picture is stimulating and so is answering e-mails. But drawing a picture uses different areas of your brain than answering an e-mail or updating your Facebook page.

Could it be that teenagers and young adults -- heck all of us -- are actually craving a deeper, more satisfying stimulation? Could it be that we are overdosing on the "junk food" of smartphone and social media stimulation in a desperate attempt to extract the meager nutrients they offer? What if what we really are craving is a good, nutritional meal?

What form would that take?

Well, for one, how about a real conversation. Not an smartphone-interrupted, distracted affair but a real, face-to-face fully-engaged human being in front of you giving you their full attention?  Wow, wouldn't that be something?

more scientists study weight loss, the more we learn that we are not really human.



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