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Boredom can be a horrible thing. That sense of agitation and dissatisfaction that arises whenever we are unable to engage in an interesting activity is something with which most of us are all too familiar.

Yet scientists know surprisingly little about the cognitive and neural operations that give rise to this tedious condition. How is it that an idle period – time that may otherwise be seen as ripe for rest and relaxation – can instead be so agonizing?

Addressing this question starts with the observation that humans seem to have a strong motivational drive to be engaged in meaningful activity. Satisfying our physiological and other needs typically requires action. Having a brain that rewards us when busy and is averse to unnecessary idleness may be just the thing to keep us moving and ensure survival. This notion has been used to explain the results of studies showing that people who have something to do are happier than those sitting idle, even when the active people have been forced to perform a task.

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Research suggests that the brain system providing the incentive or urge to engage in such goal-related behaviour, and the corresponding reward when they do, relies heavily on the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This occurs primarily through a pathway connecting part of the midbrain to emotion-intensive structures such as the amygdala, reward-related regions such as the nucleus accumbens and regions of the prefrontal cortex.

Activation of this system is thought to accompany our interest and enhanced attention to different tasks or stimuli in the environment. In the absence of stimuli, the desire to engage in an interesting activity is thwarted. Boredom is the result.

By this view, those affected by boredom should focus on their environment. Unbearable ennui? Simply find more stimulating surroundings.

Unfortunately, the search for sensation can result in more problems than solutions. There is growing evidence that the tendency to experience boredom is directly associated with compulsive gambling, eating, drug use and other activities that provide a direct means of activating hedonic hot spots in the brain. This may explain why drug use in small-town and inner-city settings is so often blamed on a lack of resources and facilities for keeping young people engaged in more healthy activities.

Recent research, however, suggests that boredom is not just a problem associated with your surroundings. Individual differences in sensitivity to reward, for example, are another important factor. Some people need greater levels of external stimulation, novelty or variety than others to get the same level of satisfaction from a given activity. Because typical, day-to-day tasks are not as interesting or rewarding, these individuals are more likely than others to experience boredom and engage in risky, sensation-seeking activities.

Attention is also critical. Even the most potentially interesting task can lead to frustration and boredom if you are constantly distracted or otherwise unable to focus. Boredom can thus be particularly problematic for individuals with attention-related disorders, and is reduced in individuals who increase their attentional control through mental practice such as meditation.

Excessive multitasking and the constant barrage of information typical of modern life can also prevent one from devoting sufficient time to meaningfully engage in a task or otherwise avoid disruption. Growing resistance to such overstimulation may explain the surprising popularity of websites and meetings that celebrate tedium.

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Ironically, Boring 2010 – a series of presentations held in London in December focusing on details of the organizer's tie collection and other minutiae – seemed to enhance participants' interest in common objects and events.

And taking the time to notice and appreciate life's little details can be a potent cure for boredom.

Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success , is an associate professor in neuroscience at the University of Guelph.

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