Skip to main content

Your elation about being ushackled from work has worn off. It's too darn hot out to do anything. The kids are bugging you to keep them occupied. Even the dog seems listless. Welcome to the summer doldrums.

With a wide-open calendar and no pressing tasks to complete, you may find yourself feeling a little lethargic. But are you bored?

Unlike apathy, boredom is not a state of low arousal, cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert believes. On the contrary, the University of Waterloo professor says he considers boredom "an agitated sort of experience," one that he refers to as "aggressively dissatisfying."

"Boredom is this kind of motivated state where you want to be engaged with your environment in whatever way that you can be – and that all sounds fine until you fail to satisfy that motivation," he says. "It's a state of wanting, but not fulfilling a need to engage."

Fellow researcher John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at York University, agrees with this definition of boredom as an "unfulfilled desire for engagement." If what you are feeling is not unpleasant, Eastwood says, then it's not boredom.

To Danckert and Eastwood, studying this vexing, restless experience is anything but dull. There are still many unanswered questions in the science of boredom. We asked these two professors to share what they understand about it so far:

What happens inside the brain when you're bored?

In a step toward finding out, Danckert explains that he and his research team conducted brain scans on test subjects while they were at resting state, while they watched an interesting eight-minute BBC nature documentary, and while they watched an eight-minute video of two men hanging laundry – a dry video specifically chosen to induce boredom.

When participants were bored, Danckert found brain activation in many of the same areas of what is considered the "default-mode network" as participants at resting state.

"When you don't have something in front of you that you're doing right now, this default network kicks in and can be activated for a wide range of purposes: daydreaming, mind-wandering, future-thinking, self-referential thought," he explains.

Boredom

But they did find a key difference: When participants were bored, the research team saw a deactivation of their anterior insula, an area of the brain that is believed to be important for the "salience network." This network recognizes things in the environment that require some sort of response or action. Alternatively, some believe that the anterior insula is important for switching gears between the default-mode network and what is known as the "executive network," which is required when doing complex tasks.

In comparison, they saw no activation of the anterior insula when participants were in a resting state, and positive activation of the area when participants were watching the engaging documentary.

The deactivation of the anterior insula that the research team observed leads Danckert to suggest two possible explanations for how boredom works: "When you're bored, you're trying to engage with something and it's just not working, or the thing you're trying to engage with is just not good enough."

What's the recipe for boredom?

Getting people to do psychological experiments is a great way to induce boredom, Danckert says.

The reason?

"The kinds of experiments that we do in psychology tend to have environments that are sparse and tend to require a person to do something repetitively," he says, since psychologists do not want study participants to be influenced by a rich environment and they need results from numerous trials to get reliable data. "It turns out that that's actually a really great recipe for making people bored, because the environment's not that rich and not that stimulating and you have to do the same thing over and over and over again."

How should one respond to boredom?

In an e-mail, Eastwood explains that there tends to be some confusion about whether boredom is beneficial. The ability to tolerate quiet, under-stimulating situations – without becoming bored – is an important skill as it might spur creativity, he says. "However, I don't think there is anything good about being bored per se."

Eastwood likens boredom to pain. It's unpleasant, sure. But it keeps us safe. "Similarly, the capacity for boredom keeps us from squandering our intellectual resources and keeps us from stagnating in non-meaningful, non-adaptive disengagement with our environment," he says.

In other words, boredom is a warning sign against apathy.

That does not mean you should rush to remedy your boredom by turning to attention-grabbing entertainment, such as movies and computer games. To do so would be akin to taking drugs to eliminate pain without addressing the underlying problem that causes the pain, Eastwood says.

Instead, he points to his research, which suggests that boredom and attention are closely related. Boredom occurs when attention, "the process whereby we regulate our engagement with the external world and our internal thoughts," breaks down, he says.

So, to become less susceptible to boredom, he suggests that people might work on developing their ability for attention and discovering their intrinsic interests and abilities. For parents, he says, this may mean sitting and playing with children as they do a challenging game and activity, until they learn to how to become engaged with it. And, he says, it may mean limiting screen time, so that children to figure out what to do with themselves on their own.

The latter will likely provoke complaints and possibly boredom, Eastwood says. "However, without such opportunities a child will not have a chance to discover her intrinsic interests and abilities," he says. "Also, without such opportunities a child will not have a chance to discover how compelling (and possible) it can be to reach out to the world to engage with it based on your intentions rather than passively having the world grab you and direct your attention."