Saturday, January 23, 2016

Studying Boredom

Human Psychology

I’m Bored: Until recently, boredom was not considered a serious scientific subject, writes Maggie Koerth-Baker for Nature News: That began to change in 1986, when Norman Sundberg and Richard Farmer of the University of Oregon in Eugene published their Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS)6, the first systematic way for researchers to measure boredom — beyond asking study participants, ‘Do you feel bored?’. Instead, they could ask how much participants agreed or disagreed with statements such as: ‘Time always seems to be passing slowly’, ‘I feel that I am working below my abilities most of the time’ and ‘I find it easy to entertain myself”. (The statements came from interviews and surveys that Sundberg and Farmer had conducted on how people felt when they were bored.) A participant’s aggregate score would give a measure of his or her propensity for boredom.”
Illustration Credit: Patrycja Podkościelny
Source: Nature


An article, by Maggie Koerth-Baker in Nature News discusses why scientists are taking more interest in boredom, which effects all of us, but some to greater degrees and with greater consequences than others. Boredom is explained as a lack of stimulation, and it is not the same as apathy, ennui or depression.

Researchers are trying to understand more about boredom, including whether it has scientific basis that neuroscience can explain. In “Why boredom is anything but boring” (January 12, 2016), Koerth-Baker starts the discussion by writing about a case of an individual suffering a traumatic brain injury:
In 1990, when James Danckert was 18, his older brother Paul crashed his car into a tree. He was pulled from the wreckage with multiple injuries, including head trauma.
The recovery proved difficult. Paul had been a drummer, but even after a broken wrist had healed, drumming no longer made him happy. Over and over, Danckert remembers, Paul complained bitterly that he was just — bored. “There was no hint of apathy about it at all,” says Danckert. “It was deeply frustrating and unsatisfying for him to be deeply bored by things he used to love.”
A few years later, when Danckert was training to become a clinical neuropsychologist, he found himself working with about 20 young men who had also suffered traumatic brain injury. Thinking of his brother, he asked them whether they, too, got bored more easily than they had before. “And every single one of them,” he says, “said yes.” Those experiences helped to launch Danckert on his current research path. Now a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, he is one of a small but growing number of investigators engaged in a serious scientific study of boredom.
There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant — a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences.

In studies of binge-eating, for example, boredom is one of the most frequent triggers, along with feelings of depression and anxiety1, 2. In a study of distractibility using a driving simulator, people prone to boredom typically drove at higher speeds than other participants, took longer to respond to unexpected hazards and drifted more frequently over the centre line3. And in a 2003 survey, US teenagers who said that they were often bored were 50% more likely than their less-frequently bored peers to later take up smoking, drinking and illegal drugs4.
Boredom even accounts for about 25% of variation in student achievement, says Jennifer Vogel-Walcutt, a developmental psychologist at the Cognitive Performance Group, a consulting firm in Orlando, Florida. That's about the same percentage as is attributed to innate intelligence. Boredom is “something that requires significant consideration”, she says.
This article suggests that boredom is a result of changes occurring in the brain, whether by accident or by design—that some individuals might have a greater tendency to boredom and that some traumatic brain injuries replicate this tendency. Such is worthy of study, since it can and does affect so many areas of our lives. In the matter of young persons, neuroscience has already confirmed that the decision-making and executive control comes from an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed until individuals are past their teen-age years, usually by the mid-twenties. Persons who are prone to boredom seek novelty, sometimes in ways that are not only risky, but harmful.

Also noteworthy, “bored to death” might be more than an idle expression (see Int. J. Epidemiol. (2010) 39 (2):370-371). No doubt, boredom affects health in a negative way.

Boredom is correlated with high-risk activities, including smoking, drinking and drugs. Broad social conditions, including poverty and lack of work, can explain some of the reasons why, for example, older middle-aged adults engage in such risky behaviours. A perceived lack of usefulness can be debilitating, notably when everyone else around you is engaged in an useful activity. Other psychological reasons for boredom revolve around either an increased need for stimulation or a perceived lack of control over one’s environment, such as waiting for a medical appointment or an airline flight.

Allow me to bring this discussion to an important point, to wit, on the value of work, which provides meaning and purpose for most persons, and all things being equal is an antidote to general boredom. Remove an activity that has occupied people most of their adult lives, you are then removing a sense of purpose that is linked to personal identity—it is akin to figuratively cutting off a part of their body, such is the pain and hurt. Work often provides a good amount of social engagement, a healthy and worthy necessity for most persons.

When there are too many people who are locked outside the gates of such gainful and healthy activities, one can expect a troubled society, or to put it another way, a society with a large amount of troubled persons. (If we know something is a problem and yet we fail to address it sufficiently, what does it say about us? If the problem persists what does it say in general? That we have not yet found a good and viable solution?)

“Work”: It would be good and beneficial if every single person who wants to work can get a job, and one that is in keeping with his education, skills and qualifications. Again, if I am being idealistic I do so with good reason. This alone will change the mood in a nation, and remove many of the problems that plague it, including boredom and what it often leads to. This is not suggesting that boredom will be completely eliminated—it likely can’t—but, rather, that it will be diminished. Thus, so would many societal ills.

That would be something worth applauding, wouldn’t it?

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For more, go to [Nature]

For the Boredom Proneness Scale test, go to [BPS].