Why boredom is anything but boring

Maggie Koerth-Baker in Nature:

Boredom-feature-illustration-14_01_16In 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.

More here.