But boredom is more than just a temporary feeling. It can cause significant stress and is associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and even compulsive gambling. Worse, boredom often leads to fatal accidents, even among highly trained and focused professionals like airline pilots or military personnel handling nuclear-powered equipment.
Despite boredom’s serious consequences, the mental state is not well studied, a Canadian research team discovered. John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University in Ontario, and his colleagues found that no definition of boredom exists that’s good enough for researchers to work with. So, they set about finding one. They found that boredom is based on problems with attention and awareness. The brain’s attention networks that usually help focus on tasks fail when a person is bored, creating ‘an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,’ the researchers wrote.
‘It’s an amazingly under-studied area given how universal the experience is,’ said Mark Fenske, a co-researcher from the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. ‘We need to have a common definition, something we all can agree on, of what boredom is.’
By examining what little research has been done on boredom, the group found that:
• Boredom sets in when a task is easy enough to be completed even with distractions—in fact, a distraction relieves boredom in this case
• When a distraction does affect the task, however, people report feeling more bored.
• People who know they can’t pay attention report boredom more than people who don’t report problems focusing.
• Boredom, often associated with low states of arousal, can also be triggered by higher states of arousal (like feeling irritated or restless).
It’s possible that areas of the brain that handle focused behavior could also be involved in boredom. Alternately, nerve cell circuits in the brain called the ‘executive network’ that manage complex tasks, also could be affected. Knowing how these networks react to boredom could prevent long-term boredom and its risks. Are you still awake? Oh, good.
Eastwood, J., Frischen, A., Fenske, M., & Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (5), 482-495 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612456044