Can Boredom Boost Creativity?
When was the last time you were truly bored? And by bored, I mean really bored with absolutely nothing to do?
I don’t know about you but for me, it’s quite tough to pinpoint.
We live in a world of distraction, with stimulation in some form or another eager to fill every minute of our day. With the rise of portable technologies, social media and streaming services, any sense of boredom can be neatly suppressed as soon as it starts to arise. Be it a new drama-packed series, a quick scroll through Instagram or completing a level of Candy Crush, many of us seek to fill in the gaps where boredom would have naturally sat. But what if the boredom we actively try to avoid is good for us? That the mental space this state of being grants could provide a boost to our creativity?
According to science, this could be the case.
Although boredom may feel like a state of inactivity, our unstimulated brains are still buzzing. Several brain imaging studies have shown when individuals are induced into a state of boredom, areas of the brain in the default mode network, or DMN, are activated. The DMN is a network of brain regions which have been associated with internally focused thought – that is, thoughts about your sense of self, analysis of past events and predictions about the future – as well as new work indicating its role in making sense of events unfolding around us. Parts of this network have been shown to be more active in creatives, suggesting increased DMN activity helps to boost the formation of new ideas through linking lines of existing information. A difference in bored versus resting brain DMN activity is thought to be an inability to turn on engagement networks – termed executive control networks; preventing engagement with the task at hand. This lack of engagement may be what drives us to try to escape boredom, with one study showing individuals would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone in a room unstimulated for 15 minutes. Our brains urge for novelty and goal-directed behaviour can literally drive us to pick discomfort over disinterest.
When approaching boredom, individuals possess different reactions to the “mind-numbing” state. This personalised reaction is termed ‘trait boredom’ and describes how often a person feels bored and how negative boredom makes them feel. Past studies have revealed high levels of trait boredom correlate with negative states like depression, anxiety and risk-taking behaviours, highlighting its adverse impacts. Interesting, a recent study suggested trait boredom is a reactive state to being bored rather than a permanent, unchangeable one a person possesses. When looking in the brains of individuals low in trait boredom, they found increased activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain – activity associated with increased engagement – compared to those with high trait boredom when induced into a state of boredom. However, at rest, the groups displayed similar frontal lobe brain activity, providing evidence their ‘wiring’ is not necessarily different. This research concluded that individuals with high trait boredom could undergo neurofeedback training to increase engagement when bored and hopefully prevent some of the undesirable effects this state can induce.
Although chronic boredom has been linked to negative states, small doses of being bored might be beneficial to innovation. Many of us find our sparks of genius when doing benign tasks – like folding the laundry – or when we are unable to be stimulated – like in the shower – and this has led to arguments for boredom being a catalyst for creativity. A 2014 study revealed individuals who read the phonebook for 15 minutes before doing a creative task (assigning as many uses to two paper cups as possible) generated more ideas than their non-bored counterparts. Another study describing how boredom is a state more likely to induce “seeking” or “approach” behaviours found making individuals watch a dull screensaver led to increased associative thoughts – those which are unusual, broad and tie together associations between concepts. These studies propose giving the brain a short break from stimulation and a chance to turn inward via DMN activation enhance our ability to come up with new ideas.
In our current society, it is pretty hard to find time to be bored. But by introducing a few “boredom bouts” into our day, we may find those innovative ideas pop up more readily. Simple routine changes like showering without listening to the radio or a podcast, taking a walk without any headphones or delaying checking social media until later in the day could all help give your brain the space it needs to come up with that groundbreaking theory. For more ways to get bored, I highly recommend the book “Bored and Brilliant” by Manoush Zomorodi.
Here is to a happy (and slightly more boring) week!
Julia xoxox (@julia.ravey.science)
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