According to James Danckert, a professor of
cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, "Boredom is an
unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling of being unoccupied... It's commonly
accompanied by restlessness and agitation as well, because you recognise that
you have this desire to engage with the world but you can't figure out what
will satisfy that desire."
It turns out that boredom could have a very
important biological and psychological function, with people unlikely to look
for new things until they've had enough of their existing reality. In the past,
this may have manifested as exploration, new art movements, and novel
scientific discoveries. Basically, anything new that hadn't been experienced
before may have had its roots in boredom.
In fact, boredom may be an even more primal
response to evolutionary stagnation. According to Professor Danckert,
"From an evolutionary point of view, if you stay in one place for too long
… you make yourself vulnerable to predators and you miss out on opportunity
costs... Boredom is one signal that says, you've been here too long, go do
As we all know, however, boredom is not
always a positive thing. While it's full of potential, the actual state of
boredom is negative, agitated, and often feels out of our control. When these
feelings are prolonged, they can lead to serious issues such as anxiety,
depression, low self-esteem, and problems with impulsive and compulsive lack of
control. The distinct emotional experience of boredom is more common in
children and young adults, with negative behavioural patterns possibly enduring
According to Professor Danckert, this is
all down to the developing brain: "The theory I have is that as you head
into the pre-teen and teenager years, you're starting to develop adult style
cognitive skills … but their world is still massively constrained - by school,
by parental control. So they get these skills and they can't fully utilise them."
Kids need to learn how to harness these feelings at an early age, not covering
them up with pointless activities but recognising them and transforming them
into something productive that's integrated with their wider personality.
From a practical perspective, you can
either let something new grow from the boredom or develop a fresh insight by
changing your perspective. According to Professor Danckert, "If you're in
a situation when you can choose, then choose to engage a skill and cultivate a
practice... If you can't choose, then re-frame the situation to be more
meaningful to you."
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