Because boredom can be good for the brain

Woman looking out the window bored

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

If someone invites you to just sit and do nothing, you will surely remember the long list of pending tasks that await you or think of something better to do.

The feeling that the day doesn’t have enough hours to deal with all the unread emails, resolve unfinished business at work or focus on the family is commonplace.

Added to this is the fact that, when we are not trying to cope with these tasks, we take out our cell phones to read something online or reply to comments on social networks, in a continuous search for entertainment.

Few people think boredom is a viable option. But according to neuroscientists, boredom, despite its bad reputation, can boost our creativity, our commitment to tasks, and our productivity at work.

A famous experiment, published in the journal Science, even proved that there are people who would rather get a mild electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.

In the experiment, the researchers asked a group of people to sit quietly for 15 minutes in a room with nothing to do. Alternatively, his only option was to press a button and receive an electric shock.

Getting an electric shock is unpleasant, but many people, especially males, prefer to be shocked rather than deprived of external sensory stimuli.

Of the 42 participants, nearly half decided to push the button at least once, even if they’d been shocked before. And one participant received the shock 190 times.

“Most people apparently would rather do anything than do nothing, even if it’s bad,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The brain has two main modes of operation: the executive one, to achieve goals, and another circuit called the default mode network, which is activated when we are not doing anything concrete.

The brain has two main modes of operation: the executive one, to achieve goals, and another circuit called the default mode network, which is activated when we are not doing anything concrete.

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

always active

The human brain works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even when we sleep, the brain is always awake.

Listens, detects and manages stressors to keep us safe and healthy. He keeps looking for solutions, making decisions and thinking about possibilities even when we are unaware of his business.

This “always on” organ is so dedicated that it never rests or takes a vacation. But neuroscientists say it also has its limitations.

Sleep is one of the brain’s ways to cleanse itself after a full day, but it still works. And boredom is also important for your health.

In Italy people are very clear about this. The expression being lazy (“the sweetness of not doing”) is part of the culture of the country, where rest, the pleasure of not doing, is part of life.

It’s not about making a siestabut something deeper. It’s about leaving aside the rhythm of everyday life and dedicating a moment to introspection, relaxation and awareness of living in the present moment.

Awaken creativity

Neuroscientist Alicia Walf, a researcher in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA, says it’s crucial for brain health to allow yourself to be bored from time to time.

“Boredom improves social connections. Social neuroscientists have concluded that the brain has a default mode network that activates when we stop doing things. to bring up embryonic work ideas,” Walf explained to Forbes magazine.

“In those moments that may seem boring, empty and useless, the strategies and solutions that have always been there in embryonic form come to life. And the brain gets a lot of rest when we don’t overwork it.”

“Some famous writers have said that their most creative ideas come when they’re moving furniture, taking a shower, or pulling weeds. We call these inspirational moments inspiration. insights,” she added.

In a study published in the American journal Academy of Management Discoveries in 2019, researchers bored a group of people with instructions for sorting beans by color. Another group was given a much more interesting task.

So they were asked to find good excuses to justify their delay. The bored group did better, both in terms of ideas and creativity, as judged by an outside group.

Boredom allows us to recharge the batteries in our heads.  It may seem uncomfortable, but it's a necessary exercise.

Boredom allows us to recharge the batteries in our heads. It may seem uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary exercise.

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

On the other hand, the British psychologist Sandi Mann argues in the book The science of boredom (“The Science of Boredom”) that boredom “can be a powerful and motivating force that inspires creativity, intelligent thinking, and reflection.”

“We’re bored because we have so much stimulation, so we need more and more stimulation to avoid boredom. It’s a vicious cycle,” she warns.

Mann has studied boredom for 20 years and, for her, it’s an image problem. Understanding exactly what boredom is can help you look at it more positively.

“It’s an emotion, basically an unfulfilled search for brain stimulation,” he explains to the BBC.

“If you’re looking for something that appeals to you and you can’t find it, that frustration is called boredom.”

“The good thing about embracing boredom is that you don’t actually have to do much.”

Mann advises parents to let their children get bored.

“Let them learn how to deal with boredom and how to get out of it. This way they will release themselves into a world of creativity.”

The American Child Mind Institute also points out that boredom is good for children.

“Learning to deal with boredom trains children to acquire flexibility, planning and problem solving skills,” says the institute.

improve attention

In the same way that sleep is an important and productive time for the brain, downtime is also vital for our mind and well-being.

“Idleness is not just a holiday, an indulgence or an addiction. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body – and, deprived of it, we suffer from a disfiguring mental affliction like rickets ”said American writer and illustrator Tim Kreider in the article The Busy Trap (“The Occupation Trap”, in free translation), published in The New York Times.

The American magazine Scientific American also published a long article summarizing the benefits of downtime.

“Idle time replenishes the brain’s reserves of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential for reaching our peak levels of performance and simply forming stable memories in everyday life,” the article states.

The art of boredom, in Dutch, is called 'niksen', which means 'doing nothing'

The art of boredom, in Dutch, is called ‘niksen’, which means ‘doing nothing’

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

We can think of downtime, boredom, or idleness as a mental cleanse—a way to clear our minds of the cognitive congestion that has built up over time. So the problem isn’t so much that we have to let ourselves get bored, but that we need empty time, or less full of things.

An article in the trade publication Psychology Today points out that too much information can shorten your attention span.

“So rest can be a valuable opportunity to help our overworked brains relax and relieve stress. Getting away from social media and other stressors long enough to cause boredom has benefits,” says Professor Shahram Heshmat , from the University of Illinois in the United States.

For the expert, “boredom can improve our mental health. In the information age, our brains are overloaded with data and distractions. An abundance of information translates into a lack of attention”.

“Attention uses people’s limited cognitive resources for productive activities,” explains Heshmat.

Good for mental health

Daydreaming can be “a complete respite” and provide a brief escape from everyday life, as Mann puts it in his book.

Several studies have already shown, for example, that modern tools such as email, social networks and dating apps can challenge mental health. Rest, therefore, can be a precious opportunity to recharge the batteries.

That’s why many experts, like Mann, define boredom as a protective reaction that allows us to disconnect from the information and noise that constantly haunt us.

Our brains need a break from the constant flow of stimuli and distractions so characteristic of our busy and noisy world.

Our brains need a break from the constant flow of stimuli and distractions so characteristic of our busy and noisy world.

Photo: Getty Images / BBC News Brazil

“As adults, we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with so much information that we wouldn’t be able to cope without ‘getting used to’ much of it,” explains Mann.

“So we get used to the radio, unwanted messages, warnings on cereal boxes, etc., all to clear our minds and not have to think about it,” she says.

“Being bored with things frees up your brain to focus on those aspects of life that require more careful consideration. So, long live boredom!”

“Considering these benefits, we should embrace boredom rather than seek an immediate exit,” adds Shahram Heshmat.

“We should also allow our minds to wander, as boredom can be an opportunity to reflect on what we want in life.”

So now you know: it’s important to cultivate boredom, that pleasure of doing nothing, and know how to appreciate it.

Nothing better than putting it into practice being lazy.

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