Boredom is complicated

Feeling bored is more than a modern day irritant. It can be a source of significant distress, particularly for people with ADHD
Dilys Leman
York University
Cognitive processes
Young woman resting her face in her hand stares out a window through open shutters looking bored

John Eastwood never gets bored of studying boredom. He is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at York University who studies the interplay of cognition and emotion.

“When I tell people what I do for a living, I can almost hear them thinking, ‘Why would anyone study boredom? Doesn’t it get really boring?’”

But since it is a complex, individual experience, studying it, he says, can reveal insights on the mental processes that influence our attention, “whether we’re engaged with something or someone, or are tuning them out.”

Lately, Eastwood is particularly interested in the experience of boredom and mental effort in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He hopes to better understand the underlying emotional and cognitive processes in ADHD, and how these processes interact.

The stakes are high: ADHD is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder (as is Autism Spectrum Disorder), and the most common childhood psychiatric disorder worldwide. Yet it is widely misunderstood and downplayed, even by health professionals. 

Setting up the Boredom Lab

Soon after his appointment to York in 2002, Eastwood created an observation room that later came to be known as the Boredom Lab.

Equipped with computers, video cameras and an eye-tracking machine, the lab could be used for multiple research purposes, providing the flexibility that Eastwood needed as his research evolved.

His initial work focused on how we pay attention to emotionally significant information in our environment and how our emotions impact the way we deploy our attention. He still broadly looks at these questions, but is focusing more, he says, “on the flip side”: how our attentional state can cause us to feel certain emotions.

“For example, if you think in a very rapid and flexible way, you will feel good,” he explains. “And if you think in more slow, repetitive ways, you will experience more negative emotions.”

The feeling of thinking

Eastwood characterizes his current research very broadly as examining the feeling of thinking. Under this banner, he is looking at boredom and the experience of mental effort. Both, he says, are common concerns for people with ADHD.

Eastwood characterizes boredom as the uncomfortable experience of being mentally unengaged. “In boredom, you have ‘the desire for desires,’” he says quoting Leo Tolstoy. “The problem is that nothing you can do is desirable, or will hold your attention.”

He says the experience of boredom has a motivational component, which distinguishes boredom from frustration and apathy. The causes of boredom are not well known, he says. “Our default is to blame the environment — the lecture was tedious, I got bored — instead of looking at what might be going on with the person.”

Studies have shown that individuals who are prone to boredom have certain characteristics, such as cognitive weaknesses and poor awareness of their emotions, and are driven to minimize distress or maximize pleasure. Many of these same traits are associated with ADHD.

Boredom and ADHD

Current theories generally characterize ADHD as either a cognitive problem or a motivational problem, says Eastwood. “But they may tell only part of the story.”  His research on boredom and mental effort seeks to expand the narrative.

Eastwood’s preliminary study shows that people at risk for ADHD experience more emotional upset when performing a cognitively demanding task that is boring. Research participants visited Eastwood’s CFI equipped lab and were asked to do mental arithmetic. Numbers were presented to them on a computer screen, approximately one every second, and they had to continuously provide the sum for the last two numbers presented in the ongoing stream of numbers.

For those in the ADHD risk group, the mental effort became very strenuous, even when they were doing as well as others. They reported a stronger relation between the exertion of mental effort and distress. Moreover, after the fact, those at risk for ADHD brought to mind the worst moments when asked to rate how effortful the task had been.

“People with ADHD seem to have a great avoidance of activities that they feel are going to be a strain and will take a great deal of mental effort,” says Eastwood. “They anticipate that it will be difficult, even if it is simple. And so they avoid it. Even when they do manage to do it, they find it more difficult than other people.”

Needed insight on ADHD

“It’s so important to have another component, another way of understanding ADHD,” says Heidi Bernhardt, President and Executive Director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC). “Such research findings may give us more insight into why children and adults with ADHD struggle doing certain things, why there is so much avoidance and procrastination.” Bernhardt has a background in psychiatric nursing and three grown sons with ADHD.

There is so much misunderstanding about what ADHD actually is, says Bernhardt. “Most people don’t realize that ADHD can present without the hyperactivity, and that ADHD can persist into adulthood. They buy into the “attention deficit” model, which is not accurate. In actuality, the impairment is in the regulation of attention — people with ADHD can over-focus as much as under-focus.”

The consequences of not understanding ADHD are daunting. Research data show that those with untreated ADHD have a greater risk for learning difficulties, dropping out of school, additional mental health disorders, substance abuse, involvement in the justice system, more automobile accidents and earlier death. “If we don’t give them the help they need,” says Bernhardt, “then we’re squandering all that human potential.”    

“We currently have very little to offer in the way of supports,” says Eastwood. “That’s partly what has driven me to look at these more applied questions. I want to see how we can build models to understand the underlying components of ADHD, and then move to interventions that might address them.”