Paying attention to boredom

Paying attention to boredom

Researchers are keen to know what goes on in our heads when things are dull
February 25, 2013

Depending on where you live in Canada, if you’re not the kind of person who embraces the cold and snow, these winter months may be difficult for you. Your entertainment options are likely limited, and you might get bored. And you could even become depressed. According to a recent mental health study in Ontario, about 15 percent of Canadians have a less severe form of seasonal affective disorder known as the “winter blues.”

“Boredom is hugely associated with depression,” says Mark Fenske, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph who studies brain mechanisms linked with this emotional state.

Boredom is also linked to substance abuse, problem gambling and higher mortality rates. That’s partly because when we are bored, we tend to engage in risky behaviour.

“Kids get bored, and what do they do?” asks Fenske. “They do things like surf on top of a moving car.”

Boredom can also lead to significant workplace mistakes. Think of the potential impact of a lapse of attention among baggage scanners at an airport.

Yet despite the possible serious consequences, there is next to no research about what is happening in our brains when we are bored and there are very few treatment options.

That’s probably because we tend to trivialize it, says Fenske. We may think of boredom as something harmless that can be solved by simply doing something else. Some think of boredom as helpful because the daydreaming it prompts may boost creativity.

But boredom can also signal trouble.

In dismissing it, says Fenske, we risk missing precious information that could help us treat it when it becomes a problem. Which is why his team at the university’s two-year-old Cognitive-Affective Neuroscience Lab want to look at people’s brains when those people are bored.

The lab specializes in using neuroimaging to uncover the brain mechanisms that allow its attention and emotional systems to work together. And it turns out that our ability to pay attention has a lot to do with boredom.

Fenske and his colleagues published a paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in September 2012 defining boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” 

“At the centre of being able to engage in any activity is attention,” says Fenske. “So if you have something that disrupts you as you’re trying to focus, that’s going to be a problem.”

This is what causes us to feel bored when we are, in fact, trying to do something absorbing.

Maybe we’re distracted by a TV playing in the next room; maybe we’re hungry and smell fresh-baked bread. Whatever the cause, this disruption in our attention means we’re unable to engage in satisfying activity and therefore feel bored.

But before Fenske and his team can put volunteers in a brain scanner, they need to know what to look for. So they are busy gathering behavioural data on boredom, including strategies that help us pay attention.

Fidgeting may be one of these strategies. Fenske used to take offence when students in his research methods class played with their pens or shifted about in their chairs. But preliminary behavioural studies suggest that such fidgeting may be beneficial.

“In order to pay attention to what’s being said, you need a certain amount of cortical arousal in the brain,” he says. “Fidgeting may provide a way to temporarily increase activity in regions of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain.”

On the other hand, if the work you are doing already requires a lot of your attention, it is best to avoid distractions. Turn off the TV. Get away from baking bread.

Behavioural studies also suggest that emotional signals help us pay attention. “If you’re out walking and see a bear on the path,” says Fenske, “emotion ensures you pay attention to the bear and not the daisy growing by the side of the path.”

Knowing that emotion is closely linked to attention, Fenske and his team are now testing subjects to better understand that association.

With funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Fenske renovated his lab space to include four behavioural testing rooms. This is where subjects look at images while their emotional state and ability to pay attention are measured.

Fenske also used the CFI support to buy equipment that will allow him to adapt the university’s MRI scanner to do human cognitive neuroimaging.

“We are very lucky to have an MRI at the university,” he says. “It’s a valuable piece of equipment, so it’s great when we can find ways to help people take advantage of it. The CFI will allow us to do that.” This will let a whole new group of researchers wring even greater value out of an expensive scanner.

“The bottom line of all of this is that boredom is a serious issue that is worth studying,” says Fenske. “We all want to be able to engage in satisfying activity.”