We all get bored. It’s a universal experience often brought about by having nothing to do. Or nothing ‘fun’ anyway. Think being stuck in a traffic jam with no Bluetooth or radio. Or listening to a really long and uneventful lecture about an equally long and uneventful textbook you didn’t read.
Evidence of boredom has even been found as far back as ancient Rome – turns out they weren’t a fan either. In fact, Dr. Peter Toohey’s book Boredom: A Lively History recounts a Roman official from 2nd century AD who was memorialised with a public inscription for ‘rescuing an entire town from boredom’ (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages. The point is: being bored sucks. It’s also super common. But have you ever wondered… why we even get bored in the first place?
The Science Behind Boredom… Are You Bored Yet?
A strong body of neurological research shows that boredom is not just a mood or sensation, but an emotion itself. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a great way to visualise this:The theory identifies eight primary emotions, as represented in the second ring from the centre. These include joy, sadness and anger. However, each of these emotions can be felt at varying intensities, so the closer the emotion is to the centre of the wheel – such as rage – the stronger it is. Therefore, emotions that fan further out from the centre are more mild manifestations of the primary – like annoyance rather than anger. In this case, boredom is a mild form of the primary emotion: disgust.
Think about it. Disgust is an emotion we don’t like. It’s the ‘eww gross’ reflex that stops you from eating the mouldy sandwich you’d forgotten about or hugging someone when they’re dripping with sweat. It’s an emotion that has evolved to protect us, to drive us away from things that could make us sick. Likewise, boredom is uncomfortable enough that is compels us to do new things, to stimulate our mind and to take productive action.
So, that means boredom is good right? Well, it depends.
Friend or Foe?
Research shows that the desire to ‘decrease boredom’ is one of the key motivations for young drug users. Chronic boredom has been linked to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism and even poor social skills.
Easily bored people seem to have a hard time entertaining themselves, but it’s theorised that this is a result of having fewer dopamine receptors in the brain. Also known as ‘Reward Deficiency Syndrome’, this means people need more extreme sensations to feel stimulated, which could explain why boredom is cited so highly as a motivation for drug use.
However, our brains do need stimulation to be healthy. Through research with mice and humans, scientists have found that doing activities that we find engaging actually encourages neurogenesis, and stimulates new connections between nerve cells in the brain.
These connections are key to developing neurological “plasticity”, or the brain’s ability to change and rewire itself throughout life. By developing more brain connections, we can actually develop reserves that guard against the loss of cells and brain function that naturally occur as we get older.
So clearly, boredom’s ability to motivate action can definitely be beneficial in small bouts. Whether that be cleaning the house, meeting up with a friend or reading a book, boredom has historically been an important source of creativity, well-being and our very sense of self. In fact, it’s regarded as such a powerful force for progress, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) agencies are already trying to simulate the emotion within self-learning robots.
The (Robot) Revolution Will Be Boredom-ised
Based in Tokyo, Japan, ARAYA Inc. is one such company, engaged in the development of artificial consciousness. This June they released a paper detailing the effectiveness of boredom-driven, curious learning machines, in which boredom was simulated through an algorithm.
The results? Boredom-enabled agents consistently outperformed other curious or explorative variants in model building benchmarks. Meanwhile, independent researcher Hugh Trenchard proposes that bored robots inventing team sports would be a suitable test for determining human-level intelligence.
But if boredom can be experienced – or at least simulated – through AI, then are machines already capable of experiencing other emotions too? Can our emotions really be boiled down to a series of impulses, a string of code? Or maybe boredom isn’t an emotion after all, but a symptom of intelligence? There’s something for you to think about next time you find yourself bored out of your brain.
Or, y’know, there’s always the bored button.