The History of Boredom | Science | Smithsonian
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The History of Boredom

You’ve never been so interested in being bored

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This Sunday, 500 people will flock to a conference hall in East London to be bored. Over the course of seven hours, they will hear talks on, among other things, pylons, self-service checkouts, double-yellow lines – as in the ones on the road – shop fronts and gardening.

“Quite why anyone else would want to go is a mystery,” says James Ward, 31, the conference’s organizer. Ward, a marketer for a major British retailer, says that the conference started by accident: In 2010, after learning that the Interesting Conference, a day of talks put on by Wired writer Russell Davies, was cancelled, he tweeted – jokingly – that he ought to put on a Boring Conference.

His suggestion would have come to nothing if he hadn’t already earned a number of followers through his blog, a paean to mundane things like stationary. Within a half an hour, he says, the conference was happening. “Never joke on the Internet about doing something, because you may have to do it,” he says. Ward and his followers are in good or at least famous company: One of Andy Warhol’s celebrated bon mots was “I like boring things.” But as Ward admits, the Boring Conference isn’t actually boring. “It’s things that on the surface would appear boring, but aren’t,” Ward explains. In fact, a number of speakers from the cancelled Interesting Conference simply rehashed their talks for the Boring Conference that first year. “The name is slightly misleading, but it’s a good name.”

For Ward, boring and interesting are two sides of the same coin; one man’s pylons is another man’s Playboy. But what does it really mean to be bored? And more importantly, what does being bored do to and say about you?

Boredom’s Origins

“Boredom” first became a word in 1852, with the publication of Charles Dickens’ convoluted (and sometimes boring) serial, Bleak House; as an emotional state, it obviously dates back a lot further. Roman philosopher Seneca talks about boredom as a kind of nausea, while Greek historian Plutarch notes that Pyrrhus (he of the “Pyrrhic victory”) became desperately bored in his retirement. Dr. Peter Toohey, a Classics professor at the University of Calgary, traced the path of being bored in 2011 in Boredom: A Lively History.

Among the stories he uncovered was one from the 2nd century AD in which one Roman official was memorialized with a public inscription for rescuing an entire town from boredom (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages. And the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do.

In Christian tradition, chronic boredom was “acedia”, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The “noonday demon”, as one of its early chroniclers called it, refers to a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often ascribed to monks and other people who led cloistered lives. By the Renaissance, it had morphed from a demon-induced sin into melancholia, a depression brought on by too aggressive study of maths and sciences; later, it was the French ennui.

In the 18th century, boredom became a punitive tool, although the Quakers who built the first “penitentiary” probably didn’t see it that way. In 1790, they constructed a prison in Philadelphia in which inmates were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. The idea was that the silence would help them to seek forgiveness from God. In reality, it just drove them insane.

Studying boredom

It wasn’t until the 1930s that science took an interest in boredom. In 1938, psychologist Joseph Ephraim Barmack looked at how factory workers coped with the tedium of being factory workers. Stimulants – caffeine, amphetamines, and ephedrine – was the answer.

Barmack was particularly concerned with what can be termed situational boredom, the kind of boredom that is perceived as a temporary state, such as being on a long car ride. This kind of boredom is relieved by change, or, as Barmack found, drugs.

But modern psychologists think boredom might be a lot more complicated than that. It’s appropriate that Dickens coined the word boredom, as literature is littered with characters for whom boredom became dangerously existential (think Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina or Jack Torrance in The Shining. What countless novels of the 19th and 20th century showed was that boredom has a much darker side, that it can be something much more akin to depression.

Recent scientific research agrees: A host of studies have found that people who are easily bored may also be at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, eating disorders, aggression and other psychosocial issues. Boredom can also exacerbate existing mental illness. And, according to at least one 2010 study, people who are more easily bored are two-and-a-half times more likely to die of heart disease than people who are not.

Why is unclear. Take depression: “One possibility is that boredom causes depression; another is that depression causes boredom; another is that they’re mutually causative; another is that boredom is an epi-phenomenon or another component of depression; and another is that there’s another third variable that causes both boredom and depression,” explains Dr. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University in Toronto. “So we’re at the very beginning stages of trying to figure it out.”

That’s partly because up until very recently, he says, psychologists weren’t working with a very good definition of boredom. Eastwood is one of a growing number of researchers dedicated to understanding boredom; in the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Eastwood and his colleagues published “The Unengaged Mind”, an attempt to define boredom.

The paper claimed that boredom is a state in which the sufferer wants to be engaged in some meaningful activity but cannot, characterized by both restlessness and lethargy. With that in mind, Eastwood says that it all is essentially an issue of attention. “Which kind of makes sense, because attention is the process by which we connect with the world,” explains Eastwood

Boredom may be the result of a combination of factors – a situation that is actually boring, a predisposition to boredom, or even an indication of an underlying mental condition. What that says about how the brain works requires more research.

“I’m quite sure that when people are bored, their brain is in a different state,” says Eastwood. “But the question is not just is your brain in a different state, but what that tells us about the way the brain works and the way attention works.”

Why is Boredom Good For You?

There has to be a reason for boredom and why people suffer it; one theory is that boredom is the evolutionary cousin to disgust.

In Toohey’s Boredom: A Living History, the author notes that when writers as far back as Seneca talk about boredom, they often describe it was a kind of nausea or sickness. The title of famous 20th century existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel about existential boredom was, after all, Nausea. Even now, if someone is bored of something, they’re “sick of it” or “fed up”. So if disgust is a mechanism by which humans avoid harmful things, then boredom is an evolutionary response to harmful social situations or even their own descent into depression.

“Emotions are there to help us react to, register and regulate our response to stimulus from our environment,” he says. Boredom, therefore, can be a kind of early warning system. “We don’t usually take it as a warning – but children do, they badger you to get you out of the situation.”

And though getting out of boredom can lead to extreme measures to alleviate it, such as drug taking or an extramarital affair, it can also lead to positive change. Boredom has found champions in those who see it as a necessary element in creativity. In 2011, Manohla Dargis, New York Times film critic, offered up a defense of “boring” films, declaring that they offer the viewer the opportunity to mentally wander: “In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”

But how humans respond to boredom may have changed dramatically in the last century. In Eastwood’s opinion, humans have become used to doing less to get more, achieving intense stimulation at the click of a mouse or touch of a screen.

“We are very used to being passively entertained,” he says. “We have changed our understanding of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled.” And it’s become something like a drug – “where we need another hit to remain at the same level of satisfaction,” says Eastwood.

There is hope, however, and it’s back at the Boring Conference. Rather than turning to a quick fix – YouTube videos of funny cats, Facebook – the Boring Conference wants people to use the mundane as an impetus to creative thinking and observation.

“It’s not the most amazing idea in the world, but I think it’s a nice idea – to look around, notice things,” says Ward, the conference organizer. “I guess that’s the message: Look at stuff.”

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