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.”
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