The Science Behind Why Boredom Is Better For Your Brain
“Those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.”
If alien anthropologists are observing humans right now, they would assume that the worst thing we can ever be is bored. We whip out our phones while waiting for the bus. We check Facebook when lectures of meetings start to flag. We even check in on social media when the TV gets boring– in other words, we seek more stimulation when our entertainment isn’t entertaining enough.
We treat boredom as something that we can banish from our lives, like smallpox or polio. But boredom isn’t a disease. We don’t catch it. We cause it ourselves. Boredom is a state of mind, a reaction to the world rather than a reflection of the world. Sure, we can be bored standing in line or waiting around for a delayed plane. But we can also be bored of a once-favorite haunt, or under-stimulated by a too-familiar restaurant. Teenagers are geniuses at weaponizing boredom: kids are brilliant at being stubbornly bored by this dumb thing in this dumb place that their dumb parents have dragged them to.
This suggests that we can modulate even control, our reactions to situations that normally trigger boredom. But why should we? In a world where we can binge-watch television in line at the grocery store, why should we ever let those empty moments stay empty?
The answer is, those moments when we don’t have to focus on anything in particular, and can allow our minds to roam free, are actually quite valuable.
When you relax your attention, unfocus your mind and allow it to drift, it feels like your brain is going idle. In reality, as neuroscientists have discovered, it’s doing anything but idling. When we’re driving, reading a novel, playing with the kids, or doing something else that requires our conscious attention, our brains activate different regions to access different skills and abilities. When we let our minds wander, in contrast, our brains switch on something called the default mode network, or DMN. The DMN turns out to consist of regions that are involved in problem-solving, thinking about the future, and reflecting on the past; it also doesn’t connect to the critical, self-editing regions that usually filter our crazy ideas. The DMN dives into our pasts, works through different future scenarios, and takes up problems that have eluded our conscious effort. Whenever we have a brainstorm about how to solve a problem at work, or the answer to a question that’s been just out of reach pops into our heads that’s the DMN at work.
Like all brain regions and cognitive abilities, the DMN actually gets stronger and more complex the more we use it. This is especially important for children. Kids who aren’t super-scheduled, who are allowed to be bored and mind-wander, have better-developed DMNs; they’re also better at self-management, have more self-control, more empathy, and higher levels creativity. Letting your kids learn to be bored can be difficult– they certainly know how to make it hard for you!– but soon they discover that no one ever dies of boredom, and the long-term benefits greatly outweigh the short-term pain.
It’s not just kids who benefit from mind-wandering. When I was researching my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I discovered that many highly creative adults structure their days to allow for both periods of intense focus and periods of deep mind-wandering. For example, they take long walks to allow their minds to explore problems that they’re working on, and report having some of their best ideas during these apparently “unproductive” periods when they’re “doing nothing.”
In other words, the challenge in our lives is not to eliminate boredom, but to stop treating those “empty” moments as useless spaces to be filled with quick e-mail checks or social media catch-ups. Instead, we need to recognize that those moments can be very valuable: our minds know what to do with them, and know how to make the most of them. And in a busy world, having moments when we don’t have to focus on anything, and allowing our minds to simply wander rather than chasing the next stimulus, can feel like a real luxury.
So the next time you find yourself in line, or waiting at a cafe, don’t whip out your phone. Let your mind relax and unfocus, and let it follow its own path. And the next time you have a couple free hours, rather than catch up on whatever is on the DVR, take your mind on a long walk. You’ll be surprised where you end up when you let your mind wander.
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