Boredom is a creative catalyst | Day 17 of 100

10min read

All of us have been bored at some point in our lives. Stuck for 'something to do' despite having a wealth of options to occupy us. The countless times I have caught myself in the boredom numbing reflex of unlocking my phone, then actually not being satisfied by its 'riches', has led me to wonder; is there and up-side to being bored? What if boredom was actually instrumental in being our most creative? Instead of the muscle memory phone unlock, how could we harness what is a negative and “unpleasant and distressing experience” and turn it into a productive and positive one? Fortunately for me, some other people have had the same thought and completed some studies on the subject of boredom. So allow me to assimilate these for you...

Whilst there is little academic consensus on what boredom actually is, I think we can all agree from a personal standpoint that it is where we no longer want to focus our attention on a given stimulus or thought process. Furthering that, to continue paying attention to the boredom inducing event or lack of stimulus would require a conscious effort to stay attentive. This does not mean that we have lost interest through a lack of attentive effort, as we would readily welcome a distraction to pull us out of our pit of boredom. The crux here though is 'pull us out', we want someone or something else to remove our boredom for us. Often times when we are bored, we find it difficult to help ourselves with any substantial effort. Almost like the boredom has sapped us of our energy. So we resort to actions with a low activation energy. e.g. A mindless scroll on your social media of choice.

When asked to describe boredom, the ten participants in Marion Martin et al.'s study did actually all depict boredom very similarly, resulting in this anecdotal consensus:

feeling stressed and agitated, yet at the same time, lethargic.

Perhaps stressed and agitated at; whatever is boring, or at the anticipation of something breaking the boredom. Both of which are 'high arousal' states being i.e. stressed and agitated are strong feelings with potentially high energy. But in conjunction with some lethargy, which is a state of 'low arousal'. A strange paradox. This ties in with our previous description. We want to divert our attention, but for a reason unknown we either find it difficult to do this for ourselves as it would require effort on our part.

As a result, whenever I am bored and can't remove myself from boredom I let my mind wander, day-dreaming to keep my self entertained. JL Singer in “The inner world of daydreaming” described daydreaming as

shifting attention from the external situation or problem to the internal representation of situations, memories, pictures, unresolved things, scenarios or future goals

Which sums up exactly what I do as a coping mechanism in any boredom inducing situation. In fact I have some great ideas when I am day-dreaming post-boredom, so does that mean I am more creative? Or has my mind and energy just slowed down as a result of the lack of stimulation from the boredness?

In Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman's study, they investigated this by giving participants a boring task to do (in this study it was to write out names and phone numbers from a phone book) followed by some creative tasks such as; listing as many uses for two plastic cups as possible. When comparing the results to the control group, the number of ideas for uses of plastics cups (and other measures) were significantly higher in the 'bored' group. This does not necessarily mean they were more creative from a quality of creativity perspective, but they did have more ideas. Does this mean then that our brain has saved up some creative capacity whilst we were bored to unleash at the next fun task offered?! (I like to think so).

Another study by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood done a year later confirmed similar finidings. Gasper and Middlewood were looking to prove/disprove specific hypotheses, namely; valence hypotheses, orientation hypotheses and activated-orientation hypotheses. To contextualise these hypotheses, each of valence, orientation and activation relate to your mood. Valence, is whether your mood is generally positive or negative. Happy or sad. Pleased or displeased. Orientation pertains to how you might react to a new stimulus, willing to approach it or avoid it. Engage or disengage. Think broadly and accept the new stimulus, or narrowly and tunnel vision on your current thoughts. Finally, activation relates to the magnitude of your orientation. For example, will I actively approach a new person, or will I actively avoid. (activated). Alternatively, I could lack urgency to either approach or avoid, in which case I would be deactivated.

The Gasper Middlewood study sought to test different combinations of positive/negative, approach/avoid and activated/deactivated states of humans (a.k.a. moods) and understand why some promote 'associative thought' (a.k.a an ingredient of creativity). Boredom in this classification is defined as negative/approach/deactivated, whereas elated would be positive/approach/activated. In other words being bored is, sad (negative) but willing to take on some new stimulus (approach), just not with any urgency (deactivated). That seems to tie in quite nicely with our description in the second paragraph!

One of the tests in the Gasper Middlewood study went as follows; induce the target mood (for boredom, test subjects had to watch a screensaver on a laptop), then play a word association game. In the word association game, subjects would see three words and then associate a fourth. For example with three starter words; sore, shoulder, sweat. A subject may associate the word cold. Cold sore, cold shoulder, cold sweat. Those with heightened associative thought would answer these puzzles more quickly within the given time.

Lo and behold, higher associative thought scores came from subjects who had been induced with the boring screensaver!

So now we have established the power of boredom as a creative catalyst how can we best utilise it in our lives? I mentioned at the start of this post about nullifying the distress of boredom by taking out our smartphones and having a good old scroll or read. But is this really productive or stimulating? Or actually has the endless scroll become some weird form of quasi-boredom. It's not quite satisfying but it's not quite boredom. It's not really that fulfilling and it doesn't have the social dopamine hit it once did. With this in mind I would not personally consider this a viable strategy for tackling boredom, and certainly not for utilising it's creative boost.

Similarly, going back to a point made in my post on effective time expenditure, is plugging the gap with the mindless scroll or read congruent with who or what you want to become? If it is not, the solution I can highly recommend is day-dreaming. Naturally, your mind in a day-dream will gravitate to aspects of your life you are worried about or wish to change. Having this space to think is a blessing in disguise. Time to work through your problem with little distraction, and also little effort (appealing to the deactivated portion of our negative/approach/deactivated state). The one thing that will help propel your day-dream into fruition though, will be to write it down so you can remember it! (ok so there's a tiny amount of activation required, but I am sure you are capable of this!).

After researching and thinking about this post, I have come to view boredom as a short holiday for my mind. Like you would try and 'switch-off' when going on holiday, you can have a mini switch-off whilst waiting in a queue, and even better turn it into positive ideas. I think it has become almost necessary to allow yourself to be bored, to have this freedom and creative boost rather than being a slave to the touch screen and the attention it demands from you.