Wisdom//

Peeking Into The Brain to Help Us Cope With Boredom

Coping with boredom in a healthy fashion could rely on appropriate use of basic emotion regulation processes

Courtesy of Shutter M/ Shutterstock
Courtesy of Shutter M/ Shutterstock

You’re Bored.

Your dinner plans were cancelled. No one is answering your texts. Nothing good is on television. The person in front of you in line is writing a check. During uninteresting situations, such as these, individuals may experience an unpleasant emotion called boredom. 

Almost everyone has experienced boredom at some point in time. What is important is how we deal with being bored. Studies show people who experience boredom more often also tend to experience anxiety and depression and may turn to unhealthy habits to fill their time, such as substance use (Vodanovich & Watt, 2016; Weybright, Caldwell, Ram, Smith, & Wegner, 2015).

It turns out, when we deal with boredom by doing healthy activities, such as reading a book or calling a friend, we rely on our use of basic emotion regulation processes. One process is called approach which is to create stimulation. You can think of approach as “leaning in” to a boring situation.  The other process is called avoidance which is to withdraw from stimulation. You can think of this as “leaning out” of a boring situation. 

Both approach and avoidance are useful to us but the key is to match them to the situation at hand. We can use approach by smiling at another person and engaging them in a conversation when bored and we can use avoidance to safely move away from a stranger in a dark alley. 

It turns out when we use approach and avoidance there are different patterns of activity happening within the brain. Approach is associated with more activity over the left frontal region of the brain (behind your forehead) compared to the right frontal region. Avoidance is the opposite, with less activity over the left frontal region compared to the right.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychophysiology, I worked with Dr. Elizabeth Weybright and Alana Anderson to test if people who don’t regularly experience boredom– those who are presumably good at dealing with boredom – also show more brain activity over the left frontal region of the brain relative to the right. If true, this would suggest the experience of boredom is associated with approach and avoidance.

Viewing Boredom Through the Lens of the Brain

In order to study boredom in the brain, we needed to first understand how frequently people get bored and then make them bored while looking at their brain activity.

To do this, we asked young adults to complete surveys about their experience of boredom in their everyday life. These surveys told us some people are more prone to experience boredom than others.

We then placed a cap with sensors on their head and obtained a baseline measure of their brain waves. After the baseline measure, we then measured their brain during a boring task.

In the boring task we asked people to complete a tedious, mundane activity called peg turning. Participants sat in front of a computer displaying virtual pegs. Their task was to turn each peg one-quarter turn at a time for about 10 minutes. Not surprisingly, people reported the task was very boring.

We expected people who frequently experience boredom would have different brain wave activity during baseline than those who infrequently experience boredom. To our surprise, this was not observed. This tells us there is nothing different about brain wave activity in people who frequently and infrequently experience boredom when doing the baseline task. However, the story is quite different when they are bored, such as during peg turning.

People who infrequently experience boredom in their daily life showed more and more activity over the left frontal region of the brain relative to the right. We think this is the use of approach to cope with boredom, which is an appropriate response for an uninteresting task such as peg turning.

Coping with Boredom 

Several participants in our study informally told us how they coped with boredom during the peg turning task. One participant reported singing Christmas songs to themselves. 

This anecdote is more significant than it might seem at first glance. Remember, engaging more activity over the left frontal brain activity is an indicator of increasing stimulation, or approach. This is exactly what people who infrequently experience boredom in their daily life do – they restructure their time into a more constructive activity.

So what does this mean if you are experiencing boredom? Restructure your experience. Create stimulation by engaging someone in a conversation, going on a walk, or picking up a book. You could even make a list of fun summer activities to do when you feel like you’ve run out of ideas. And over time, the brain can change. People can learn to better cope with boredom in a healthy fashion.

About the Authors

Sammy Perone is faculty in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University and specializes in developmental neuroscience. 

Elizabeth Weybright is faculty in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University and an expert in leisure studies.

References

Perone, S,  Weybright, EH,  Anderson, AJ.  Over and over again: Changes in frontal EEG asymmetry across a boring task. Psychophysiology. 2019; e13427. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13427

Vodanovich, S. J., & Watt, J. D. (2016). Self‐report measures of boredom: An updated review of the literature. Journal of Psychology150(2), 196228. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2015.1074531

Weybright, E. H., Caldwell, L. L., Ram, N., Smith, E. A., & Wegner, L. (2015). Boredom prone or nothing to do? Distinguishing between state and trait leisure boredom and its association with substance use in South African adolescents. Leisure Sciences37(4), 311–331. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2015.1014530 

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