In Defense of Boredom

boredomFrom a 1995 Dartmouth College commencement address by Joseph Brodsky:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.

Jonah Lehrer adds his own thoughts

And yet, as Brodsky points out, boredom can be a crucial mental tool. In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we’re not preoccupied with something in our external environment. (That’s another way of saying we’re bored. Perhaps we’re staring out a train window, or driving our car along a familiar route, or reading a tedious text.) At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn’t what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel. In particular, there seems to be an elaborate electrical conversation between the front and rear parts of the mind, as the medial prefrontal cortex fires in sync with areas like the posterior cingulate and precuneus.

What’s the point of all this activity? Why are the disparate parts of the cortex talking to each other? One likely answer is that brain is busy generating new connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Instead of responding to the outside world, the cortex starts to explore its inner database, as it starts to think in a more relaxed manner.

It is difficult to embrace that tedium, the ennui of the soul.  I find I get restless and start pacing, looking for things to do.  I will say that cutting out cable television allows me the chance to focus on the entertainment I like and provide time for other activities like reading, or putzing around.

I’m a great putzer and could do so for several hours a day, mostly because there is nothing so pleasurable as letting the mind wander to places it’s never been before.

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