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02 October 2012

The root cause of boredom

Researchers have come up with a new, precise definition of boredom based on the mental processes that underlie the condition.

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This gives new meaning to the complaint “I’m bored” — literally. Canadian researchers — including a professor from the University of Guelph — have come up with a new, precise definition of boredom based on the mental processes that underlie the condition.

Although many people may see boredom as trivial and temporary, it actually is linked to a range of psychological, social and health problems, says Guelph psychology professor Mark Fenske. He’s among authors of a new study in Perspectives on Psychological Science, published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Boredom at work can lead to serious accidents on the job. It’s also linked to impulse control, causing everything from overeating to alcohol abuse — and even to mortality (think “bored to death”).

“It’s an amazingly understudied area given how universal the experience is,” Fenske said. “The fact that it’s difficult to define is, in part, why there has been so little research done. We need to have a common definition, something we all can agree on, of what boredom is.”

What fuels boredom

A scientific definition is needed not only to accommodate the different characteristics of boredom that have already been established but also to bridge across a variety of theoretical perspectives, Fenske added.

The researchers, led by York University professor John Eastwood, set out to better understand the mental processes that fuel feelings of boredom.

They found that attention and awareness are keys to the aimless state. After reviewing existing psychological science and neuroscience studies, they defined boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

In other words, you become bored when:

• you have difficulty paying attention to the internal information, such as thoughts or feelings, or outside stimuli required to take part in satisfying activity;

• you are aware that you’re having difficulty paying attention; and

• you blame the environment for your sorry state (“This task is boring”; “There is nothing to do”).

“At the heart of it is our desire to engage with the world or some other mental activity, and that takes attention,” Fenske said. “When we cannot do this —that seems to be what leads to frustration and the aversive state we call ‘boredom.’”

The researchers hope their new definition and theoretical framework stimulate new research to help us better understand boredom and how to ease it and otherwise address its potential dangers.

Fenske joined U of G in 2007. In 2010, he published The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, co-written with Harvard Medical School psychologist Jeff Brown. This new work also involved Alexandra Frischen, a former post-doctoral researcher of Fenske’s, and Daniel Smilek of the University of Waterloo.

What tasks do you find the most boring? E-mail us at community@health24.com

(EurekAlert, October 2012)

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