by Rachel Silverman
In John Eastwood’s subterranean lab at York University in Ontario, Canada, young adults sit watching video clips: They are part of a test to see just how deeply bored they can get.
Dr. Eastwood, a Canadian psychology professor, is one of a growing number of researchers in what is becoming an exciting field of inquiry: boredom studies. The young adults in his lab watch dry instructional videos all in an effort to help researchers understand how we experience boredom, what causes it, and eventually, how to relieve it.
Boredom researchers are used to the jokes, but they contend that theirs is a fascinating field. For one thing, boredom has serious consequences for health and productivity, they say, linked to depression, overeating, substance abuse, gambling and even mortality—people may, indirectly, be “bored to death.” One 2010 study found that the boredom-prone are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease than their more-engaged brethren.
With the debut of new academic papers and symposia on boredom in the workplace and cross-cultural experiences of inactivity and boredom, there is a boomlet in boredom studies. November marked the third annual Boring Conference in East London, where speakers delivered PowerPoint presentations on such topics as toast—yes, toast—and a discontinued portable keyboard, to a sold-out audience of about 500 rapt attendees.
From a scholarly perspective, “boredom is a gold mine,” says Mark Fenske, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
To define and measure boredom, Dr. Eastwood and other researchers simulate extremely dull conditions in the laboratory for participants, typically college students. A blend of repetitive tasks and time-stretching delays usually does the trick, bringing on the condition of what Dr. Eastwood jokingly describes as “super-boredom.”
Researchers rely on several tried-and-true techniques to bore study subjects. Among them: Counting the appearance of a certain letter in a long list of bibliographic references; tracing circles over and over again; having subjects wait for longer than they expected before beginning a task, while remaining seated; or watching particularly dull videos, such as a 25-minute video on learning English as a second language.
One scientific paper fairly raves, calling the clip “monotonous, well below participants’ skill level…highly understimulating.”
Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychology professor and boredom researcher at the University of Limerick in Ireland, says that he has bored students in the lab by having them watch an educational film about setting up a fish farm, including scenes with fish tanks and nets and “a very monotone voice-over,” he says. Participants “do not find this particularly exciting.”
While such research is done in a number of countries, Canada seems to be a hotbed of boredom studies. James Danckert, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, recently conducted a study to compare the physiological effects of boredom and sadness.
To induce sadness in the lab, he used video clips from the 1979 tear-jerker, “The Champ,” a widely accepted practice among psychologists.
But finding a clip to induce boredom was a trickier task. Dr. Danckert first tried a YouTube video of a man mowing a lawn, but subjects found it funny, not boring. A clip of parliamentary proceedings was too risky. “There’s always the off chance you get someone who is interested in that,” he says.
Finally, a colleague shot her own video of family members hanging laundry and asking for clothespins. The nearly four-minute clip turned out to be just dull enough, Dr. Danckert says.
To better research the condition, Dr. Eastwood and colleagues developed a standard measure of boredom levels that asks participants to respond to statements such as “I wish time would go by faster,” “Everything seems repetitive and routine to me,” along with “I feel like I’m sitting around waiting for something to happen.”
Neurologically, scientists are still working to understand boredom’s effects on the brain, but they theorize that the state involves a failure in the neural networks that control attention.
In another recent paper, Dr. Eastwood and two colleagues set out to write the ultimate scientific definition of boredom, culling through decades of research papers to assemble a description of the phenomenon. Their definition describes an unpleasant state of “wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” caused by problems with the brain’s ability to pay attention.
Bored people typically blame their environment, not themselves, for the state, thinking “this task is boring” or “there is nothing to do,” the paper found.
Australian anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash says that people experience boredom differently across cultures. She spent nearly three years studying boredom among the Warlpiri people, an aboriginal group in the central Australian settlement of Yuendumu.
Unlike most Americans, the Warlpiri spent virtually no time alone, so they felt boredom as a group. “Nobody would say ‘I am bored.’ They would say ‘It is boring,’ ” Dr. Musharbash says.
Smartphones and digital devices may also change the way people feel boredom, researchers say. Mobile devices offer entertainment with a single touch, but researchers speculate that may leave some feeling even more bored when they aren’t plugged in. Resorting to “Angry Birds” and other passive entertainment prevent people from actually engaging with others or with their surroundings, which are more proven ways to keep boredom at bay, Dr. Eastwood says.
Connecting a dull activity (scoring tests, say) to a meaningful purpose (determining scientific results) can help maintain attentiveness. And physical activity, such as going for a walk or even fidgeting and doodling, can keep people engaged, researchers say.
Even boredom researchers fall prey to the occupational hazards of their jobs. Some of their work, like data entry, is tough to make stimulating for even the most keen boredom scholar. But Dr. Musharbash, the anthropologist, says her work has helped her pep up potentially dull situations in her own life.
She turns tedium into academic opportunity while waiting in long lines at the bank or the market. “I watch how exactly everyone else is bored,” she says.