How neuroscience could provide the answer to beating boredom
Boredom is as universal a human state as happiness or sadness, but the degree to which it is triggered in different individuals is incredibly subjective. A fascinating new study from researchers at Washington State University, looking at brainwave activity in bored subjects, has found boredom is heightened by a lack of left frontal brain activity.
"Everybody experiences boredom," says Sammy Perone, corresponding author on the new study. "But some people experience it a lot, which is unhealthy. So, we wanted to look at how to deal with it effectively."
The first step for the researchers was to track down the most boring task possible so the subsequent experiments could most efficiently induce boredom. Luckily, prior research had already homed in on the ideal task to induce boredom. It is called a peg turning task, and it involves subjects laboriously clicking on circles to turn pegs slowly in 360 degree circles. The task takes around 10 minutes, and it has been found to effectively induce boredom without explicitly eliciting other emotions.
"I've never done it, it's really tedious," adds Perone. "But in researching previous experiments, this was rated as the most boring task tested. That's what we needed."
The study followed 54 participants who were fitted with an EEG cap that could track brainwave activity while they performed the boredom induction task. Before the task, the subjects were tracked for baseline brain activity to identify whether an initial brainwave pattern could indicate certain brains were more primed for boredom than others.
The researchers were primarily looking at the differences in activity between the right frontal and left frontal brain regions. Generally, we know that higher left-frontal brain activity is associated with a more positive disposition and greater approach-orientated behaviors. So, the first hypothesis to be tested in the research was to examine whether those subjects who self-report as most prone to boredom displayed any particular difference in baseline brainwave activity compared to those less likely to experience boredom.
Importantly, the researchers discovered absolutely no difference in baseline brainwaves between all the subjects prior to the boredom induction task. This suggests that brains are not primed for boredom, but rather boredom is a response to external stimulus, and it could hypothetically be avoided.
"Previously, we thought people who react more negatively to boredom would have specific brain waves prior to being bored," says Perone. "But in our baseline tests, we couldn't differentiate the brain waves. It was only when they were in a state of boredom that the difference surfaced."
Once the boredom task began two different brainwave patterns appeared. Those who claimed to experience boredom the least displayed an increase in left-frontal brain activity, while those who suffered from the highest levels of boredom displayed greater right-frontal brain activity. The increase in left-frontal brain activity in those subjects least prone to boredom suggests these individuals engage with boring experiences by utilizing the freed-up mental space positively.
"We had one person in the experiment who reported mentally rehearsing Christmas songs for an upcoming concert," explains Perone. "They did the peg turning exercise to the beat of the music in their head. Doing things that keep you engaged rather than focusing on how bored you are is really helpful."
The researchers have more on their minds with this study than just academic curiosity. Prior study has revealed individuals with higher susceptibilities to boredom are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and even drug abuse. So discovering ways to prompt greater left-frontal brain activity could have greater beneficial effects than just merely making a person feel less bored in day-to-day life.
One hypothesis suggests teaching children and adolescents how to better approach boredom could offer a kind of brain training that results in beneficial mental health outcomes in older age. Perone says the next stage of the research will be to explore methods that prompt greater left-frontal brain activity in persons exposed to boring tasks.
"Now we want to find out the best tools we can give people to cope positively with being bored," says Perone. "So, we'll still do the peg activity, but we'll give them something to think about while they're doing it. It's really important to have a connection between the lab and the real world. If we can help people cope with boredom better, that can have a real, positive mental health impact."
The new study was published in the journal Psychophysiology.
Source: Washington State University