Inside a Bored Brain: Understanding the Process

27.01.2020 |

Episode #3 of the course Understanding and dealing with boredom by Sonia Chauhan


Each human emotion has a latent purpose. Crying means you’re in pain. A growling tummy signals hunger. What’s the point of boredom?


An Interesting Experiment

In 2014, the English researcher and author of The Upside of Downtime, Sandi Mann, conducted a fun experiment. She divided her subjects into two groups and asked them to come up with alternative ways to use two paper cups. This is a classic creativity test that’s been applied by psychologists for decades.

However, Mann tweaked the test a bit.

She made one of the groups undertake a boring task (copying phone numbers for 20 minutes) before they took the test. She found that the group that completed the boring task before the test came up with more uses for the cups, and their answers were much more creative than the other group (the ones that didn’t do the boring task beforehand).

Then, she took the test up a notch. She inserted another group into the picture and made them do an even more boring task: reading the phone book for 20 minutes.

The result?

The new group with the most boring task outscored both groups and came up with really creative uses for the pair of cups.

Boredom has a purpose. It’s just usually too dormant to pick out and hold up for examination.


Focused or Bored

When the brain is working on a task, its “executive attention network” is engaged. This is the part of your brain that allows you to concentrate on a problem in real time. However, when the brain isn’t focused on a definite task, the attention network becomes disengaged.

The brain starts meandering aimlessly and the subconscious takes over. The brain slips from the conscious to the subconscious. During this time, something known as the “default mode network” of the brain is activated.

An interesting thing to note here is that the brain still uses 95% of the energy that it uses while working on a hardcore problem that requires active work. So, what is the brain doing when there is not a stimulus to respond to?


When Your Brain Is Bored

Research shows that the regions of the brain active during its default mode network are the areas responsible for the following:

You recollect. An unfocused mind indulges in reflection. You begin regurgitating and reminiscing on past memories. For example, you go over a past argument and probably come up with a fresh perspective.

You reflect. You ponder over your past or present emotional states and your general sense of self. Boredom allows you the time to indulge in self-reflection, which can lead to a coherent identity. Along with this, your brain thinks of others and their lives, thoughts, and emotions and how you relate to them or think of their actions. In a way, boredom sorts through your thoughts and emotions to clear the air and make sense of your experiences.

You restore. If we weren’t wired to be bored, we’d be perpetually excited or focused. How do you think that would be? If every single thing that excited us kept us excited forever? We’d probably burst a nerve out of exhaustion. Boredom, then, serves the purpose of giving the brain a breather, to disengage from focusing all the time by slipping into lucid transient musings.

You create. Since there is no stimulus, your thoughts are not mere responses to a situation or a problem. At rest, your brain starts creating pure thoughts. You could call it imagination, illumination, or insight. You come up with projects, new hobbies, or all sorts of random ideas. For me, many story ideas come to me when I am driving.

You (could) desecrate. Unfortunately, this also means that you could dive into negativity and start raking up painful yet insolvable problems of life,and make yourself miserable. Many times, self-talk is negative, thanks to biases hard-wired into us.


Key Notes

Boredom has an evolutionary purpose. It may not be as discernible as stiff muscles or stomach ulcers, but our brain is affecting important human tasks while we’re bored. Ultimately, that’s what makes us more wholesome and in some ways, even more unique.

Here is a fascinating detailed read on this subject.

In the next lesson, I will outline philosophy’s approach to boredom.


Recommended book

Now Is the Way: An Unconventional Approach to Modern Mindfulness by Cory Allen


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