About a week ago the Manhattan-bound bus I was on broke down in rush hour traffic. I had been daydreaming most of the way, and now I had to take out my phone and say I'd be at least an hour late. The text went out and the phone went back in my pack.
'Why is it our Universe has three dimensions .. well, three spatial and this crazy one we call time that sets everything in motion?' One of those fundamental questions that is almost too basic to address, but it reminded me of a problem. I was about fifteen and Kip was trying to get me to think about spaces and objects with dimensions greater than three. He asked where the volume was concentrated on a hypersphere with five dimensions and one with a hundred. I couldn't solve it and somehow remembered it. Suddenly the answer came out of the blue. Like so many things it seemed so easy in retrospect. It led me to think about something I had never thought about - after all, the alternative was sitting on the bus and getting bored.1
More than an hour had passed when the rescue bus came. Everyone else seemed to be occupied with their smartphones or laptops. It turns out I'm reasonably self-entertaining and quickly got lost in thought again. By the time I walked out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal it was too late for the meeting and there were two hours to kill before meeting a friend for a walk (the real excuse for the trip). I ordered a bagel in a coffee shop and took out a notepad and pencil. It could have been that problem or a hundred other things.
I was lucky enough to have been bored more often than I'd admit at the time. I was also lucky enough to have ways to deal with it and the desire to do so. Sometimes boredom was coupled with procrastination. (I think some procrastination can be a good thing, but that's another subject). In high school homework would pile up. I had free time and I'd start feeling guilty. If I wasn't up against a deadline sometimes it would push me to building something, draw, ride my bike or just daydream. My father was demanding about chores, but both of my parents gave my sister and I enormous freedom to manage our spare time - probably because they were too busy with making ends meet and keeping up the house. There wasn't a lot of spare money, but somehow money for projects always turned up.2 We had learned to turn our boredom into play.
The desire for desires
That's how Tolstoy defined boredom in Anna Karenina. Researchers are learning that's how our brains work. When we get bored, it's looking for novelty. It appears to be such a strong drive that it can reward us with a dopamine hit.. That can be a problem. When you are in FOMO mode looking at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or... you get a little dopamine burst when you find something new. You move to the next novelty (which is usually really inane) and get another. We can become numb to the dopamine response so, like a lab rat pushing a lever, we keep going. Not everyone is equally susceptible, but for some it's a computer mediated addiction.
Perhaps more important is you're always being entertained these days. It's an easy escape from some types of boredom and can keeps you from the type of creativity that is now being associated with boredom. There may be some interesting bottom lines - particularly for kids as they're developing their neural wiring - how much passive FOMO behavior is reasonable. Some have called social media the 21st century tobacco - time will tell, but that may be accurate.
Researchers speak of four or five types of boredom. Early stages can be healthy leading to daydreaming and creative dot connecting while others can be toxic. A continued state of boredom with no outlets can lead to depression, drug addiction and even violence. In the past few years Iceland has embarked on a major program to fight juvenile drug addiction and alcoholism by making it easy for kids to find other paths. It isn't inexpensive, but they appear to be making real progress and the alternative is unacceptable.
It's fascinating that reactions to boredom are cultural. Japan, China and the US link boredom with not having enough to do and admitting that you're frequently bored is taken as a bad sign. It's apparently different in France where it is seen as social commentary and an excuse to shift what you're doing.
Only recently has boredom become an area of active research. It will be interesting to see how attitudes and perhaps the nature of work and study change as we learn what it really is and how it works. Maybe more of us will have quiet places and times and the learned ability to let our minds satisfy that desire connect. Or perhaps not .. maybe Facebook, Google and the others will have managed capture our attention and reduce creativity.
So many open questions.
1 I won't go into detail unless anyone's interested. The second item was how spikey (is that a word?) are hypercubes. It turns out to be not a difficult problem if you know how to compute the volume of a hypersphere for any positive dimension. There is real pleasure learning about things so foreign we can only know them by their shards and shadows.
2 From the eighth grade on there would always be a check for forty-two dollars in my Christmas stocking with "experiments" written in the comment line. That was a large sum back then. It was before Douglas Adams let us know why forty two was important. He must have liked the number for some reason.