The actual reality of boredom

No matter how many times you wrote about the incredible passion you have for your subject in your personal statement, you will have experienced mind-crushing boredom at one stage or another at Oxford. Whether your mind is drifting away in a lecture, in a tutorial, or when writing a Cherwell article, boredom is a pervasive aspect of everyday life. So pervasive in fact, that we rarely question why we even feel it. 

Even if you don’t know why you get bored, you’ll certainly know when you get bored. An overwhelming lack of interest in your surroundings and difficulty in concentrating on tasks leads to the sensation of your mind ‘slipping away’, unable to focus on anything in particular. Boredom is typically viewed as an emotion you feel when you have nothing to do. Psychologist John Eastwood, after interviewing hundreds of people on how they experience boredom, defined boredom as having the desire to be stimulated, but being unable to pay attention to the task at hand or to your environment. 

This has obvious repercussions in education, as anyone in the midst of an essay crisis can confirm. Being bored prevents effective learning, given that not only do you do less work overall, but the little work that is completed will have been done when highly distracted. Hence prolonged boredom is often inversely related to learning. If a task is predictable or a student easily understands the material, this can be as damaging to effective learning as a difficult task. In both situations the student will be unable to be stimulated because the task is either repetitive or routine, or they cannot apply themselves to it. 

A study conducted in 1989 by Damrad- Frye and Laird reflects this, where volunteers conducted a task while noise played in the background. The louder the noises were, the more distracting they were because the volunteers could not pay as much attention to the task. The louder the noise, the more bored the volunteers reported feeling, and interestingly the task associated with the loud noise was less pleasant. It seems that even if inattention results from an external source unrelated to the task, the task is still perceived to be less interesting. 

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This underpins the function of boredom. Emotions have developed for the same reason that other mental processes such as memory have – they help us survive and reproduce. Fear helps us avoid danger, while disgust helps us avoid infection and disease. 

In the same way, boredom encourages us to seek stimulation. Whether that stimulation comes internally and so drives more creative ways of thinking, or comes externally, motivating exploration of your environment, boredom is very beneficial. This desire for stimulation is so strong that a team of researchers led by Timothy Wilson reported that participants left in a room for up to 15 minutes, with nothing to do except think, said they actually preferred to give themselves a painful electric shock rather than do nothing. 

But as with every emotion, excess is damaging. Proneness to boredom is just as damaging as inappropriate anger, being linked to tendencies to engage in harmful activities such as smoking, alcohol, drugs, and even comfort-eating. Indeed, a study conducted in South Africa found that the biggest factor influencing drug use was boredom, while a study investigating the health of over 18,000 British civil servants found that those who were most likely to get bored were around 30 per cent more likely to have died over the period of the study. 

A tendency to be bored also makes your everyday life just that bit more difficult, with silly mistakes like pouring orange juice into your tea instead of milk more frequently made by bored people. 

Boredom may not be the most glamorous of emotions, but without it mankind would not be as driven to create and explore. This causes problems in the modern world, where education and the workplace demand a fair amount of repetitive activity. Whether this consists of simple rote learning of course material or completing paperwork every working day, it is not in any sense stimulating. 

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Although I would recommend against claiming to your tutor that your innate desire for stimulation prevented you from learning your notes for the tutorial, recognising the cause of boredom means you can take steps to avoid it, or evenutilise it.