Can boredom really stimulate creativity?

Can boredom really stimulate creativity?


As I wrote briefly last week, I was fascinated by a concept I discovered recently in an in-flight magazine: that boredom and creativity may be connected. In fact, I had long considered boredom to be quite a sorry state, the sign of a lazy mind, and a condition to be avoided.


With my new perspective—that boredom may be a indeed have a positive effect by stimulating our thinking—I did a few searches for quotes and thoughts on the subject. And, it turns out that boredom has long been an under-appreciated emotional state, one that gets almost universal bad press, not only today but also through the ages. For example, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.” According to American literary icon Susan Sontag, “Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” And, French existentialist Albert Camus observes: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”


Traditional research, as well, has focused on boredom’s negative effects on the individual. For example, people who are easily bored are more likely to be depressed or anxious, or to suffer from a variety of addictions and personality disorders. Until recently, though, few studies have distinguished between two different types of boredom: chronic boredom—a serious condition which may have medical, biochemical or hormonal causes—and situational boredom, the type we have all experienced when we wait in a queue, or when a meeting drags on too long. Obviously, it is situational boredom that may have a positive impact on us.


Despite boredom’s bad reputation, various experiments have now shown that people are more creative when their minds are free to wander than when they are fully occupied with tasks. In one example, two professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara repeatedly separated their students into groups, some of which were given tasks that keep them fully engaged in problem-solving while others were given boring tasks that allowed their minds to wander. When a second test was administered—one where the participants were asked to find as many uses as possible for a finite set of objects—the groups that had been “bored” in the first stage scored consistently, and dramatically, higher in the second exercise. The professors’ conclusion after extensive study: student creativity nearly doubled after only 12 minutes of idleness and daydreaming.


Today, scientists have identified a neural network they now call the “default network”, which is only switched on when we are not preoccupied with something else—in other words, when we are bored. Researchers expected the bored brain to appear inactive, and in fact the opposite is true. Apparently, when we daydream absentmindedly, the brain engages in a multitude of energy exchanges between its various parts.  


One theory to explain the reason for all this inward-focused mental activity is that the “inactive” brain will prepare itself for new challenges by making connections between ideas that are seemingly unrelated. Freed from the need to respond to outside stimulus, the mind does not shut down. It explores itself and finds new links.


This all leads to a troubling question about today’s world: If being bored is so beneficial to the brain, should we not be more concerned about our tendency to be constantly engaged with technology?


As Scott Adams notes [see the previous post], we eliminate boredom from our lives by fast-forwarding through the commercials, playing Angry Birds on our phones when we wait in line at the market, and listening to our iPods when we exercise. In this world where we expect to be constantly engaged in something, to be entertained, connected and tuned in at all times, boredom becomes increasingly uncomfortable. We reach for the television, the iPad, the computer, or the smart phone whenever we find ourselves with “nothing to do”.


The problem? In our world, when we feel bored, we no longer rely on our own resources and our own minds. We reach quickly for a technology solution. So now I wonder: Are the “always on” devices that make modern life so convenient not simultaneously diminishing our ability to come up with new ideas?


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