How Not To Be Bored

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“Philosophers and scientists alike have found ways to describe boredom as an experience, from the ochlos of ancient Greeks to the unresolved conflicts of modern psychodynamic theory,” writes Maria Konnikova in the Boston Globe. “But when it comes to what actually triggers boredom, an answer has remained elusive. Boredom can occur in a perplexingly broad range of situations and seems to involve both our external environment and our inner resources.

Now, after an exhaustive survey of every study they could locate that mentioned boredom—over 100 are referenced in the final ­paper—a group of psychologists from York University in Canada has proposed an answer, essentially a new unified theory of boredom. In a new review paper published this fall in Perspectives on Psychological Science, cognitive psychologist John Eastwood and his team suggest all boredom may result from essentially the same thing: a conflict of attention, or attention misfocused in a way that disrupts our engagement. Sometimes the problem is that there is too much competing for our attention, sometimes too little. In all cases, they argue, boredom has as much to do with our inner response to our circumstances as to the circumstances themselves.
When a task is so simple that it doesn’t require focused attention, he argues, we often can’t find a suitable point of engagement: We’re not expending enough effort to maintain our focus on the activity at hand, and have no other suitable point of engagement to compensate. On the other hand, trying to process an overwhelming environment with a limited amount of attention can also make us feel bored. ‘When we are in a stimulation-intense environment,’ Eastwood said, ‘we are more likely to experience things as unsatisfying because our attention is being pulled in different directions.'” (Read more here.)
This has important implications for learning. It suggests that in order to avoid boredom and promote engagement, we must carefully calibrate the difficulty of the task we’re working on and the amount of stimulation in our environment. Too much challenge and stimulation, or too little, will lead us to tune out. But when the task is just hard enough, and there is just enough going on to stimulate our senses, we can work hard and well.

It’s another reminder of how important the learning situation is—how important it is to set up the right condition for our own or others’ learning. Letting the environment do some of the work of managing our mental state leaves us with more resources to devote to the task at hand.


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