The Power of Boredom

Listening to your wandering mind is far more important than you might think — in a world that constantly gives us something to do, the art of boredom is fast disappearing, and with it we may be losing a window of creative brilliance that we can’t access any other way.

In an article in Wired magazine titled “The Importance of Mind-Wandering,” Jonah Lehrer collects some fascinating research on the cognitive implications of the wandering mind. The two most fascinating points come from Dr. Jonathan Schooler’s lab at UCSB. Their studies discern between ‘default’ and ‘executive’ network regions in the brain, so that our ‘default’ state is our wandering mind, and our ‘executive’ network region is the part of your brain that is cognitively aware. Schooler’s lab found that surprisingly, the two could work together when distracted:

The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions—two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition—suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.

As Lehrer puts it, mind-wandering might not be as mindless as we previously thought. What’s really fascinating, though, is what the lab discovered concerning a subject’s meta-awareness of their own day-dreaming. Neural activity in both regions was much higher when the subject was unaware of their own mind-wandering, however, people who didn’t catch themselves day-dreaming scored much lower on creativity tests. In other words, tapping into your wandering mind on purpose is key to creativity, but there may be a whole world of creative energy buried in our subconscious.

In a lecture on media’s impact on society, Dr. Michael Rich, The Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at The Children’s Hospital Boston, told a story of how Einstein discovered the equation that made him famous. Einstein’s first job was as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland, and he was so bored with his job that he spent his daily commute through the city contemplating his boredom. It was on one of these walks that he discovered the theory of relativity. As the Health Resource Network puts it, “He did have a curious mind… and he wasn’t afraid to think differently than other people around him believed.” Dr. Rich lamented in his lecture the rapidly deteriorating time that a child spends being bored as they grow up. With so many media-rich distractions at their disposal, children spend much less time enduring the boredom that defined the cognitive growth of previous generations.

Ultimately, there’s a strong case for getting distracted every once in a while. In an article in Vogue a few years back, an artist whose name I can’t recall made a powerful suggestion: “Always leave time to do nothing.”

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