+ Boredom is Central to Creativity: Study

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A study in the Cambridge Journal of Education reviews decades of research and theory on boredom, and concludes that it’s time boredom be recognized “as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity.” The researchers are Teresa Belton and Esther Priadharshini of East Anglia University in England.

Some experts say people tune things out for good reasons; over time, boredom becomes a tool for sorting information.  Various fields of research suggest that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that are every bit as productive and creative as they are disruptive.

An article by Benedict Carey in the NY Times relates that psychologists most often have studied boredom using a 28-item questionnaire that asks people to rate how closely a list of sentences applies to them: for example, “Time always seems to be passing slowly.” 

High scores on these tests tend to correlate with high scores on measures of depression and impulsivity.  But Steven J Vodanovich, a psychologist at the University of West Florida, says “It’s the difference between the sort of person who can look at a pool of mud and find something interesting, and someone who has a hard time getting absorbed in anything.”  It’s not clear which comes first: proneness to boredom, or the mood and behavior problems.

But boredom as a temporary state is another matter.  When the brain has concluded there is nothing new to learn (from a person, an event, or a paragraph, say) brain imaging techniques have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5% less energy in its resting “default” state, according to a professor of radiology at Washington University, Mark Mintun.

That slight reduction can make a big difference in terms of time perception: time seems to pass more slowly when the brain is idling.  Carey writes:

 Those stretched seconds are not the live-in-the-moment, meditative variety, either.  They are frustrated, restless moments.  That combination, psychologists argue, makes boredom a state that demands relief — if not from a catnap or a conversation, then from some mental game.

According to Dr Belton, “When the external and internal conditions are right, boredom offers a person the opportunity for a constructive response.”  Daydreaming, doodling, twirling your hair, folding notebook paper are semiconscious behaviors that would seem to belie boredom, but the mind may be busy solving a problem.

Experiments from the 1970’s showed that when participants tired of boring games they were given, they quickly began trying much more creative solutions — as if the boredom “had the power to exert pressure on individuals to stretch their inventive capacity,” says Dr Belton.

source: Benedict Carey’s article in Science Times on 8/8/08.  www.nytimes.com

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