Waiting in the doctor’s office, counting down the minutes until the school bell rings, listening to a particularly dull recount of last month’s earnings in the staff meeting.
It’s an experience that transcends international borders, socioeconomic status, race, religion or creed.
Humans the world over have likely experienced it at some point: boredom.
Now new research has found that the way people cope with or handle their boredom is important for their mental health. They found that the brains of those who are prone to boredom react differently than those who aren’t prone to being bored.
“Boredom is a part of everyone’s life, and we want to do research that can positively impact people. Almost nothing is known about boredom in the brain, but quite a bit is known about what types of brain activity is associated with more positive and more negative emotions. So we wanted to test whether people who infrequently experience boredom in their everyday life are better at managing a state of boredom. That is what we found,” Sammy Perone, author of the study and Washington State University assistant professor in the Department of Human Development, told Theravive.
In undertaking the research Perone and colleagues had to bore people.
To begin, the research gathered 54 people who filled out a survey then were fitted with a cap to measure their brain waves across 128 spots on the scalp.
The researchers first had to get a baseline screening of the participants before they could compare how bored they were. The survey asked about boredom and how participants normally react to it. They then measured the brain waves of the participants both with their eyes open and closed.
Then the boredom began.
The participants were asked to sit in front of a computer screen that displayed eight pegs. Each time a peg was highlighted, they had to click on it. Doing so would cause the peg to turn by a quarter, before another would highlight. This process took 10 minutes with 320 quarter turns of the pegs.
Perone describes the task as tedious, with participants of previous experiments saying it was the most boring of all tasks.
To analyse how bored people were, the researchers examined both the right frontal and left frontal areas of the brain. Each side becomes active for different reasons: on the left, activity is high when people are engaged or stimulated by thinking about other matters. On the right, activity is high when people are feeling anxious or experiencing negative emotions.
In the testing of baseline levels at the beginning of the experiment, there was no difference between the left and right side brain activity.
The researchers found those who responded to the survey saying they are more prone to boredom had more activity in the right frontal area when they were bored by the peg exercise.
“People who infrequently experience boredom in their everyday life showed more brain activity over the left frontal region as they experienced a state of boredom in the lab. This pattern of brain activity might be an indicator these individuals respond in a healthy, positive way to a negative emotional experience, such as boredom,” Perone said.
He says understanding boredom is important for mental health.
“We do not know exactly when too much boredom can be unhealthy. What we know is people who experience boredom often tend to also experience anxiety, depression, and are at risk to use substances,” he said.
If people can find positive ways to cope with boredom, they are less likely to experience negative outcomes due to their boredom.
During the experiment, one participant coped with boredom in a positive way by mentally rehearsing songs for a concert they had coming up. As they turned the pegs, they did so to the beat of the music. This kept them engaged and they coped better with the boring task.
Perone says there are many ways to turn a boring situation into something positive.
“Find something constructive to do. Flip the negative experience into something positive. Engage someone in a conversation, pick up a book, go on a walk, make a grocery list or list of things to do this summer,” he said.
This is something Perone and colleagues hope to study in further detail as they expand the research.
“The next step is to provide people tips for coping with boredom, such as those described above. We will then put them in a boring situation and test whether these tips do in fact lead them to engage more brain activity over the left frontal region.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.