Bret W. Lester


Boredom. I’m tempted to say that it’s unique to humans, then I picture a caged animal in a zoo and I think twice. But I think it’s safe to say that boredom is especially pronounced in humans. It afflicts us in a unique way.

It’s a signal. A signal that you’re off course; in need of a new mission; misdirected; out-of-whack.

Wild animals don’t really get bored, always preoccupied by the busywork of surviving. But humans solved the problem of survival long ago. Generally speaking, the average human is unconcerned with matters of physical survival. What a triumph! But it’s a double edged sword. Boredom always lies in wait. Such quotes as “idle hands are the devils playthings” come to mind. So to prevent them from raising hell, humans must be preoccupied by something and if not survival then what?

Well, as an example, when my older son gets bored he’s been known to relentlessly annoy his little brother just to make him shout “STOOOOOOP” with a frequency and tone finely tuned since infancy to get his parent’s attention and illicit their intervention, immediately! My older son does this just to alleviate his boredom which, curiously, he finds even more agonizing than the potential punishment from his parents for his role as the instigator.

Fortunately as humans mature they’re less likely to alleviate their boredom via “hell raising,” although some continue to do so into adulthood.

I’m reminded of something Joel Spolsky said in a discussion on the “anthropology of abusive users.” “You’ve got a bunch of people playing Chess, but certain people want to play ‘throw the chess pieces all over the park…’”

In other words, some have learned to channel their boredom through such sophisticated means as playing chess while others are more inclined to do it by playing with chess players. The hell raisers in this scenario are either too stupid to understand chess or too smart to find pleasure in trivial games. Either way they have something in common in how they choose to deal with boredom.

Consider a soldier. A soldier’s job is war fighting; the business of killing people. It’s famously said that “war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” And war fighters are not likely to deal with boredom by playing chess. So how do modern militaries deal with this problem? Drills. Endless drilling. It both occupies the soldiers and prepares them for action.

Boredom is an especially terrifying boogeyman to the parents of young children as evidenced by their tendency to aggressively extinguish all idle time with the firehose of after school activities and team sports. This is understandable because the only thing worse than experiencing boredom yourself is experiencing it through your children, exacerbated by the false expectation that parents are somehow in possession of a magical cure. In most cases, extracurricular activities are the perfect solution. But a schedule completely bereft of idle time leaves little opportunity for exploration. Boredom, while mentally agonizing, forces a kid to flex his creative muscles to alleviate it.

On the surface it seems boredom is a sinister force that has been inflicted upon humans to drive them crazy. But if you think about it rationally you start to se the evolutionary advantage of this chemical state in our brains called boredom.

You can think of it as a spur that drives progress. Why solve problems, invent, explore and discover if for nothing else than to alleviate boredom? Boredom is a symptom of an untethered mind. An untethered mind is the spark that ignites curiosity.


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