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How Being Bored Out of Your Mind Makes You More Creative

26 January 2017

From Wired:

“I’m dying of boredom,” complains the young wife, Yelena, in Chekhov’s 1897 play Uncle Vanya. “I don’t know what to do.” Of course, if Yelena were around today, we know how she’d alleviate her boredom: She’d pull out her smartphone and find something diverting, like BuzzFeed or Twitter or Clash of Clans. If you have a planet’s worth of entertainment in your pocket, it’s easy to stave off ennui.

Unless it turns out ennui is good for us. What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity?

That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. In one, researchers asked a group of subjects to do something boring, like copying out numbers from a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking, such as devising uses for a pair of cups. The result? Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an “associative thought” word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver.

Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation. Maybe traversing an expanse of tedium creates a sort of cognitive forward motion. “Boredom becomes a seeking state,” says Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench. “What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged.”

Link to the rest at Wired


16 Comments to “How Being Bored Out of Your Mind Makes You More Creative”

  1. I remember when I decided to actually START writing. Not for profit or to sell (I was 13 and horrible and wouldn’t have sold anyways), but to get stories out of my head and to learn. We lived twenty miles out of town and there was only one road connecting us to anywhere. On year, avalanches kept us stuck at the house for nearly two weeks. We didn’t have power for most of it. We shoveled, hauled wood for the stove, and filled the bathtub and every bucket we had with water. And when we’d done all that, I sat near a table or a window with a notebook and a pen and I wrote. And wrote. And one way or another, the stories have been spilling out of me ever since.

    Some people, yes, will take boredom and turn it into creativity. I happen to be one of them. Not everyone is, and that’s ok too. Takes all kinds. 🙂

  2. I guess I can thank the public school system for keeping me sufficiently bored for years on end…

    • I never went to school, from 5th grade on up, without half a dozen paperbacks in my pack, to get me through the day. I read just about all the SFF in print until 1971 that way.

      • Yep–paperbacks and a notebook and I was set. I wrote my first novel during classes in the tenth grade…

        • It was a private school, and I had a deal with my teachers. They’d let me read quietly (I always got A’s) and I wouldn’t disrupt the class with sarcastic comments on bad logic and shallow knowledge.

          Worked for both of us.

          • You had awesome teachers!
            I couldn’t always get away with reading, but scribbling in a notebook looked like note-taking and homework-doing, so it worked out quite well.

          • @ Karen

            I wouldn’t disrupt the class with sarcastic comments on bad logic and shallow knowledge.

            That must have been hard to adhere to at times! 🙂

  3. I think boredom leads to creativity only if it’s paired with some — however boring — activity. When Chekhov’s Yelena says she’s dying of boredom, all she does is wander about “staggering from idleness.” This idle boredom’s deadly.

    In the described experiments the subjects weren’t idle. While they worked on a boring task, their minds got a good rest. When the next task required thinking, they were ready.

    “We shoveled, hauled wood for the stove, and filled the bathtub and every bucket we had with water” — far from being idle. (What a story by the way — thank you for sharing.)

    In his notes Tolstoy writes about physical labor/activity, how important it is to let your body work, and your mind rest (when it’s truly tired, not just lazy.) One of the recommended activities — hunting (completely devoid of emotion or thought according to Tolstoy, and hence great for recharging the tired mind)–might not be for everyone, though 🙂

    • This.

      I could bang away pages of my current in-work taking a break off work (and not be able to get word one down with a whole ‘free’ weekend to do it in.)

  4. I get my best plotting done in the shower, washing dishes, doing mundane tasks that don’t take much brainpower. I have always loved “busy work” such as filing. I find it relaxing. And my brain finds it a great time to figure out how to move that tough scene forward.

    Long drives do the same thing. Turn off the music and let your creative mind engage.

  5. For me, it’s not so much boredom as it is the right level of distraction, and physical movement seems to be a key ingredient. I come up with a lot of stuff biking to and from work, for instance. The rhythm and effort of the pedaling is perfect for forcing my brain to get out of its own way. And walking is a close second.

    • Agreed – a brisk walk or jog are the most reliable tools for bringing out creative thoughts in myself as well.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      I dictate on my drive to and from work. Sometimes as much as 5,000 words or more in a day. One of those 5,000 word days I transcribed almost verbatim, and it has been reprinted 14 times in 7 languages. Distracting the mind, getting out of its way, seems very effective to me.

    • Immanuel Kant once said, ‘The feet are the wheels of thought.’ It may be one of the few times he said something that was both intelligible and right.

  6. I’ve just been reading neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s new book, “The Organized Mind” and he discusses how there are two distinct neural networks in the brain related to this topic. One he calls the “mind wandering network” which is self explanatory. The other is the “focusing” network (he has another name for it which I’ve forgotten) which is used for concentrating on tasks like homework, map reading, work projects etc. The observation is that when the focusing network isn’t stimulated enough the mind wandering network kicks into gear with, at times, creative results.

  7. Well, being bored didn’t work out too well for actor George Sanders! 🙁

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