16 December 2011

The Necessity of Boredom

No one likes to be bored — indeed, boredom so deeply invades the mind-body system that bored children sometimes feel queasy or lethargic, or complain of headaches. But the occurrence of boredom in young minds would be a welcome sign in one respect — it would suggest the presence of available resources for thought, reflection, and civil behavior. By extension, there is a relationship between the elimination of opportunities for boredom and the rise of incivility. While boredom is hardly something to strive for, its presence confirms the existence of brief gaps in the continuous stimulation that dominates the thinking cycle of many kids. These pauses enable thought and reason to infuse action; they are boredom’s natural habitat, and the genesis of civil behavior. It is only during moments of relative calm that young minds learn to bind empathy to action, and the development of thoughtful behaviors we associate with civility.

I read someplace that the brain needs some boredom during the day to process thoughts and generate creativity. That sounds right. My best ideas always bubble up when I'm bored. And my period of greatest creative output was during my corporate years when every meeting felt like a play date for coma patients.
So what would happen if everyone in the world stopped being bored? You might be there already. I know I am. If I have access to my phone, or my computer, I'm never bored. If I'm watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I'm standing in line at the store, I can check email or play Angry Birds. When I work out, I listen to my iPod. I wake up in the morning and walk straight to my iPad to browse the headlines while my coffee is brewing. The last thing I do before shutting my eyes at night is browse the news again on my phone.
As recently as a year ago I would drive my car in silence and cook up all sorts of ideas on the go. Now I have satellite radio and can always find some auditory diversion. The only reliable place to be bored these days is in the shower.

The modern mind is constantly bombarded by distractions. Communication media has overtaken communication. Quiet reflection is boredom. Stimulation has become boredom. Go to any gathering and you will find groups of people not talking, but instead scrolling across virtual worlds, social media, and electronic communication via their smart phones. They ignore the flesh and blood people in front of them for the streaming electron people miles away. Were Hesse to write Siddhartha today, enlightenment would not come in solitude while only listening to the sound of a babbling stream, but in response to the droning of engines,  the booming of stereos, and the dissonance of overlapping conversations.
The problem extends beyond civility, though. This constant barrage of stimulation, of light and sound and communication, blinds us to the actual world around us. It isolates us and renders us a world of islands. We are no longer bound to our neighbors nor are we concerned with their plight, other than in some abstract sense. We are bound to ourselves and our immediate clan. Meanwhile, the elites exploit our abstract empathy and incivility to further entrench their own power. The elites wave a wand and offer us a pretty illusion. We respond with a cursory glance and return to our stimulation. “Whoso draws near unwarned and hears the Sirens’ voices, by him no wife nor little child shall ever stand, glad at his coming home; for the Sirens cast a spell of penetrating song, sitting within a meadow.”

My take:

I usually write while listening to music.  I love music, of all genres and types (except country and metal), and it has been a background to my life since I started college.  I would write, study, and read while listening to music.  I’d even listen to music as I prepared to drift off to sleep.  Then, from the end of November through the first week of December, I decided to read and write in silence, and to go to sleep without listening to anything on my Zune.

My writing output increased dramatically, and I become more efficient and focused when writing.  I also spent a lot more time in deep contemplation at night, which helped me to focus more on writing.  I ended starting a decent number of side projects during this time.  In all, I was better able to focus and I was also better equipped to think clearly.

In essence, boredom worked.  I had time to be free from distractions, to concentrate on my thoughts, and not be bombarded by the cacophony of music I keep readily available.  It is, from my own experience, quite beneficial to have time to let my mind wander.  Before I ran this experiment, the only time I ever had for letting my mind wander was when I was showering or doing mindless repetitive tasks.  Now I know that it’s best to dedicate some time to simply thinking.

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