The Brain Benefits of Boredom


I sit on the lounge, staring out the window, fighting the urge to not pick up my phone again. I’ve been on holidays for less than a week, and I find myself thinking…”I’m bored”. This is a strange sensation. It feels oddly familiar but simultaneously foreign, like a sense of deja vu felt upon returning to a place I haven’t visited since childhood. I can identify that I’m bored, but I don’t know what to do with it.

At a loss, I succumb to the urge to pick up my phone and mindlessly scroll through the newsfeeds that are designed to keep my attention endlessly captured. I gain nothing of any value from my scrolling, just more celebrity gossip that I don’t really care about and memes that make me laugh for a brief moment. I’ll share them with friends so they can laugh for a second too, temporarily escaping from their own blackhole of boredom-avoidance. At the end of the day, all I’ve achieved is avoiding boredom. And that does feel like an achievement…but is it, really?

A few days ago while working in the garden, I listened to a podcast by Ted Radio Hour on attention. It included an interview with Manoush Zomorodi, author of the book Bored and Brilliant. She talks about how we don’t experience boredom anymore because we are constantly filling our minds with stimulation. We avoid boredom at all costs, having learnt that boredom is a bad thing. Yet research into boredom shows the opposite – it’s when we are bored that our brains are active in really important ways.

Zomorodi says: “It turns out that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the “default mode.” When we are functioning on autopilot, “that is when our brain gets really busy”. Through constantly filling out minds with stimulation, we miss out on important cognitive processing. That processing includes problem solving, making links between seemingly disconnected ideas and what is called “autobiographical planning” – looking over our lives, setting goals and determining how to achieve them.

So, boredom is actually a good thing. Why is it then that we have become so hardwired to jump to our phones whenever we feel the creep of boredom? Why do I constantly find myself pulling out my phone when I’m on public transport, instead of just people-watching or enjoying the view? Why can’t I sit still anymore when watching a movie at home, but feel the need to do something else – scroll through Pinterest, do a crossword or attempt a 1000 piece puzzle?

Part of the problem is we’ve believed the idea that multitasking is a sign of intellectual prowess, and the technology we use is designed to stimulate that belief. Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin explains that: “every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that. So if you’re attempting to multitask…you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.”

We fill our moments with constant stimulation and activity because we’ve programmed our brains to rapidly shift from one thing to another. We pick up our phones hundreds of times each day, thus constantly shifting our attention away from the tasks we need to perform. It becomes habitual – we don’t even think about it, it’s just automatic. We scroll endlessly through Facebook because its precisely designed to make us do exactly that. Google designer Tristan Harris said: “If I’m Facebook or I’m Netflix or Snapchat, I have literally a thousand engineers whose job is to get more attention from you. I’m very good at this, and I don’t want you to ever stop.”

This may sound like some cunning conspiracy, but really, its just feeding into our own habitual behaviour. If we didn’t have social media, we’d find other ways to stimulate our minds. When I logged out of social media for two months last year, I found myself seeking to fill the void with other things. I was definitely more productive, but I found it difficult to deal with the emotions that I normally suppressed (with constant stimulation) and still tried to escape from boredom in any way possible.

So, if you’ve managed to read this far (and haven’t gotten distracted by something else), is there a solution? Manoush Zomorodi ran a project (called ‘Bored and Brilliant’) to see if people could change the cycle of habitual phone-checking out of boredom, and therefore be more productive and creative. One participant, Tina, reported prior to the project spending an average of 150 and 200 minutes on her phone per day. She said: “it’s really concerning, because that’s so much time that I could have spent doing something more productive, more creative, more towards myself, because when I’m on my phone, I’m not doing anything important.” 

At the end of the week-long project, of 20,000 participants, 90% cut down on their phone use and 70% said they had more time to think. Overall, participants said their sleep and happiness improved, and many reported feeling emotions that they didn’t recognise. If we’re always on our phones, we’re never processing how we feel or allowing our brains the space to think! We are less creative and less equipped to solve life’s problems.

Let’s spend less time multitasking, constantly checking our phones to escape boredom, and instead focus on what is right in front of us. I don’t think anyone would advocate for staring at a wall doing nothing all day (unless you’ve really got a thing for walls). Rather, we need to start putting our phones down and picking up a book, or going outside for a walk, or actually having a conversation with another human being using our mouths and not our swift-typing fingers.

For me, I find myself most relaxed when my phone is away and I’m out in the garden planting flowers, or at the gym doing laps in the pool, or kayaking along a beautiful stretch of river, or just sitting in a quite place praying. I hate that I am so drawn to wasting time on social media, and struggle so much to stay focused on one task at a time. We all have the power to change our behaviour, and we need to. Our brains (and our relationships!) will benefit from it in wonderful ways.

Discover more:

Check out Manoush Zomorodi’s TedTalk here.

The TedRadioHour podcast on attention (which covers much more than what I’ve written about) – listen here.

Read more about the benefits of boredom here.