Quarantine Could Fix Our Broken Brains

Photo: Alistair Berg/Getty Images

AA few short months ago, I wrote a piece for Forge recommending that we rediscover the value of boredom in an age dominated by screens and the attention economy. “We may be stressed out, distracted, and overworked, plagued by eye strain and brain fog — but we’re not bored,” I wrote. “In 2019, you just don’t have to be.”

How quickly things change: In 2020, with much of the world in quarantine, boredom is everywhere. We’re cooped up, lonely, and restless, and we’re not sure what to do with ourselves.

It’s a bizarre, disorienting turn. On South Broadway Avenue in Denver, a few blocks from my house, people sleep in the doorways of restaurants that were bustling three weeks ago. In India, hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers cut off by the pandemic lockdown face desperate odds as they trek home across hundreds of miles. Thousands around the world are dead already. Hundreds of thousands more will join them before this pandemic runs its course.

Who could be bored with so much suffering just outside? To admit to boredom now, of all times, can feel like something worse than privilege — sacrilege, maybe.

But as counterintuitive as it may be, we need boredom right now. Especially now.

Not just because research suggests that boredom can make us more creative and productive, though that’s certainly true. Its value is far more profound: It’s what makes us human. And as the world falls apart, it may be the path to our salvation.

Boredom and your brain

We don’t need a pandemic to feel guilty about our boredom. Even in normal times, being bored is often framed as a kind of moral failure.

The word itself is deeply associated with the sin of idleness, a quality railed against by Victorian moralists, who sought to promote a citizenry that was industrious and hardworking — and willing to labor tirelessly on behalf of industrialist tycoons. Idleness, as historian Patricia Meyer Spacks noted in her book Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind, is itself rooted in the concept of acedia, a Greek term borrowed by Christian philosophers to describe a state of spiritual sloth.

Our modern attitudes are still influenced by these stern notions. But new scientific research offers a deeper and more generous take on boredom. Far from a passive, inert state, we now understand boredom to be a period of intense mental activity — the rich, fertile soil from which good ideas grow.

Numerous studies have found a correlation between boredom and increased creativity. In general, these studies use similar formats: Two groups of participants are asked to complete a creative task, but the first group is first made to do an unrelated, tedious exercise. The group that experiences boredom first tends to come up with more original, successful, or groundbreaking ideas.

This is the effect we’re seeing during quarantine. It’s what led my wife and son to rethink our living room as an obstacle course, a maze rigged up with couch cushions and extension cord hurdles. It’s what led our friends to discover that their dog can shell edamame beans. As people on Twitter are eager to remind you, it’s what spurred Shakespeare to write King Lear during his own time of quarantine and Isaac Newton to develop calculus in his. Innovation — trivial or profound — tends to happen when people are bored.

Most people recognize that our minds wander in tedious situations; boredom and mind-wandering, if not quite synonymous, are at least deeply associated. But mind-wandering is easier to study than boredom. Unlike boredom, mind-wandering is a physical process, one that can be measured with brain-imaging technology. It also seems to be where the benefits of boredom lie: If boredom can be beneficial, it’s because mind-wandering is.

Why boredom matters

Scientists measure mind-wandering with an elegantly simple metric called “task-unrelated thought.” We spend much of our waking lives engaged in these task-unrelated thoughts — an average of about 2,000 such thoughts each day, according to a major 2019 review of mind-wandering research. Over the course of a lifetime, that adds up to around 50 million task-unrelated thoughts — a staggering mental output.

What do 50 million task-unrelated thoughts look like? Some research suggests that the average thought lasts about five seconds. Based on that, I did some back-of-the-envelope math. Of course, not all thoughts are verbal, and not all minds chatter at the same speed, but based on a conservative estimate of 100 words per minute — the speed of a normal-to-slow speaking voice — a transcription of our life’s daydreaming would run over 40,000 pages. As the authors of the 2019 review, Kieran C.R. Fox and Roger E. Beaty, put it: “The sheer magnitude of this generative capacity, and the parallels to creative thinking, remain largely unappreciated.”

Of course, much of our daydreaming has little value. Multiple studies have shown that task-unrelated thoughts often skitter around mundane, highly personal experiences. While people in these studies sometimes describe their own task-unrelated thoughts in pleasant terms, scientists acknowledge that many of these thoughts have no objective worth to anyone except the daydreamer.

But a significant portion of our task-unrelated thoughts concern problem-solving — and that’s where these thoughts start to become more concretely useful. Some other research has found that mind-wandering tends to be more oriented toward the future than the past, specifically the upcoming 24-hour period.

Here, the evolutionary purpose of mind-wandering starts to come into view. It can be an incredibly energy-efficient problem-solving algorithm, one that runs in the background while other tasks — typically boring ones — are being accomplished. I might be washing the dishes or feeding my toddler son, but I’m also silently working out other dilemmas: when I’ll go to the grocery store, how I might address a conflict with a friend or co-worker, how to resolve a narrative issue in my novel when I sit down tomorrow morning to write.

These task-unrelated insights are extremely useful to me, but energy-wise, they cost almost nothing. (“The marginal metabolic cost of generating a single thought is infinitesimal,” Fox and Beaty write.) They seem to arrive as if by magic. The term researchers use is “self-generating”: The mind is an engine that runs on its own momentum. In our daydreams, we frequently find ways to navigate the large and small challenges of our ever-changing present.

What’s amazing is that harnessing their power requires so little: just slightly boring circumstances and a little downtime. Allowing your mind to be still “can open doors where we didn’t see any,” Jenny Odell wrote in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, a title that’s turned out to be unintentionally prophetic.

Highly creative people tend to recognize the problem-solving value of task-unrelated thought and find ways to nurture it in their own lives. In my interviews for “By Heart,” a series of conversations with writers for The Atlantic (later collected in my book, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process), I’ve found that many writers use low-intensity, slightly boring activities as a tool to jump-start mind-wandering. British novelist Mohsin Hamid considers long walks to be part of his creative process. Ethan Canin writes his novels while slowly pedaling on an elliptical, an activity that he says “takes the brakes off” and allows him to better access the waking dream state that writing fiction requires. These writers are using task-unrelated thought to find ways to become slightly bored and unleash the mind’s formidable generative capacity.

The same seems to be true outside the creative arts. Johnny Smallwood, a psychology professor and prominent mind-wandering expert, told me that his daily running habit has been crucial to the success of his career. The exercise is not really the point, he explained; it’s more about making time for task-unrelated thought.

“On this view, creativity is not a special faculty possessed only by artists and inventors, but is instead the birthright of every brain,” write the authors of the 2019 paper. “It should not be surprising if the complex and beautiful are built upon simple and inelegant foundations… The difference between carefully composing a symphony and spontaneously conceiving a shopping list is one of degree, and not of kind.”

Boredom is a form of resistance

Boredom is not always beautiful. Everyone knows that. While much mind-wandering has the benign, meditative feel of daydreaming, we’ve all had the experience of fixating unhelpfully on something unpleasant and then spiraling. And when everyday anxiety crosses over into depression or mental illness, the ruminative mind quickly becomes a frightening nemesis.

Being alone with one’s thoughts can be especially tough in times of crisis — like, say, a global pandemic. Smallwood has a simple explanation for that: When we face overwhelming and daunting challenges, the mind’s problem-solving skills, an asset much of the time, become a liability. For most of us, stuck in our homes, no amount of self-generated thought can solve Covid-19.

That doesn’t stop our brain from trying — from applying its vast, almost limitless thought-generation potential against the virus. That’s what we’re doing when we obsess over each change in infection rates, in death counts, and when we breathlessly imagine a loved one falling ill. We face a terrifying foe, and our brain wants a solution. We’re looking for a way out.

Right now, I’m tasking myself with a new challenge: to not be useful and to be better at being bored. For those of us who are not medical professionals or delivering essential goods and services, the most important thing we can do right now is stay home. And that might well be true for months.

Of course, this prospect might trigger a host of worries, from financial to logistical to medical. But if all that boredom, in itself, sounds difficult, it’s in part because we’ve become seduced by the notion of being “productive.” In that sense, our fear of boredom can’t be separated from the Western — and particularly American — cult of productivity.

In Boredom, Spacks traced the rise of boredom to the 18th century, when the advent of long, unbroken factory shifts cleaved life neatly into periods of work and play. This division created the new concept of “leisure” — and with all that free time came new anxieties about what to do with it. Boredom, Spacks argues, stems from our uncertainty and ambivalence about the time we spend not working.

This historical argument echoes through today. If our individual worth is determined by the value of our labor — as so often seems to be the case in American life — then boredom seems to stem from a distinctly modern uneasiness: the suspicion that the hours we aren’t working are of no value at all.

You see this cult manifested in “hustle culture,” where bleary eyes, caffeine jitters, and long, grueling schedules become a point of masochistic pride. To hustle is to reject the idea that one should have “free” time, that a noble life is a life lived entirely through work. It’s the insistence that all thoughts should be task-related. We see this, too, in our fixation on “life hacks,” the notion that raw experience can endlessly be made more efficient.To what end? To work more, mostly.

The pervasive idea of productivity at all costs, as the best measure of self-worth, has terrible personal and political consequences. It’s what allows us to to accept a health care system where people receive only the level of treatment they can pay for — an arrangement that tethers basic human services to a person’s perceived economic value. It’s what leads to the obscene notion, recently espoused by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, that the elderly and most vulnerable should be willing to sacrifice themselves to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Ultimately, it reduces human beings to the machinery of numbers, where our spirits inevitably will be ground in the gears.

To be bored—willingly bored—is to reject all that. It’s to insist that life can be fulfilling even when our activities have no overt purpose. It’s to recognize that creativity grows best from our random, messiest thoughts, especially when they are not immediately actionable. It’s to acknowledge that being human is about more than applying oneself single-mindedly to a task, the way a robot does — and that not doing so can, in fact, be preferable. We are oddly at our best when our minds unkink from the situation at hand.

This is especially true now. It’s true because it reminds us that we’re more than numbers on a spreadsheet, that the blood-red dots and bars on charts represent actual people — that each dot is a mind that could generate 50 million singular thoughts.

The value of boredom in a crisis

We can reclaim our boredom, even possibly enjoy it, when we understand that it’s not a sign of weakness. It is instead the state that fuels the powerful problem-solving devices we carry in our heads. It is the context in which our most surprising, transformative ideas are sparked.

In that light, boredom seems to me an essential human right. We should all have the right to make room for boredom, to occasionally disengage from our surroundings and let our minds be minds. Millions around the world, pandemic or not, are too frightened or cash-strapped or hungry for boredom to be possible. But a better, more humane society could make their lives less frighteningly urgent. Maybe we’ll remember that, even once this crisis passes.

Last week, I took my son to the park near our house in the early morning, when I knew no one would be there. We kicked around a rainbow-swirl ball for a while, watching it arc up toward the trees. Later, we heard a train’s horn lowing in the distance. We wandered over to a vacant lot with a view of the light rail and watched the trains go by. The bell clanged faintly in the distance as the red-and-white pole lifted and fell and the empty cars rushed by in a noisy blue.

For a little while, there was nothing but that: the trains coming and going, the pole’s back-and-forth arc, and the low hum of our minds.

Joe Fassler is author of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process and the forthcoming novel The Sky Was Ours (Penguin).

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