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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Power of Boredom

Over the last forty or so years the concept of boredom has changed quite a bit.

As a child I lived in rural Wisconsin - not on a farm but on four acres my parents had purchased in the 1950's.  There were few neighbors and those that we had lived quite a distance away. We were not rich.

In those days there was no internet, no cell phones, no color TV, nothing electronic what-so-ever to keep your mind occupied.  My parents did have a lot of books - but these were adult books and I was just a kid.  We had bicycles - but could not ride them on the road until we were six or seven.

Sure we had toys - I had a box of electrical and mechanical stuff scavenged from construction sites I had visited with my dad and from relatives.  Some blocks.  Some Lego.  An electric train.  Stuff most kids had in those days.

We also had various activities: school, sports, things like that.  Again - like most kids did.  But these things did not fill up the day either.

But all in all life was absolutely boring - a fate few children suffer today.

Thirty years ago I had my own children.  Still there was no internet - or actually there was one but it was not accessible to anyone without a university clearance - no cell phones, there was color TV.  We had quite a few books - especially children's books.

In those days we did not let the kids watch too much TV.  This was a big struggle.  We had four kids and someone always wanted to watch TV.  By this time there were things like movie players - not ones we could afford - but ones relatives would provide for Christmas.  They played some kind of disks or tapes.

The problem was we could not afford new movies so the kids played the same ones over and over and over.

While all this may sound rather boring, and in fact it was, the key thing to understand is that boring, especially for small children and even for adults, is good.

As a child I was bored a lot - there was literally nothing to do as there is today - most TV was for adults (save for Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo) - the books we had were boring after reading them ten times, and so on.

So what did you do? 

You let your mind wander. 

You imagined things.

I distinctly remember in maybe third grade seeing a tape recorder in school.  I was amazed - this was something that did cool things and had knobs, lights and switches - a geek child's delight.  However, only the nuns could touch it - as children we were not allowed lest we break it.

But when I was bored the tape recorder was something that fired my imagination - don't ask me why.  I imagined what I might do with it, wondered how it worked, what else it might do, how could I make it do more things, and on and on.

As it turns out our minds are probably designed to run free with this sort of "mindless wandering" and that a lot of our neural circuitry is tied up with this function (see this and this).  In fact, about half of our brain's function seems to be organized around this (and only sex keeps our minds from wandering).  A wandering mind also consumes a huge amount of nutritional resources.

All this begs the question of "why?"

A brain designed to wander?

I think from the perspective of children boredom actually fuels mental and brain development (obviously parents have to keep children's mind constructively focused while wondering).  Parents do always worry about things like this:

My wandering mind often took me down areas related to technical things - wires, electricity and electronics, building things, and so on.  Looking back to my childhood I see that the time spent on these sorts of things were in fact not a waste but instead allowed me to mentally prepare myself for exploring these things more formally as an adult.

With my own children I see that we probably provided too much controlled stimulation to prevent boredom - and that that was probably the wrong thing to do (sorry kids - but hey, the image above always is foremost in a parents mind...).

Today I see my grandchildren in a world of constant stimulation - TV constantly blaring, computers, cellphones, email.  This is too much as it is (see this) and further takes away from the child's opportunity to be bored our of their skull.

These grandchildren are never really bored like we were as children.

Today's parents are afraid of children being too bored so they fill their time with activities.

(Though don't worry too much because if a child perceives even an organized activity as dull their mind will wander anyway.)

But does removing boredom from a child's life harm their brain development?  (After all they're hopefully too young for sex so all they can do is be bored.)

About a year ago I wrote "32 Hours..." that addressed the amount of time today's small child spends in front of the TV (32 hours a week).  The TV is the worst for boredom because it prevents, I think, the mind from wandering too far.  (Some say the flickering screen of today is reminiscent of the flicker fire our ancestors no doubt stared into for the last hundred thousand years or so...)

Today I find that I have too much to think about and I view TV as a drug - one that dulls the mind by keeping it focused on something trivial or stupid (for the most part).

I don't condone giving drugs to children.

I guess the point of all this is a wandering mind is a crucial part of life - and it would seem that science is bearing this out (links above).

And we are taking it from our children and ourselves.

It seems like science is telling us that its okay and necessary to be bored out of our skulls...

Take the time and let your mind wander - as long as its done responsibly its a good thing.

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