By Tyler Williams '19
Imagine I put you in a room for 15 minutes. The room had nothing but a chair, a desk, and a button. When pressed, this button would send a high voltage electric shock that would pulsate through your entire body, and cause immense pain. Out of common sense, for the 15 minutes you were in the room, you wouldn’t hit the button. Right?
Well, according to research done in the school of psychology at one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools, the pain of boredom will supersede the feeling of physical pain almost every time. In a Harvard study, a person will press the button more than 90% of the time, and usually within 3 minutes.
Terrible feelings like physical pain, nausea, and heartbreak are all caused by dangerous things, but boredom is just a general disinterest in what’s going on. We feel it all the time, but we never realize how important that feeling actually is. Boredom is important to me because on the surface, it seems so trivial, yet it is one of the main reasons why humans have developed into the beings they are today.
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Now, imagine I put you in a room with a chair, a desk, and something thousands of times more painful than an electric shock button: a Webassign. It was in this situation last year when I had a relatively simple observation that, in my mind, became a revelation.
Boredom is one of the main reasons why humans have developed into the beings we are.
While I was mindlessly guessing numbers to produce that fabled green check, for some reason, still unbeknownst to me, I looked at the science textbook in front of me for what it really was.
In my moment of boredom, instead of seeing the object that had been causing me such despair and anxiety, I saw a collection of thousands of years of knowledge with hundreds of the greatest minds to ever live, who poured their hearts and souls into discovering the concepts found in this textbook. At the same time, I looked up and saw my teacher, who I realized had studied the subject for many years and had a passion for it that he wanted to share, far stronger than any of my own passions. It was in this simple moment of boredom when my revelation came to me, and it resulted in my deeply exploring the possibilities of the mind when bored.
Just as I was studying science when I had my breakthrough moment, I started my research on the scientific aspects of boredom. Unlike most topics, though, I found the scientific aspect simple and straightforward. The most shocking statistic I found was that when bored, overall brain activity only drops about 5%. But, in this bored state, MRI scans show that the parts of the brain responsible for feeling sympathy and empathy are greatly increased, which accounts for my revelation. But I also learned, during this bored state, parts of the brain responsible for creating hypothetical events, and imagining, had greatly increased activity. This fact leads us all the way back to prehistoric times. In those times, humans were the only species who were able to find food, water, and shelter, so effectively that there was time left in the day to think, ponder, and have the ability to maybe experience a hint of boredom. Just like I did in that classroom, prehistoric humans were able to have the same types of revelations, except for them it was fire, tools, and even civilization. This boredom could very well be what pushed us as a species away from the cycle of food, water, shelter, sleep, and propelled us into the successful species we are today.
After learning that I was intrigued, no doubt, but how did that help me. I’m not in a population of prehistoric cavemen, although sometimes I feel like it. I’m just a high school student who deals with boredom often in my day-to-day life. The scientific understanding of boredom didn’t cut it for me. I needed to understand what boredom means, not just how it occurs.
When studying the philosophical side of boredom, I found two schools of thought. The first was a rather dismal way of thinking, that if life actually had any real value, or any content whatsoever, we would never feel bored. Or in contrast, the other school of thought says boredom is one of the most sublime emotions, as it shows that the human spirit and mind are greater than anything the universe has to offer.
I am not sure if I completely agree with either school of thought, but, as I was reading through these old documents and the writings from philosophers like Schopenhauer and Leopardi, I kept thinking to myself, simply… It’s not that deep. It’s really not that deep, because the boredom I feel, the boredom we feel as high school students, isn’t the same profound boredom that ancient philosophers felt. It’s just that feeling of indifference, detachment, maybe even pointlessness when we are in the middle of class, lunch, heck, even at a party. It’s not that we don't see the value in our surroundings. I’m sure many of you had my same revelation years ago. It’s just that in those moments, there is something going on in your own head that is more commanding than any outside stimulus.
Boredom is one of the most sublime emotions.
In those seemingly pointless moments of boredom, the real beauty of boredom actually shines. In those moments, the brain enters what is called the “default mode”. It is this mode that sets you to your most foundational and basic state, and your personality is at its core. In those moments of boredom, your brain is at its most malleable as it is accessing its most basic thought process.
I remember what parents, mentors, and motivational speakers told me about high school. When I look over at the freshman class, I know you guys have heard the same thing. They said “high school is where you find yourself." But that is not true, because there is no “you” floating around in the cosmos to be found. Everything you want, everything you achieve, is created by your not found. It took me seventeen and a half years to figure out that you have to create yourself. It is how, in those most basic moments of seemingly pointless boredom, that you make the decisions as to who you really are. You can choose to fill them with creativity, ambition, and brilliance, or if in those moments of blissful boredom, you think mean thoughts, that’s the type of person you will be. If you think ideas, you think goals, you think success, that’s the person you will become, that’s the person I want to go to school with.
If you take away one thing from my comments, it should be that in those tiny, insignificant moments where your brain is at its most basic, that’s where you create who you are. Next time you are bored, please don’t let it go to waste. Understand that in that moment, you have the potential to take a step towards the person you have always wanted to create. Embrace the boredom.