What does a bored brain look like?

What boredom neuroscience exists out there?
22 February 2021

Interview with 

James Danckert, University of Waterloo


photo of a dog that looks bored


Cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert from the University of Waterloo knows all about the bored brain. And he spoke to Katie Haylor...

James - There's really very little so far that's been done on the neuroscience of boredom, on the brain signals that are associated with boredom. We have a handful of studies that look at the electrical signals that come from the brain when we make people bored. Those have sort of variable results. And then we have a handful of studies that have put people in MRI scanners and looked at the brain activity associated with boredom in that instance. And what we know from that is that a particular network of brain areas is commonly activated when people are bored. And this is a network that's called the default mode network. And it's a group of brain areas that are associated when there's nothing outside there in the world for you to do right now. So think about things like daydreaming or mind wandering or things that you have to do in the future. You don't have a task in front of you right now. And so you sort of reflect internally. The thing that's interesting about finding that part of the brain or that network in the brain activated when you're bored, is that typically there is something for you to do when you're bored.

And so when we looked at this, we had people watch a movie of two guys hanging laundry. And so there was something for you to watch, something for you to try desperately to engage in, but it was so boring that you activated this network that's normally associated with instances where there's nothing for you to do. And in our neuro-imaging study, when we looked at the boredom mood induction, we found that there was one particular part of the brain, the part known as the anterior insular cortex, that was down-regulated when people were bored. So what I mean by that is that that area was reduced in activation relative to other parts of the network when people were bored. And we know that that part of the brain is important for representing things that we think out there in the world are behaviourally relevant to us. You know, if something happens in the world that we think, "Oh, I better attend to that", or "I should pay more attention to a particular event in the world". The anterior insular cortex is often important for signaling that importance, that need to attend to something. And so when we make people bored, that part of the brain just seems to shut off. And so there's a lot more to do to try and understand what might be going on in that part of the brain when we're bored. But it's certainly one place that we're interested in looking more deeply.

Katie - Curious to see just how boring this video James was talking about was, I gave it a watch.

So there's two blokes with a laundry era and a bunch of presumably wet clothes. It's quite a mundane activity. They are very slowly hanging the clothes... Yep... There's not much to say... It's pretty dull... There's still an enormous pile of clothes on the airer. And they're just moving around one or two pieces... This is painfully slow laundry hanging... I'm getting annoyed, just watching it because I could do this so much faster... I really losing interest in this now...

Katie - James, I have watched that video. It was extremely boring. I go as far as to say painfully boring, actually, because the blokes putting up the laundry were not doing it in a very efficient way. I found myself getting slightly angry and had to stop, but I guess that's probably the point.

James - I have to confess I've never watched the movie all the way through, because why would I? I don't want to make myself bored! And my graduate student Colleen Merrifield made the video for a study that we published in 2014. But I have been told many times, particularly by women, that the two guys hanging laundry are doing a horrible job. So when I heard that I made myself watch at least 15 seconds of it. And to my eye, unsurprisingly, I couldn't figure out what they were doing so badly.

Katie - What?!

James - Like I said, I only watched 15 seconds of it.

Katie - So actually looking at the bored brain can tell you a certain amount, what is understood about boredom from analysing people's behaviour?

James - We look at this from the point of view of what we call individual differences. You know, what is the sort of boredom-prone person personality like? And there's still, again, a lot more to do, but we know for instance, that people who struggle with self-control tend to also be boredom-prone. We know that people who are boredom-prone also struggle with other aspects of their mental health. Rates of depression and anxiety are higher among people who are boredom-prone. And there are other things that are associated with being boredom prone like neuroticism, for example. So people who tend to worry a lot about what happens in their lives also tend to be a little bit more boredom-prone. And so we have some sense, some picture of what the individual differences are that are associated with being boredom-prone. That kind of work is correlational in nature. So we don't know about causes so well. I mean, I can't tell you really what causes one person to be more boredom-prone than another. I can really only talk about the relationships between different variables.


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