The human brain is a powerful tool. Always on, the brain is thinking and dealing with decisions and stressors and subconscious activities. But as much as the human brain function has a large capacity, it also has limits. Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says it is critical for brain health to let yourself be bored from time to time.
Being bored can improve social connections. When neuroscientists do studies looking at brain activity they often compare what areas are “on” when people do a specific cognitive task and when they are told to do nothing. Remarkably, there is extensive activity in the do nothing part of the experiment. This has led social neuroscientists to discover that we have what is called a default mode network, many brain regions that are on by default, or when we are not doing other things. It also turns out that when we are not busy with other thoughts and activities, we focus inward as well as on social interactions.
Being bored can help foster creativity. Many scientists and artists have reported being inspired or solving a complex problem when they have actually stopped thinking about it. This eureka moment is called insight. Neuroscientists have shown different patterns of brain activity when people solve problems compared to by working through them step-by-step. Even the ancient Greek Archimedes is known to come up with his major finding relating to displacement of water while taking a bath.
Additionally, being bored can improve overall brain health. During exciting times, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine which is associated with feeling good. When the brain has fallen into a predictable, monotonous pattern, many people feel bored, even depressed. This might be because we have lower levels of dopamine. One approach is to retrain the brain to actually enjoy these less exciting, and perhaps boring, times. Especially when we are young, our brains are able to adapt to new ways to think and behave. “Give boredom a try and see what your brain comes up with,” says Walf.
Alicia Walf Senior Lecturer
Neuroscientist with extensive research into body, brain, and mind relationships related to brain health, social cognition and emotions.