In conversation: Peter Toohey

On the uses of boredom, why it can foster creativity, and how it can change your life

On the uses of boredom, why it can foster creativity, and how it can change your life

Photographs by Richard Cannon/Getty Images

Peter Toohey is a professor of classics at the University of Calgary. In Boredom: A Lively History, he argues that boredom is an essential aspect of human experience.

Q: Do you agree with social theorists who say boredom is a symptom of modernity?

A: No. Boredom has a long history, there’s no question of that. There’s a late third-century inscription in the Italian city of Benevento thanking a public official who “rescued the population from endless boredom.” Even earlier, in Pompeii, there’s wall graffiti about boredom. I suspect people have experienced boredom from time immemorial.

Q: But aren’t we more prone to boredom now than previous generations were?

A: A lot of people think so, and link it to the age of the Xbox and the fact that there’s such a variety of entertainment that if the battery in your iPhone dies—which it does all the time—and suddenly you can’t play whatever game you like on it, you’re bored. A lot of people want to believe that. My own reaction is that when I was a little kid in Australia and television started—it came later to us there than in North America—I remember well the warnings. People said it was going to cause untold havoc in families because we weren’t going to sit down and listen to the radio and play cards any more, we were all going to become square-eyed, we wouldn’t be able to entertain ourselves any more.

Q: And all of that came true, don’t you think?

A: No, I don’t. In Russian novels, those descriptions of people pacing up and down the drawing room—it must have been extraordinarily boring. And at the beginning of Emma, Jane Austen writes about those long, dreary nights in November, just waiting for time to pass so Christmas would come to liven things up.

Q: You point out that there are two types of boredom. Let’s start with the one most artists and writers have focused on since the 19th century: existential boredom. What is it, exactly?

A: Existential boredom, if it really exists, is explained as a sense of emptiness, of isolation, perhaps of alienation, maybe with a little admix of disgust. It gets very jumbled up with ennui and melancholy. The person lacks interest in things, has difficulty concentrating—that pretty much covers it.

Q: It sounds a lot like depression. Maybe a little Prozac would clear it right up.

A: That might be the case. It does get people’s backs up, though, when you say that—people who are interested in literary things at any rate. They find it insulting if you say that Samuel Beckett was just all about depression and Prozac would’ve helped. I suppose it is insulting in a way, but on the other hand, the excessive interest and pride in existential boredom can be a bit of a humbug. Intellectuals are keen to have a special, cerebral complaint. Simple boredom—the kind a child experiences trapped in a classroom—is nothing they want to associate themselves with. Many will tell you, “Oh, I never get bored.” I find that a little preposterous, because everybody gets bored. I think they’re just unwilling to admit it. But if they suffer some sort of existential boredom driven by modern capitalist society—well then, it becomes a badge of honour almost.

Q: How is simple boredom different?

A: I’d define it as an emotion, like happiness or anger or fear. I don’t think you could call existential boredom an emotion. It’s not a feeling, not even a mood—it’s a state, perhaps. Whereas simple boredom is an emotion of mild disgust, produced by temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances. Predictability, monotony, confinement are all key. From a sociological point of view, the people most susceptible to it are those who are trapped in a situation and can’t get out, such as young children at school and older people in retirement homes. Prisoners, obviously, and even people who are trapped in jobs that are highly repetitive and unrewarding.

Q: It doesn’t feel good, but you say it has its uses. What are they?

A: One is the grander, fluffier notion that it enables a person to look more precisely at the self. When you’re bored, you’re apart from the world in a sense, you’re driven back into yourself and get a stronger sense of yourself as a separate individual. So boredom can intensify self-perception. Of course it’s a good thing to be able to escape boredom, but no emotion should be treated as trivial. It’s through emotions that we come to know the world and come to know ourselves. Second, boredom can encourage contemplation and daydreaming, which sometimes drive creativity and questioning. The other use, the one I’m getting at above all, is that perhaps boredom acts, much like disgust, as an adaptive emotion. If a plate of food looks and smells disgusting, that sense of disgust can help a person prosper, by guiding him to avoid the food.

Q: Because it’s rotten or has gone off, you mean?

A: Right. So disgust is adaptive in that it helps us avoid things that aren’t good for us. And boredom, I think, serves a similar function. It could be an early warning signal that certain situations may be dangerous to our well-being. In social settings, it alerts you to situations that aren’t good for you psychologically. It’s telling you to walk away. And it could have evolved long ago. If you can imagine yourself back into preliterate, pre-modern societies—the Plains Indians, the Australian Aboriginals—an emotion like loneliness was bad for the group, and would have been discouraged because people needed to pull together to survive. I wonder if boredom isn’t the same, and is hard-wired into us. At least in early human beings it would have been a very difficult emotion to countenance because you’ve got to get up and go in that sort of world. I think it’s quite possible that it served an evolutionary purpose. Boredom signalled that this circumstance that’s causing you a sense of entrapment and inertia is probably bad for you and therefore bad for the group.

Q: How do we translate that to the modern day, to the lecture hall full of bored students?

A: Well, if they’re all sitting there with their heads resting on their hands, which is the universal gesture of boredom, it probably means that I’m bad at the job, for a start! But if students are very restless in a lecture hall, or you’re at a meeting and someone is talking endlessly, were that to continue for a few weeks, you’d be in the situation of a prisoner. It really would be harmful to you then. And there is one other connection you can make. In The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge makes a link between monotony and a lack of plasticity in the brain. It would be reasonable to speculate that situations of prolonged boredom are dangerous and harmful to the brain, that they might affect the brain’s plasticity. So perhaps boredom is a biological warning that the circumstance you’re in is not good for your brain. That’s speculative, but there does seem to be a basis for it. In any event, I think we should take it more seriously as an early warning system. If you’re feeling bored you shouldn’t think it’s crazy or silly; it’s a proper reaction to the circumstance you find yourself in, and you need to remedy it.

Q: When you’re teaching, what do you do if you look out into that sea of faces and see all the heads on the hands?

A: You panic! I remember a few years back when I had to lecture to first year university students, one of those “Intro to the Ancient World” type classes, it was a pretty fractious group. They’d talk together, the boys would flirt with the girls and so on. I’d walk to the edge of the stage so that it looked like I was going to totter and fall off. That worked: it got their attention.

Q: What is known about boredom biologically and neurologically?

A: Not a lot, to be honest. One chap did an MRI on people who were performing repetitive tasks and seemed to detect a sort of cross-chatter, miscommunication between different areas of the brain. More is known about the connection between boredom and dopamine, this neurotransmitter that’s associated with joy and excitement—the reward neurotransmitter, essentially. For a person who has a naturally lower level of dopamine, one of the side effects could be chronic boredom. It’s not that chronic boredom causes the lower level of dopamine, it’s the other way around.

Q: How is chronic boredom different from existential boredom?

A: It’s like simple boredom, except it doesn’t stop. It’s a permanent fixture of a person’s makeup, so that you might feel bored a lot of the time and you might be driven to remedy it.

Q: How?

A: Risk-taking behaviour seems to temporarily raise the level of dopamine, which then produces a respite from boredom. Hang-gliding, drug abuse, walking through the mountains on dangerous tracks where you’re likely to see bears and so forth. Those sorts of things can be a form of self-medication. I suspect certain types of financial trading, too, because of the risks and the type of high they can produce.

Q: When do you get bored?

A: Sometimes driving. And marking essays—all teachers will say that. It’s a pleasure when students write good essays, but it’s a tough slog to get through 70 3,000-word essays.

Q: And academic meetings?

A: I’ve got to be careful what I say. But yes, they can be extraordinarily boring.

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