Boredom

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Do readers of this weblog ever get bored? It seems that life is short, and there’s so much to do and read. I understand that work can quite often be tedious and mind-numbing, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to is having leisure or free time, and being bored because you don’t know what to do with it. If I have leisure I have a stack of books on my “need to read” list. And yet I realize that the average person finds books boring. So I guess my question is this: can the intelligent ever really be bored when given leisure? Consider being left on an island without any books, social interactions, and even diverse topography. You still have a brain and lots of facts which you can peruse, reassemble, and analyze, correct? On the other hand, the average human seems to need a lot of exogenous sensory arousal. Movies, sports, drugs, parties, etc. When I was a younger man and spending time with my less intelligent friends it was critical that we “do something,” after all there’s only so much interest that conversation about sex and sports can elicit. On the other hand with intelligent friends there were many topics we could fall back on in lieu of doing something. Is my assessment of the average human off?

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43 Comments

  1. Intelligent people are not as inclined to be “bored,” because there is so much they can do with their intellects to bemuse themselves, and have activities they can utilize to keep themselves eager and lean. It is less intelligent people who need physical activities and the like to keep themselves from being bored. 
     
    What intelligent people do experience, however, is “weariness,” especially the depressive ones who seem to dominate the category genius. By this, I factor in the writings of Schopenhauer and the author of Ecclesiastes, who are both able to consistently keep busy without external demands, and make good use of their leisure. Nevertheless, because of their intense intuitive and intellectual ability, they find only repetition in what lesser intellects find to be endlessly captivating. Everything is the same to them, a senseless repeat of prior events which never really resolves in a cathartic manner.

  2. I think of almost everything in crassly polemic terms, and consider most of my own thinking as semiconsciously compromised in that manner, which makes most conversations, literature, non-specialized “science writing”, and so on annoying and therefore boring.  
     
    “I’m just reading a tangled mess of rationalizing crypto-ideology, what’s the point? It’s too much work to even figure out what the author/conversation partner/guru/whatever thinks he’s saying, much less forensically tracing it back to reality.” 
     
    I may just be stupid, though.

  3. Generally, I would tend to agree. In my K through 12 years I did notice that the “duller” students seemed to require a lot more external stimulation in order to be entertained than I did. As I matter of fact, my parents used to joke that sending me to my room as a punishment (no tv or video games) was useless, as I would be perfectly content reading the stack of books that I always had in my room. For that matter, there is the old cliche of low IQ youth getting involved in anti-social activities because they were bored on a Saturday night and needed something to do.

  4. Yep, I never feel bored when I have leisure time. Life is too short and DNA is too long :) 
     
    Always plenty of books to be read, games to be played and stuff to think about. 
     
    But if I were isolated in that hypothetical island then it’d get boring after a while, because without a steady flux of external input my brain tends to get stuck in a rut – without a lot of interesting stuff going on inside….

  5. I am just starting a week off work, so I shall see how bored I get. Actually, I have not felt boredom in years. I am too busy with work and family. 
     
    I do find that I enjoy quiet moments (on the bus, for example) more these days, and I seem to be thinking productively in such moments. But I already have a mental capital of reading and experience to draw on. 
     
    I suspect one would get bored on the island in your thought-experiment (no pun intended). This is because man is a social creature, and the meaning of our thinking and activity really is in the context of broader humanity. There is an SF story about a man who is the sole survivor of a planetary extinction and finally gets his wish, to be left alone in a library to read. The tragedy in the story is that he breaks his spectacles accidentally, and can’t read after all. But I don’t think his reading would have had any value anyway. With whom could he share his insights? What would be the point of reading, say, Russian history, if Russia no longer existed? 
     
    In my experience books and thinking are best as leisure. Books always seem more interesting as a break from one’s normal activity. I am not retired yet, but I have wondered what it would be like, all that leisure. A lot of retired people are bored, I believe. Maybe even the intellectuals. 
     
    It is wonderful to read and think, but there is always the “Omar Khayyam Effect”, by which I mean that after reading a good book, one re-enters the mundanity of life, no wiser in any practical sense, no happier, the same man essentially. I refer to a point made in the most famous poem by “Omar Khayyam”: 
     
    “Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument 
    About it and about: but evermore 
    Came out by the same Door as in I went.” 
     
    In other words, knowledge does not leave one any wiser. 
     
    Everbody overvalues what he has, and the intellectual overvalues his mind. Years ago, I did an experimental Ph.D and, although I remember a handful of exciting moments in the lab, mostly I remember the human experiences, the parties and the music. What you call “exogenous sensory arousal” is always going to be crucial. I know that some people are introverts – I am one – but introverts also need human contact, just less of it. No man in an island, and no man belongs alone on an island.

  6. Perhaps the people I associate with are not average, but few of them appear to think books are boring. 
     
    But your desert island scenario makes me shiver with dread. Can we at least have paper and pens?  
     
    I admit to being terrified of boredom. I usually have 2 or 3 unread books in the trunk of my car for “emergencies” and my house is scattered with stacks of books (and several full bookcases.) 
     
    It’s quite possible I have an unhealthy relationship with books. Of course that might be due most of relatives not feeling a bit guilty about leaving with several of my books every time they visit. I’ve started checking their luggage :-)

  7. Since I am “retired” due to physical disabilities mostly caused by a brain tumor, I have a lot of leisure time. I’m not on any “official” disability, I just have the luxury of not having to work for an income. 
     
    But bored? NO!! There are books to read, the internet to explore and conversations with intelligent people about subjects far and wide. Figuring out whether those far and wide subjects might be related in some way keeps me up at night. 
     
    Your assessment of the average human that I’m acquainted with is off… but that doesn’t really mean a lot. I am acquainted with a few who seem to have no curiosity at all… and they puzzle me as being “not average”. 
     
    I am exquisitely aware that this &*#Since I am “retired” due to physical disabilities mostly caused by a brain tumor, I have a lot of leisure time. I’m not on any “official” disability, I just have the luxury of not having to work for an income.But bored? NO!! There are books to read, the internet to explore and conversations with intelligent people about subjects far and wide. Figuring out whether those far and wide subjects might be related in some way keeps me up at night.Your assessment of the average human that I’m acquainted with is off… but that doesn’t really mean a lot. I am acquainted with a few who seem to have no curiosity at all… and they puzzle me as being “not average”.I am exquisitely aware that this &*#$&%^ brain tumor has rendered me less cognitively able than I once was. If online IQ tests can be considered accurate within themselves… ie, the measurement may be wrong but differences in measurement might be accurate, then I have lost somewhere around 25 IQ points.This seems correct to me in that while I still enjoy and can understand, it takes me longer to do so. Ten years ago, I might read a book in one day. Now it takes me a week. Neurologists laugh at me when I complain of cognitive deficits because I still “test” above average. But I must disagree that the average person finds books boring, though I might agree that my anecdotal sample isn’t average. That sample is my family where books are passed around and offered as sustenance as much as potato salad is at a family reunion.%^ brain tumor has rendered me less cognitively able than I once was. If online IQ tests can be considered accurate within themselves… ie, the measurement may be wrong but differences in measurement might be accurate, then I have lost somewhere around 25 IQ points. 
     
    This seems correct to me in that while I still enjoy and can understand, it takes me longer to do so. Ten years ago, I might read a book in one day. Now it takes me a week.  
     
    Neurologists laugh at me when I complain of cognitive deficits because I still “test” above average.  
     
    But I must disagree that the average person finds books boring, though I might agree that my anecdotal sample isn’t average. That sample is my family where books are passed around and offered as sustenance as much as potato salad is at a family reunion.

  8. One of my step brothers had a brief job out of college. The job consisted of sitting in a trailer in West Texas doing nothing except for once every hour checking a meter and adjusting a valve if need be. (apparently something to do with the oil industry, or course) 
    My step-brother used the extra time to read or paint. They would only higher college grads for this task. Apparently, the less educated previous workers would get bored and eventually get into some kind of trouble. 
     
    Personally, I’m more apt to get bored at social events if the conversation is dull than alone (though I’m desperate not to become a hermit).

  9. IÂ’m someone of average cognitive ability. IÂ’m a teacher. I definitely experience ennui on a semi-regular basis. IÂ’m surrounded by rather dull colleagues and progressive ed ideas. On the occasions that I do have the opportunity to speak with people more intelligent than me, they tend to be PC/liberal and not interested in HBD, etc. I distract myself with reading, websites like GE, and hiking. I also like good tv like mad men, flight of the conchords, breaking bad, etc. IÂ’m bright, but not bright enough to accomplish anything meaningfulÂ…

  10. I can’t remember ever being bored, even when shopping with my wife. Of course I am never without a book.

  11. This blog and the others I have found from this one have been a great way to find fun interesting things for me to take a little mental break from talking to my young kids. I don’t have as much time to read anymore and I hate to waste time on anything that isn’t really interesting. I am very grateful for the internet and such blogs because I get to see so much stuff quickly that I wouldn’t take the time find on my own. I find anything with a story line boring, so I don’t enjoy most TV shows or movies. Blogs that review books are nice because you don’t waste time and money on books that aren’t the best ones on a topic or that focus only tangentially on something I am interested in. The Amazon reviews aren’t nearly as helpful because you have little idea about the perspective or background of the reviewer. 
     
    I think I have always been too busy to get bored. Reminds me how lucky I am to be living now. Someone like Razib wouldn’t have the time to spend sharing his thoughts with all of us personally, yet is generous enough to supply this forum so we can hear all kinds of cool new things and read his opinion etc. I love my friends dearly but they just don’t talk about as many interesting things as the folks on Science blogs.

  12. I’m never bored, except at work. I work in an office, so I can’t crack open a book or read an interesting webpage without drawing negative attention. It drives me crazy since I always seem to get done with my stuff halfway through the day. 
     
    I’d probably get through the desert island scenario better than most. I have a need for physical activity higher than most intellectuals. No books and my brain feels like it’s dying, no activity and I feel like an animal in the cage. Today was a pretty good example. Trimmed the coconut trees and planted a bed of sweet potatos, then read the newest issue of the Atlantic Monthly outside.

  13. My understanding is that there’s wide human variation in the level of stimulation needed for happiness. At the low stimulus end of the spectrum, an autistic child might find sitting still and watching the wall to be perfectly entertaining, occasionally rocking back and forth for excitement. At the high stimulus end, some habitual criminals only really feel alive when engaged in hands-on violence. ADHD children are given a stimulant like Ritalin, which like amphetamine is thought to increase brain dopamine levels, allowing them to be happy in the low-stimulation environment of the classroom. 
     
    We nerds’ ability to happily sit still and digest overtly uninteresting technical material for hours on end clearly puts us on the low stimulation end of the spectrum. The excruciatingly repetitive task of farming must have led to selection for low stimulus people, vice the older and more exciting pursuits of hunting and warfare.

  14. Sure I get bored – and it is after these times of boredom I sometimes get (what pass for) my best ideas.  
     
    Creativity is linked to getting bored, at least for some people.  
     
    e.g. the writer Alasdair Gray – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_Gray – once told me that he would sometimes find himself utterly bored by every book he tried to read – wandering around libraries or bookshops, picking up and putting down books in a desultory fashion; and they all seemed dull.  
     
    That was when he knew he needed to write something for himself.

  15. “My understanding is that there’s wide human variation in the level of stimulation needed for happiness.” 
     
    More important is the large variation in the saliency detectors that convert perceptions into mental focus: the types of stimuli that enthrall people vary widely. Many people with ADD can easily achieve high mental focus for particular activities, including intellectual activities, and not for others. 
     
    “The excruciatingly repetitive task of farming must have led to selection for low stimulus people, vice the older and more exciting pursuits of hunting and warfare.” 
     
    Farming-adapted people have a very high need for stimulus, but their saliency detectors are tuned to hypothetical simulations of future events.  
     
    Many farmers can hunt well at carefully selected times, showing that they also have the ability to consciously control their saliency detectors. IMHO this sort of meta-thinking is what distinguishes civilized humans from the wild type.

  16. |ADHD children are given a stimulant like Ritalin, which like amphetamine is thought to increase brain dopamine levels, allowing them to be happy in the low-stimulation environment of the classroom.| 
     
    Is there a drug for Asbergers, then? ( Asbergers being the other end of the scale, for kids who are not louder than normal, but quieter than normal). 
     
    Eventually we are going to medically drug about 80% of the population. We should do something about height too. Sure, at the moment we worry about gigantism, and dwarfism, but what about the minor level dwarfism for people at 5’9” and less, and the minor levels of gigantism for people at 5’11” and more? Can we have drugs for that? 
     
    This is a bit off-topic but I am annoyed because a nephew – who is quietish – now “has” asbergers. His brother – who is a firebrand – will “have” ADHD no doubt in a few years. Future generations will consider this the majoe crime against children. Every generation has a crime against children.

  17. Really true….introversion comes into play also.. I’ve said before that the one thing that makes me a truly weird human being. Is that most people consider being stranded on a desert island, alone forever,crusoe style a bad thing…it’s something I would aspire to.

  18. Neurologists laugh at me when I complain of cognitive deficits because I still “test” above average.I’m afraid this is a common problem with people who have above-average capabilities AND neurological trauma. 
     
    But if they don’t have pre-trauma tests to serve as a baseline, they really shouldn’t be drawing any conclusions about whether you have deficits – and if they’re “reassuring” you by denying them, or treating your concerns as unimportant, you should tell them to go to Hell.

  19. “Many farmers can hunt well at carefully selected times, showing that they also have the ability to consciously control their saliency detectors. IMHO this sort of meta-thinking is what distinguishes civilized humans from the wild type.” 
     
    Reminds me of a quote I once saw, roughly: The mind is wonderful servant and a poor master. 
     
    I don’t recall who said it.

  20. Brazilian prisons are nightmarishly inhumane, as you can imagine.  
    But one of the most disturbing aspects of it is that they don’t let you read any books while you spend time there.

  21. “IMHO this sort of meta-thinking is what distinguishes civilized humans from the wild type.” 
     
    You could be on to something there. It would be interesting to see how academic achievement corresponds to flexibility in saliency detection. To what extent is intelligence secondary to the ability to simply pay attention to low-stimuli things you are not interested in? 
     
    Regarding ease of boredom as it relates to intelligence, I wonder though if ADD doesn’t provide a special case. Intelligence my be protective against boredom in general, but I suspect that ADD risk alleles like the 7-repeat allele of DRD4 would still have an impact on attention (and ease of boredom) regardless of IQ, and likely provide another layer of modulation.

  22. There are too many interesting books to read, too many museums, exhibitions, concerts, etc. to go to in NYC to ever really be bored. Money and time are the only real obstacles to enjoying everything.  
     
    The only time I’m ever truly bored is when I’m doing something I absolutely HAVE to do – my job, grocery shopping, clothes shopping, cleaning up around the house, etc.  
     
    Must not be any fans of the Pet Shop Boys here, the lyrics to their best song, “Being Boring” sum it up quite well: 
     
    We were never being boring,  
    We had too much time to find for ourselves, 
    And we were never being boring,  
    We dressed up and fought, then thought ?make amends?,  
    And we were never holding back, or worried that, 
    Time would come to an end??

  23. “Can the intelligent ever really be bored when given leisure?” 
     
    Aside from extreme hypothetical situations, I think no. Only boring people get bored.  
     
    However, I think this has less to do with intelligence than a sense of wonder. I have a few friends who are not particularly intelligent (i.e. they either take a long time to understand, or simply don’t understand), but they always ask questions, & they think a lot; they don’t get bored even when unable to ‘do stuff.’

  24. General Social Survey participants (N = 14,964) were asked if life is exciting, routine, or dull. Of those who answered 0 out of 10 on a vocab test, 38.2% said that life is exciting. Of those who answered 10 for 10, 61.3% answered the same. Big difference.

  25. Here is Theodore Dalrymple’s article on the intelligent patients he met, who grew up in English slums – boredom was a major problem for them. His version of sg’s quote: 
     
    “But why are they bored, they ask me? The answer, of course, is that they have never applied their intelligence either to their work, their personal lives, or their leisure, and intelligence is a distinct disadvantage when it is not used: it bites back.”

  26. So I guess my question is this: can the intelligent ever really be bored when given leisure?I think we can easily answer this question by looking at sensitive, detailed portrayals of boredom by extremely intelligent authors, of which there are probably thousands. 
     
    I would venture, for example, that David Foster Wallace was capable of boredom right up until the end. Ditto Hunter S. Thompson (explicitly so). 
     
    If anything, wouldn’t intelligent people have more of a cognitive surplus to fill up than ordinary people? Intelligent people can entertain themselves using low technology (conversation, reading, writing, intellectual pursuits), but I’m not sure that shows it’s easier to entertain a smart person than a dull person. A conversation that’s interesting to a bright person requires a pretty bright interlocutor! It’s low-tech but difficult to get and to do. 
     
    With the sex thing (overgeneralizing Jason Malloy: stupid people have more sex with more people starting earlier): I can see there being different reward mechanisms for sex in bright versus dull people, but it seems reductive to ascribe this to dull people getting more bored. Do we know anything about the kind of sex smart versus dull people have? Based on personal experience I’d be surprised if dull people didn’t have duller sex. Fancy sex is pretty narrative and meta- and I’d be amazed if a dull person had the cognitive capacity to model simultaneously all the things that are required to have it.

  27. I think that intelligent people who are bored often are simply suffering from depression, which comes about when you realize that the puzzle is missing pieces.

  28. I’d never really thought about it but it’s true that I don’t get bored at all. Whenever I have free time, there’s always something interesting on my list of things to read or do, and I am the type of person that likes to spend a lot of time just staring off into space as well. As for whether I cause other people to be bored, though, I’d imagine it happens more often than I’d like…

  29. PhD student, IQ around +2 SD. Doing things meant to entertain a wide audience (high school assemblies, television watching, parties…) can bore me in the extreme. Give me a pen and paper and I’m good.  
     
    The intelligent have many interesting things to add to their network of facts. And ‘idle’ work they’ve been meaning to get to.

  30. Here is Theodore Dalrymple’s article on the intelligent patients  
     
    Thanks for the link, magnificent text.

  31. As a counterpoint to Carbon, I’m not a PhD student, but my IQ is also about +2SD, and I *do* get bored very easily. I am driven to new stimuli. It has been a problem.  
     
    I’m incapable of paying attention to things I’m not interested in except through massive force of will. I can’t sit still. I work in a research lab, but I’m not like the other researchers, many of whom seem to have a nearly bottomless reserves of focus which they can wield in a variety of directions. If my brain latches onto something, I can dive deeply into it; I can even become a bit obsessed, thinking deeply about one thing for hours– but I can’t just turn it on and off. I can’t *choose* what I’m interested in. I can’t stare at slides for three hours without going totally out of my mind.  
     
    School was difficult. (Please note which one of us– Carbon, who does not bore easily, or myself, who does– is on track for his PhD.) My grades were all over the place, a strange and pathetic mix of A’s and F’s. But my SAT’s were in the top two percentile. (Thank God, or I’d never have gotten into college.)  
     
    I feel like I’ve spent my life fighting this hunger for the new. The new horizon. The next book. The new idea.

  32. Kosmo’s experience is the same as mine (and that of every other person I’ve talked to about this). Tellingly, everyone I talked to is a slacker as described above – only one on track for his PhD, and he has EXTREME hunger for “the new” and fits of boredom and despair (and he was MCL from Harvard). They’re all slackers because that’s who I, as a slacker, have contact with. 
     
    Certainly there’s some self-segregation going on – maybe that’s why Razib doesn’t know any intelligent, bored people?

  33. Kosmo, Sister Y, finally people to empathize with! What do you do to cope?

  34. Turn off the net and at once you would create a horde of bored, intelligent people who would probably march to DC. The net makes free time that much more valuable. good discussion thread sparked by interesting question.. and no, I wont be bored with leisure time.. my work is interesting with some intelligent and creative folks and I do have reasonable amount of leisure but I would segment it differently if I had complete control over my time.

  35. “Kosmo, Sister Y, finally people to empathize with! What do you do to cope?” 
     
    – I write. It keeps me sane. (or at least sane-ish) 
     
    :)

  36. I remember asking Matt Mullenweg (the creator of WordPress) what was his motivation for creating WordPress; he answered that that he did it because he was … bored (!!!). Imagine if the results of our boredom would approach the usefulness of Matt’s solution to his ennui :)

  37. I have to agree with Theodore Dalrymple’s quote provided by Joseph, and Carbon’s comments. There is a slight paradox here, because I perceive that intelligent people get bored much more quickly than the average person when forced to do menial tasks that don’t involve any real brainpower, or don’t challenge them. However, given leisure time on their own and a few interesting books, the intellectually curious are happy as can be and will never get bored.  
     
    This can feed into introversion, because if you don’t need the outside stimulation to be satisfied, then what’s the point of going out? Plus, as Carbon said, you tend to accrue things to do individually. For example, I have about 100 books on my Amazon wishlist if there is any spare time, among many other things. Most of the time I rather wish there more than 24 hours in the day. My quote would have to be from the Lion King: “There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done”

  38. All this reminds me of one of the most menial jobs I ever had… bookkeeper for a group of geophysicists. In reality, they needed about 7 hours a week of bookkeeping services, yet they paid me to be there 40 hours a week. 
     
    Part of the reason I was there (as well as several geology students from the local university) was to keep them entertained. And to answer the phone. 
     
    Just in case y’all don’t understand what geophysicists and geologists do with various phenomenal software, it’s often rather tedious and boring. 
     
    As a result, office doors were left open and conversation flowed freely. Everything was open to discussion and possibly the only employment requirement was an ability to resist being offended. 
     
    (As bookkeeper, I was to make sure that there was always beer and soft drinks in the fridge, as well as booze in the boss’s office. And, since one of the partners was a Type I diabetic, I was also charged with making sure the candy never ran out. (I took on the non-required duty of making sure he ate lunch, which some women would deem sexist.) 
     
    The worst decision I ever made in my life was to leave this job for one that paid 3X as much. Money don’t mean shit, if it means you can’t speak your mind and be yourself.

  39. My brother was diagnosed with ADD and a psychologist who gave him a battery of tests said he’s one of the most intelligent people she’s tested. However, he can’t stand reading. 
     
    I think as a general rule, it may be true that intelligent people are likely to turn to books and learning in free time rather than suffer boredom, but other factors can override. 
     
    Like Kosmo, my grades were all over the place, but I ended up in an intellectually non-stimulating workplace rather than as a PhD student. To get by, you adjust. It’s difficult to come home and transition into material that is more interesting but has to be set aside quickly. When I was younger, it wasn’t uncommon for me to stay up to all hours reading. But when you know you have to go to bed at a certain time in order to get enough sleep, it just seems depressing to get that little bit of light and have to shut if off again right away. 
     
    Kosmo, you sound like classic attention deficit problems. You should get it checked out. It might make life easier if you found a way to deal.

  40. “Kosmo, you sound like classic attention deficit problems. You should get it checked out.” 
     
    Chris, funny you should mention that. My doc prescribed adderol, but I can’t make myself take the first pill.

  41. I have also been prescribed Adderall, which does indeed make menial tasks less boring, though it is unpleasant in other ways. (It’s inconceivable to me that someone could enjoy methamphetamine enough to become addicted.) Overall I prefer medical cannabis, which relieves boredom in a more pleasant, comfortable, reverse-Flowers-for-Algernon kind of way.

  42. I can’t imagine being bored, but I don’t think boredom and intelligence correlate as much as many people might think. 
     
    It should be easy enough to check – correlate people’s IQs (if you trust that value) versus their boredom proneness scales.

  43. I once knew a *very* smart man[1] who was also a repeat serious criminal[2]. He ascribed his crimes to the addictive exciting life he had while committing them and on the run afterwards.  
     
    [1] Obviously I didn’t have an IQ score from him, but I’ve worked with some famously brilliant people, and my judgment is that he’d fit in that crowd just fine intellectually.  
     
    [2] Bank robbery among other things.

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