What happens when a brain is "bored"?

Poor handling of boredom can have a negative effect on mental health. A recent study, therefore, looked into the question of what happens in the brain when you are bored and how best to deal with it.

A coping trick: "think of motivating things, instead of concentrating on your own boredom."

Poor handling of boredom can have a negative effect on mental health. A recent study, therefore, looked into the question of what happens in the brain when you are bored and how best to deal with it.

Professor Sammy Perone of Washington State University explained that "everybody gets bored, but some people feel it so often that it puts a strain on their health." For this reason, Professor Perone and his colleagues wanted to investigate how boredom develops in the brain.

They hoped to derive solutions from the results on how to deal with boredom in order to prevent it from affecting mental health. "In the end, we wanted to find out how to deal with boredom as effectively as possible," explained Perone.

Study setup

At the beginning of the study, the researchers assumed that there was a "hardwired" difference between the brains of people who react negatively to boredom and those who do not. But by measuring brain activity, scientists found that they were wrong about this assumption.

Professor Perone explained: "We thought that in subjects who reacted negatively to boredom, certain brain waves would become noticeable before the feeling of boredom. But in the first test, we couldn't distinguish the brain waves. It was only at the stage of boredom that differences appeared."

Based on this finding, the research team assumed that the obvious explanation for the different effects of boredom was much more banal. For example, some people simply find it harder to deal with boredom, which can affect their wellbeing. The researchers point out that earlier studies suggested that such people were also more susceptible to anxiety disorders or depression.

Based on this assumption, according to the researchers, it is possible to develop methods for better dealing with boredom and to reduce the probability of mental illnesses resulting from this. But first, the research team had to investigate how boredom actually makes itself felt in the brain.

Testing the execution of the most boring task imaginable

54 young adults took part in the study, the first step of which was to complete a questionnaire on the subject of "boredom". After an initial EEG test, the researchers gave the study participants a tedious task: they had to turn eight virtual pens as soon as the computer prompted them to do so. During the ten-minute task, the researchers used the EEG to measure brain activity.

Perone remarked: "I've never done this before, it's really tiring. But in earlier studies, this activity was considered the most boring activity imaginable, so it was exactly what we needed."

During the measurement, the research team particularly observed activities in the right and left frontal lobe of the brain. The researchers explained that the left frontal lobe becomes active when a person thinks of something distracting in a situation. The right frontal lobe, on the other hand, would be particularly active when anxiety or negative feelings are felt.

The scientists recognized an increased activity of the right frontal lobe in participants who, according to their own statements, quickly felt bored during the performance of the task. In contrast, the left frontal lobe was particularly conspicuous in subjects with good boredom management.

Enabling a better way of dealing with boredom

Next, Professor Perone's team wants to develop clear strategies on how people can deal better with boredom. The recent survey was also helpful for this step. Perone said: "A participant in the experiment reported that he was rehearsing Christmas carols for an upcoming concert while performing the task. It's very helpful to think about motivating things instead of focusing on your own boredom."

Therefore, the research team considered proactive thinking to be a useful method against boredom. "Our results showed that it is possible to deal better with boredom," Perone noted. "Now we want to discuss the best possible ways through which boredom can be managed for all sorts of people. In the future, we will continue to give study participants a task, but they will also have something to think about at the same time. If we can help people deal better with boredom, it can have a positive impact on their overall mental health."

Perone S et al., Over and over again: Changes in frontal EEG asymmetry across a boring task. Psychophysiology 2019; e13427