Monday, July 19, 2021

The Horror of Boredom

For some reason the Washington Post article (via Maggie's Farm) on the latest psychological research into boredom neglects the most famous literary expression. Perhaps the reason is, it was written in French, in the mid nineteenth century, by one Charles Baudelaire. And, being French, Baudelaire, in his address to his reader in his book, Fleurs de Mal, that is, Flowers of Evil, did not call it boredom. He called it-- ennui. 

Here is the translation of a passage from the poem:

But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch hounds,

The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,

The yelping, howling, growling, crawling monsters,

In the filthy menagerie of our vices,

There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy!

Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries,

He would willingly make of the earth a shambles

And, in a yawn, swallow the world;

He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,

He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.

Make of it what you will. Baudelaire’s point, seconded by the Washington Post, is that our brains need activity, we need engagement with the outside world, in order to function. The second point, from the poet and the newspaper, is that when we are deprived of such engagement, we are willing to do almost anything, regardless how perverse and how criminal, to revive our brains. 

You see, boredom damages the human brain, through inanition. The brain wants to survive, so, in the absence of productive or constructive interactions, it will do almost anything to provoke situations that engage it. And that can include the greatest monstrosities.

If you imagine, the story says, that good things will befall you if only are are alone with your thoughts, you have either overestimated how engaging your thoughts are or you have underestimated how much you need external stimulants:

In 2014, psychologists at the University of Virginia conducted a simple experiment to showcase the power of the human mind. They placed subjects in a room by themselves with no distractions for roughly 10 minutes, letting them be alone with their thoughts. Given the infinite possibilities that our imaginations hold, it aimed to promote the sheer pleasures we can derive from just thinking.

“We thought this would be great. People are so busy that it would give them a chance to slow down, sit quietly and daydream for a few minutes,” said Erin Westgate, a young graduate student at the time. “So we started running these studies, and they were complete failures.”

It turns out that people hated it. They found the experience so unpleasant, many of them preferred physical pain over the discomfort of boredom. 

When given the opportunity to ­self-administer a mild electric shock with a button, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women pressed it at least once to help pass the time. One particularly miserable person shocked himself an incredible 190 times.

Of course, this tells us why prisoners dread solitary confinement. 

Obviously, constructive social interactions are the normal way that humans avoid boredom. This suggests that feeling bored means feeling alone and isolated, feeling like a pariah.

In the absence of normal social interactions we are willing to do almost anything to avoid being bored. One assumes that that includes television, video games and surfing the net. 

They explain that new research has shown that boredom makes ferrets crazy. One group of ferrets were allowed play time and were allowed to interact with a human being. Another group was deprived of all objects that might have engaged them in play. And they had no human interaction. Think, solitary confinement:

She recently performed an experiment with laboratory ferrets, giving one group an hour of playtime for three consecutive days in a room with a ball pit, paper bags and a human to interact with. A control group of ferrets remained confined to their cages. On the fourth day, Burn and her colleagues observed that the ferrets who got playtime slept soundly while the control group spent more time lying awake with eyes open and screeching.

And then there were the experiments performed on minks:

Other work has found that animals kept in barren environments seek novelty, even in the form of things they would normally avoid. A 2012 study on mink found that animals kept in impoverished cages were more likely to approach even negative stimuli such as air puffs and bobcat urine. They also ate more snacks and stayed awake but inactive for longer periods of time, as bored humans have been known to do. Animals have even been observed to drink alcohol and take amphetamines, if given the opportunity.

“Because the brain relies on stimulation to keep working and being effective, some of the synapses — the links in your brain — can literally start to break down and become inactive,” Burn said. “Animals kept in barren environments have physically lighter and smaller brains, and their learning ability is greatly affected.”


whitney said...

Well I'm just so glad they tortured ferrets to find that out. It takes a rare person to be alone with his thoughts and knowledge but a high IQ person with a trained, nimble mind can do it to great rewards. But again. that's a rare person. Most of us are not that special. Yet despite my averageness, I still know that without torturing any small animals.

Sam L. said...

I may be in my basement, not underground, but I have the window covered up as it faces east. I have the internet and lots of books close at hand.

JPL17 said...

No need to torture ferrets, all they had to do was read their Dostoevsky:

"Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then.

-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 1864

markedup2 said...

Solitary confinement would drive me crazy, but TEN MINUTES?!?!

I've stood in formation for many multiples of that length of time.

I think this is yet another selection bias problem: Try the same experiment on people who are NOT your students.