Will: Boredom and the Costs of Constant Connection


Can trout be bored? Can dolphins or apes? Are they neurologically complex enough to experience boredom? What might boredom mean to such creatures? Humanity can boast that it is capable of boredom, but there may now be an unhealthy scarcity of that particular brain pain.

Human beings evolved over dangerous eons. Brains formed in response to constant hazards may react with boredom when exposed to the safety of modern life. Perhaps flight from boredom prompts people today to take refuge in constant stimulation by visual and audio entertainments.

Adam J. Cox is a clinical psychologist worried about the effect of today's cornucopia of electronic stimuli on the cognition of young boys. Writing in The New Atlantis, he says human beings evolved in a world of nutritional scarcity and have responded to the sudden abundance of salt, sugar, and fat by creating an epidemic of obesity. And, he says, the mind, too, now craves junk nourishment:

"Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do."

The ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games makes "the chaos of constant connection" an addictive electronic narcotic. As continuous stimulation becomes the new normal, "gaps between moments of heightened stimulation" are disappearing; amusement "has squeezed the boredom out of life." For the hyperstimulated, "the synaptic mindscape of daily life" becomes all peaks and no valleys.

But valleys can be good for us. Cox believes that a more common occurrence of boredom in the young would be welcome evidence of "the presence of available resources for thought, reflection, and civil behavior." Cox notes that "being civil is rarely fun—it requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium." So for the overstimulated, "civility feels like submission."

Cox worries about the deficits in the communication abilities of young males for whom a "womb of all-encompassing stimulation" induces "a pleasant trance from which they do not care to be awakened." Hence, perhaps, the "failure to launch" of many young males who, "preoccupied with self-amusement," struggle to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. What Cox calls "the unbearable lightness of adolescence" is not new; what is new is an "excess of amusement" producing a deficient sense of gravity.

"Unlike reading and listening to stories," Cox warns, "the blitz of electronica doesn't build deeper listening skills or a greater range of emotional expression." Self-absorption, particularly among young males, may be the greatest danger of immersion in the bath of digital amusement: "Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being." So "the silent, sullen boy at the mall's game store may be next in line for an underemployed, lonely adulthood if we don't teach him how to maintain effective social contacts with others."

Cox doubts it is a mere coincidence that "the stratospheric increase in diagnosed learning and attention deficits" has correlated with "the advent of the electronic playground." When so many Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, it "is arguably no longer a disorder at all—it's just the way we are."

Yes, "we." Not just boys but adults of both sexes, too, seem insatiably hungry for handheld devices that deliver limitless distractions. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is not a finished product; neural networks can be rewired by intense and prolonged experiences. Some research suggests that the constant short-term stimulation of flitting to and fro among digital promptings can impede long-term memory on which important forms of intelligence depend.

We are in the midst of a sudden and vast social experiment involving myriad new means of keeping boredom at bay. And we may yet rue the day we surrendered to the insistent urge to do so.

There are, however, paragons among whom boredom flourishes. Valerie Jarrett, one of Barack Obama's closest confidantes, says (as reported in David Remnick's The Bridge), "He knows exactly how smart he is…He's been bored to death his whole life. He's just too talented to do what ordinary people do." Even regarding boredom, he is a reproach to the rest of us.