The Case For Boredom
Neuroscientists will tell you that boredom gets a bad rap. Research is starting to show that the time we spend doing literally nothing could be extremely beneficial. Letting our minds wander could actually be the time we need to understand what we want from life, or spark the creative ideas that will move a long-stuck project forward. But if you’re always on your phone, whether it’s texting or checking Twitter, can you ever be bored enough for your mind to wander into brilliance?
Note To Self host Manoush Zomorodi is the author of a new book about simple ways you can take your life and your brain back from your devices. She and neuroscientist and psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang join Ira to talk about the important benefits of being bored—from creativity, to empathy.
Manoush Zomorodi is host and managing editor of WNYC’s Note to Self (formerly New Tech City) in New York, New York. She’s also author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is an associate professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When was the last time you were bored? I don’t mean trapped in a meeting you hated bored. I mean, really bored. Staring at the wall bored. Watching paint dry bored. Driving through cornfields bored. I’m getting bored just reading this. How long did that last?
If you’re like me, you reached for your smartphone as soon as possible, right? Maybe you have a game you play, you turn to social media, you see what’s trending on Twitter, but would you ever be willing to stay bored, turn that phone off, or just leave it at home? Well, my next guests are here to say you should try that. Just try that. That filling time with our smartphones is actually taking something valuable away from us, our boredom, and the brain when you’re bored, it’s actually doing important work that can help you be more productive in the long run. Manoush Zomorodi is host of WNYC’s podcast, Note To Self, and she has been thinking about this for a few years now.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: She’s the author of a new book exploring the benefits of boredom, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Creative and Productive Self. And you can read an excerpt on our website at sciencefriday.com/bored. She’s here with us in New York. Hi, Manoush. Good to see you.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Hello, Ira. Good to see you.
IRA FLATOW: And Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a Neuroscientist and Psychologist Associate Professor, University of Southern California in LA. Welcome, Mary Helen.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Hi, nice to be here.
IRA FLATOW: And I want to ask you, our listeners, do you ever let yourself get bored, or is your smartphone filling– well, you’re filling your void? Give us a call on our number 844-724-8255– 844 sci talk or tweet us @scifri. Manoush, why are you urging us to get bored rather than being mindful?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, yes, so I’m wondering actually, if some Science Friday listeners took part because a couple of years ago, I was here to– you guys helped me launch this project. It was a week-long experiment where 20,000 of us sort of tweaked our smartphone behavior to see what would happen, to see if it would jumpstart our creativity. And actually, it worked. We got stories and data, and I did a ton more research. And that is what is in now the book version of Bored and Brilliant.
And I think, for me, what it was about and what I found out it was about for so many people was the sense that we were always turning to our gadgets. The minute we felt the slightest bit uncomfortable, we could always check Instagram or refresh the headlines or show our spouse or coworker that we were responsive all the time, and really, I was wondering, what is the cumulative effect of never having boredom in your life? And I talked to people like Mary Helen who explained to me that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the default mode. And in the default mode, you do some incredibly important work, original thinking, and you cannot tap that brain power, necessarily, if you are always tapping your phone.
IRA FLATOW: So, if you deprive yourself of that boredom, you’re actually, Mary Helen, you’re actually affecting your brain functions?
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Yeah, potentially. I mean, what we now know from literally hundreds of fMRI studies, so neuroimaging studies where scientists have put people into the brain scanner and taken pictures of how blood is moving around in their brains when they’re just resting and daydreaming and thinking about things as compared to really trying to do an effortful task, paying attention to something, trying to respond quickly to something, and what we’ve learned is that the brain is operating in these complex, dynamic networks that are balanced with one another and that shift and switch off with one another in accordance with the way that you’re thinking. And when you’re attending to things in the world, when you’re listening to your cell phone ding or you’re getting that little rush from checking your email and seeing if somebody wrote to you, you’re attending to the outside world in a way that shuts down and decouples an internal network, like Manoush mentioned, called the default mode network, which we now know is involved in all kinds of complex integrative thinking, bringing together your past memories with possible futures, imagining things that don’t actually exist, thinking about how things could be, thinking about why things happen as they do, and trying to make sort of coherent meaning, a narrative, if you will, out of how your life is going and how it could go if you were to be more strategic about how you reengage after you’re done being bored.
IRA FLATOW: I kind of think that I– because I took your test, read your book, great book, and I saw your tips on it.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I said to myself, I don’t get bored. I mean, I’m always find I always have something to do.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: That’s how I feel too, yeah. I always have something going on in my mind, yeah.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, so I have spoken to people. I have two things to say to that. First of all, if you are not struggling, if you can put down your cell phone no problem, look around you. There is someone– a partner, a coworker, a friend, a child, a parent– who is struggling to be able to sit and be with their thoughts. And secondly, I would say that maybe what you’ve realized is that daydreaming, the positive constructive kind–
IRA FLATOW: I do a lot of that.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: You know it works, and so you are able to– the minute you get bored, you don’t run away from it. You embrace it because you’ve seen that all these great ideas can come from it. So, yay, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I can’t focus. That’s my problem. I’m always doing something, Mary Helen, and you know, when I find my most creative time– and maybe you’ve found this with your surveys– is that when I’m doing nothing and something boring is happening, like I’m taking a shower–
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Exactly.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: That’s exactly right.
IRA FLATOW: Or I’m driving on a long road, my mind is actually being more creative.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: That’s exactly right.
IRA FLATOW: I’m solving a problem I couldn’t solve before.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: That’s right, and you know what, Ira? It’s not just that you’re bored, it’s that you’re using up your sort of physical attention and motor control with kind of automatic, easy to complete tasks that are kind of controlling and suppressing your urges to jump around and move and to tend to stuff. So, you’re doing something. It’s just something very banal and easy to do that doesn’t require a lot of conscious effort, and that’s where your mind is really free to engage in these other forms of thinking that are more integrative.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: And I would add to that there are a lot of people out there whom I’ve been speaking to on my book tour who say that– I think, what they’re doing is confusing productivity with reflex, with this ability to be responsive all the time. So they’re thinking, oh, it’s a long shower. That means I have time to listen to a podcast. Oh, it’s a long drive. I’ll call my brother and have a long conversation. They’re thinking of that time as not useful but as a way to be sort of connected to something when, actually, it is incredibly useful if you let your mind space out.
IRA FLATOW: We’re talking with Manoush Zomorodi, host of Note to Self and author of Board and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. Also talking with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. Manoush, OK, so you surveyed all these– you spent years collecting this research–
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: How did people’s lives change when they took your survey and tried the steps you mentioned in the book?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, so first, the bad news. Collectively, the 20,000 of us, we only shaved off six minutes of time per day on our phone on average.
I know and I thought–
IRA FLATOW: How bad are we?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I know. And I was like– I went back to Mary Helen and some of the other people who we were consulting with. I was like, I don’t think it worked. And then I also shared with them all of the thousands of stories that we got, and they said, you know, changing a behavior or a habit in six days is nearly impossible. So one woman, for example, Vanessa, renamed her farm Make Time Farm, and now, one day every month, she opens up her farm to the community.
She puts out a basket where people can put their gadgets. They can activate their default mode. They can take a nap. And what she decided was, not only did she need her farm to sort of pay for her life, but she decided to use it as a place where people purposefully use their technology or purposefully didn’t use their technology. They got a little bored.
IRA FLATOW: Is there the ultimate or– is there a goal of boredom we should be shooting for every day? Is there a certain time– no, and you’re careful to mention that you’re not talking about mindfulness.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Correct, that’s absolutely right. And Well, statistically, 90% of the people felt that they had more control over how they use their gadgets. 70% felt that they just had more time to think. And so I would say, mindfulness is another network in your brain that is about sort of not thinking. The beauty of boredom is not knowing where your mind is going to take you. So, setting a goal, yes, it can help you solve a specific problem, but part of the joy of this is the surprise that you might end up coming up with a brilliant idea that’s as simple as knowing what to do with the leftovers in your refrigerator. I would argue that is creativity right there.
IRA FLATOW: You know, years ago, I had an opportunity to talk to some of the Einstein students. I mean, these are guys who are already middle-aged themselves. And I’d say, what did Einstein do when he had a problem? They’d say, he would say, I’d give a little tink. And he would take a walk and get bored, think about his ideas. And that’s what he did. Let’s go to the phones. Brian in Elkhart, Indiana. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
Hey, I’m a teacher, and that I work with teachers. I train them on instruction and as tech flows into our buildings, we really work with our teachers on, you don’t always have to let students use it and pushing them back to the mindfulness thing. And not even necessarily mindfulness but pushing students to interact with each other. So the students might be saying that they’re bored in class, but we’re working with our teachers to harness that energy and get them to interact with each other and have more creative work time in the classroom together.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I love that because I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers who have done Bored and Brilliant in their classrooms, and one of the things they say that starts to reappear in the classroom is eye contact between students because they realize, not only do they maybe have their phones with them but they might have tablets in the classroom. They’re looking at smartboards all the time. And so, when those get turned off, we start to go to some of the nonverbal ways of communication that we don’t do as often as we used to, including eye contact. So, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
IRA FLATOW: Mary Helen, what do you think?
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Yeah, I think, in education– I’ve done a lot of work in education– this is something that really interests me because it’s so important for today’s kids and teachers. And I think, in education, the key is to be strategic and aware of how you’re using the technology so that it’s facilitating a high-level goal of kids really engaging with us in interesting problem space, learning from one another, collaborating in interesting ways, accessing information, but when it starts to be a fill-in for actual real time collaboration and interaction between people and eye contact like when you said, then it’s driving instead of the people in the classroom driving. And we need to take a step back.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go to Sue in Waco, Texas. Hi, Sue. Welcome to Science Friday.
SUE: Yes, hello.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.
SUE: I’m a news junkie. And I love listening to science programs, and I listen to NPR One a lot. And I used to just have my thinking when I walk my dogs, and I used to have a long walk to work or else a long walk to public transport. And now, I drive everywhere, and I have the radio on with more news.
And I’m starting to think– I’ve also found that, more recently, I’m waking after four or five hours at night, and then I’m just awake for an hour or so thinking before I get back to sleep again. And that didn’t happen to me when I had my long walks. So, maybe my body’s telling me, hey, you need thinking time even if I make you wake up in the middle of a night to think. Could that be happening?
IRA FLATOW: All right, let me remind everybody that this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. So, do you have an answer to this kind of question asked?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I have the exact same thing happen to me. Mary Helen, maybe you know the studies behind this, but I find that if I don’t give myself the time to process the information that I have taken in during the day, I am up in the middle of the night too.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s one of the main causes of sleeplessness and restlessness at night is not having enough physical exercise and, with that also, enough time to process and tell yourself about your life before you go to sleep. So you sort of consolidated what matters and offloaded it at the end of your day.
IRA FLATOW: So, how do you take the time back? How do you recapture it?
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Well, so, I think it’s too much to say to people like, oh, just get off your phone more. What I found is that doesn’t work. So, in the book, we have very specific small tweaks. So for example, day four is delete that app day. For one day, take the app that is driving you bananas– think about what it is right now, listeners, you know the one. There’s always one– just take it off for the day and see what it feels like. Don’t quit the app. Don’t quit the platform, just not have it follow you around for one single day.
And what I heard from listeners is, some people, 2 and 1/2 years later after the original project, they never put them back on their phone because they like using it purposefully. 20 minutes at a laptop works better for them. Other people take Twitter off their phone, for example, for one day a month just to remind themselves, they don’t have to do it. It is a choice to be on these platforms because I think what people have found is that they’re tools. Well, they should be tools. They’ve turned into taskmasters, a lot of these apps and gadgets, when really, they’re supposed to be tools that improve our lives, not tell us what to do all day long.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: And I think we really have to remember that these tools are designed to capitalize on our human desire for sort of interesting information and novelty to come in from the world. We get a little hit in our brain of pleasure and reward feeling when we check an email or we get a little ding or a buzz from somebody interacting with us or when we see something come in on our Twitter feed, and those are very insidiously addictive. And we need to understand that that’s why it’s so hard to step back is that the brain is learning to expect these things to be fed to it, and it’s difficult to switch your habits so that you’re also feeling that kind of reward for something that doesn’t come from the outside but instead comes from your own mind.
IRA FLATOW: And if you’re always on the phone or tweeting or something, you miss out face-to-face time with people.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: For sure.
Don’t Don’t you, Mary Helen?
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Yeah, absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: I mean, there is value in that.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Absolutely, there’s value in that. The way in which we interact with other people in real time in sort of ways that are face-to-face and embodied is a critical piece of how our brains and our bodies are meant to interact. We kind of co-regulate one another physiologically, and when you are interacting over these remote devices, you don’t have that same kind of closeness.
IRA FLATOW: Because I know, in my office, we depend on some apps to send messages back and forth, and there are people sitting right next to each other literally texting each other messages when they could be doing that.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: You’re making me laugh because I was at one of the Google campuses last week doing a talk about this, and I was saying how it’s not a good thing that these platforms make their money off of attention from our eyeballs all the time. And I was expecting this big backlash from them, Ira, but all they wanted to talk about was how much trouble they were having dealing with all the pings and interruptions and being on Slack and all the various platforms that there are for us to connect with each other and that it was taking them away from the deep work that they did need to do.
IRA FLATOW: And if you want some relief, you can read Manoush’s book. The book is called Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Creative and Productive Self. She’s the host of WNYC’s Note to Self. Manoush Zomorodi, thank you for taking time. Good to see you.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, good to see you too.
IRA FLATOW: And Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a Neuroscientist at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute in Los Angeles. Thank you for taking time to be with us.
MARY HELEN IMMORDINO-YANG: Yeah, thank you. It was fun.