My dog is a cheeky creature. Like many other beagles, she lives in a constant state of unrest, craves new toys, and is always ready for menace, even at the expense of the usual punishment. Like many humans, she just can’t stay put when she is bored.
And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
All of us have experienced it; it only takes sitting on the coach. For a couple of seconds, everything is just fine. Then, it suddenly isn’t. You find yourself staring at a picture on the wall; your hand moved, with no indication whatsoever from you, searching for the TV remote, the smartphone, or a magazine; or maybe you just feel the urgency to stand up and check what’s on the fridge. Part of you is sabotaging other part that wants to stand still doing nothing. You may take sides, but there is indeed a battle. A creepy thought arise: am I alone, or am I more than one I?
Why do we feel that way when we force our mind not to focus on anything?
And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
As remarkable as our ability to see, or hear, is our ability to ignore. Our senses gather an estimated 11 billion bits of information each second, out of which we process no more than a hundred of them, being optimistic. Fortunately, we have a valve by which to turn the flow on and off at will. When we shut the valve, we can focus on one thing— say, reading this essay— out of the billions of bits coming in.
We ignore because, otherwise, we would be severely limited to pay attention; our world should be made of what matters. The limited capacity for our brains has triggered an evolutionary process of selecting out everything that is there and has been there for a while. Routine is brought by our senses out of existence.
But our capacity to ignore is also constrained by the fact that we always pay attention to something. It’s always a matter of “what”, and never “if”.
And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.
Nature tells us over and over that things don’t last. That we shouldn’t be taking things for granted, because nothing prevails. Panta rhei, the philosopher Heraclitus said. Everything flows. Like a whisper from the ancients, we are constantly reminded that we shouldn’t get ourselves comfortable, that there’s a storm coming, that we should brace ourselves for winter.
Our world is set for living beings to be in a frequent struggle for existence. Any variation, however small, that is slightly profitable under the complex conditions of life will be naturally selected. For humans, there are no fangs or wings; we harness our ability to pay attention.
It’s sensible to conclude that we have evolved to manage our focus: not too much, so that living doesn’t become unbearable; but neither too little, for there are things out there that are hunting us, and we must be prepared. If we are unconsciously turned off by what’s routine, sieving out noise, the anxiety of not paying attention to anything, being bored, is what keeps us in the lookout for signal.
And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
Schopenhauer is probably the father of boredom studies, in part because the necessities of life were reliably secured for him, leaving the question “what to do now?” with no straightforward answer. He had achieved what kings and queens a couple hundred years earlier wouldn’t dare dreaming, and he was, nevertheless, unrest. In The World as Will and Representation, he described boredom as “anything but an evil to be thought of lightly: ultimately it depicts the countenance of real despair”.
Yet, boredom is an impulse, like hunger and fear. When we are hungry, one neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide Y becomes actively present in the the hypothalamus, triggering a desire for sweet and starchy foods. The body does that in order to fuel the tank, but also in order to make sure that we only eat when we need to. So does work with fear: we are triggered to run away from what could kill us, but also to identify what is not really dangerous.
Boredom may act that way too. If necessity the mother of invention, boredom is the mother of retrospection and thought. When bored, we are left with nothing else but to ruminate thoughts, because on doing so, we become prepared. A glass is useful because of its empty space: you need the emptiness to fill it up with something. For ideas to grow, you must have some empty space in your mind. If that is true, then boredom is the mother of philosophy.
And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
Today’s culture is pathologically fearful of being bored. More and more people delay going to bed for as much as possible, so that they won’t have to stare at the empty ceiling and confront the boredom of falling asleep. Many accidents on the road happen because driving behind a slow car is boring. We can’t even stand being put on hold even if it means saving money on the phone bill.
Being bored is to realise that we aren’t in control of our surroundings; we are left with ourselves. For some, for most indeed, that’s scary. And for most, what’s scary must be run away from. This leads to something terrible, I think. We despise being bored, so we welcome the bombarding of stimuli that keep us from boredom. Social media may be to blame for some things, but we are entirely responsible for ourselves. Our society, fearing the hunger of sensations, overeats.
By inhibiting boredom, we are ignoring a powerful signal that the body is sending to us: reflect, think deeply, remember what’s meaningful and discard what’s only amusing. Unless we become at ease with our thoughts, we will let someone else think for ourselves: scary, emotional thoughts, that will drive our attention away from truly, original ideas, born out of the time we spend alone with our restless minds.