Does boredom lead to great ideas?

In the age of the internet, boredom is fast becoming a thing of the past. We are constantly connected and our minds have no opportunity to wander, but is that affecting our ability to come up with ideas?

According to some psychologists, the lost art of mind wandering is key to creativity and the fact that the smartphone is replacing our boredom could have a real impact on our ability to come up with brilliant ideas.

"There is a close link between creativity, originality and novelty on the one hand, and these spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle," cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jonathan Smallwood told the New Tech City podcast. Creativity and daydreaming are "peas in a pod", he added.

The real problem therefore comes when we ‘solve’ our boredom with our smartphones.

"The smartphone solution probably takes away the boredom but it also denies us this chance to see and learn about where we truly are in terms of our goals," Dr Smallwood says.

Boredom helps us to do this – as our mind begins to wander, thoughts naturally turn inward. And accord to another scientist, Scott Barry Kaufman, neuroimaging can now prove "daydreaming is the default mental state of the human mind".

Dr Sandi Mann is a researcher and lecturer at Lancashire University who specialises in boredom. She designed an experiment to see whether boredom causes people to become more creative. First, she asked a group of participants to copy numbers out of a telephone directory for 20 minutes – just to make sure that they were truly bored – and come up with different uses for two plastic cups. Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact that they had just completed one of the most mind numbing tasks in the world, the uses for the cups that they came up with were not the most creative and mainly featured different things you could put in the cups.

So Dr Mann repeated the experiment. Except this time, she had participants just read the telephone directory for 20 minutes instead of copying it out. And what a difference it made to the ideas they came up with for using the plastic cups: turning them into earrings, a telephone, musical instruments, even a Madonna-esque bra!

So what happened the second time around that enabled participants to come up with better ideas?

"Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, into the subconscious, which allows different connections to take place," Dr Mann told the New Tech City podcast. "It’s really awesome actually."

So are we all missing out on something because we never really allow our minds to wander anymore? According to Dr Mann, that’s exactly what’s happening.

"We’re all guilty of this," she says. "Go to any airport or train station platform and everyone’s there staring at their screens, scrolling and swiping. And they’re missing out on boredom and this is a real problem."

I think we need to bring boredom back into our lives.

But what’s the solution? To turn off our devices and start getting bored again? It could just be.

"It takes a real stretch of your comfort zone and people actually get really frightened of being away from the internet and being away from communication," Dr Mann says. "But when you do I you suddenly discover things about yourself and things about your brain and your capabilities. You come up with some great ideas, whether that’s to do with redecorating your house of a great idea of something to cook for dinner that night.

"I think we should be bored and we should embrace boredom. I think we need to bring boredom back into our lives. You come up with the really great stuff when you don’t have that easy, lazy junk food diet of the phone to scroll all the time."


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