New Scientist Int 4.04.2020

(C. Jardin) #1

56 | New Scientist | 4 April 2020

The back pages Q&A


So, what do you do?
I devise experiments to test ideas my students
and I have about human behaviour. We use a
range of different tools, from questionnaires to
in-lab experiments and neuroimaging, to better
understand behaviour – in our case, boredom.

Scientifically speaking, what is boredom?
Boredom’s role in our lives is to signal that what
we are doing now is unsatisfying in some way
and we need to do something else. So while it is
unpleasant, boredom is most definitely useful.
A life without boredom would be a life of inactivity.
If we were never bored, how would we choose to
change what we do from one moment to the next?

Are people getting more bored more easily?
A recent paper did suggest things might be getting
worse. They tested high school kids and found that
boredom was increasing across grades, peaking at
around grade 10 (age 15 to 16). But I think what you
really want to know is whether boredom is worse
now than it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago. And we just
don’t have the data to answer that.

Knowing what you do about boredom,
are there ways we can become more
engaged in the world?
This question is a little like asking, “What makes
people happy?” The answer will be idiosyncratic
for each person. David Morgan was considered
so boring he was in the Dull Men of Great Britain
calendar – he collects traffic cones! You and I might
think that is boring, but David finds the nuance
and history in each cone fascinating. So there is no
specific answer to what you in particular should do
to engage more effectively with the world. What
boredom is prompting you to do is to think
carefully about what matters to you. Maybe it is
traffic cones, maybe it is 18th-century board games.

What are you working on right now?
One thing my students and I are trying to do
is determine what factors cause proneness to
boredom. So far, we have found that different levels
of self-esteem and self-control at one point in time
predict changes in such proneness at a later date.

How has your field of study changed in
the time you have been working in it?
The biggest change has been a significant
rise in interest in understanding boredom.
We are starting to see people deploy the tools
of neuroimaging to understand the brain states
associated with boredom too. This is in its infancy,
but exciting things are coming out all the time.

What is the best piece of advice anyone
ever gave you?
My dad has always been quick with an aphorism,
so much so it is hard to pick one! But in my
mid-20s, I told him to stop doing things for
me and that I needed to stand on my own two
feet. He looked at me and said: “Jim, I’m nearly
60 and I’ve never stood on my own two feet.”
What he meant was that we always rely on
others to get through this life.

What’s the best thing you’ve read or seen
in the past 12 months?
A computational modelling paper by Yen Yu and
his colleagues. They created two computational
agents – one driven by curiosity and the other
by boredom – and set them a virtual maze-type
task to see which learned best. The boredom
agent won! This great paper shows that boredom
functions well as a drive to explore the world.

How useful will your skills be after the
My family has started making our “apoca-list”:
things we need to learn to do before the zombie
apocalypse descends! It is a long list, but the
internet will be down so we must get cracking!
Science is all about creative problem-solving,
so I would like to think I would be OK in the end.

OK, one last thing: tell us something that
will blow our minds...
Animals get bored. Perhaps you have seen it in
your pet, but Rebecca Meagher and Georgia Mason
actually showed it to be true experimentally in
mink! House the mink in non-enriched cages and
they will desperately approach anything novel
you show them – even things they would normally
avoid, like the shadow of a predator. I am always
amazed by the clever experimental designs of
people and this paper blew my mind. ❚

James Danckert is a psychologist at the University of
Waterloo in Canada. He is the co-author of Out of My
Skull: The psychology of boredom, out later this year

“ My family has

started making

our “apoca-list”:

things we need

to learn to

do before

the zombie



We are only now beginning to
understand the science of boredom
and that makes it pretty interesting,
says James Danckert
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