The build-up to Christmas was always the best bit for me as a child. After the excitement of Christmas Day and – of course, in Scotland – Hogmanay, the rest of the school holidays felt a bit flat: I was often at a loose end and keen to get back to school. However, according to research, this experience of ‘boredom’ – being away from friends, obligations, and (nowadays) technology – is highly beneficial. Dr John Eastwood’s team discovered that often when we say ‘there is nothing to do’, we are blaming the environment because we have difficulty paying attention to our inner thoughts and feelings.
Boredom is apparently essential for developing true creativity. Various studies have explored the link between boredom and imagination. Children who did not watch television, for example, scored significantly higher on divergent thinking skills – a measure of imaginativeness – than those who did. TV stifled imagination because child viewers rarely became bored nor learnt how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. Results showed that those children’s lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of ‘empty time’ without sensory stimulation. Today, other technologies provide similarly constant stimulation, stopping us from being bored.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh used brain scanners to monitor neural activity in people engaged in problem solving. They found the brain was working much harder in those people who solved problems by daydreaming, resulting in a ‘brainwave’ or a flash of insight, than in those who used logical reasoning. One study suggests that our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering; that is, when we are slightly bored and we’ve actually lost track of our thoughts.
Boredom is also important in developing self-awareness and independence. Adam Phillips has argued that the ‘capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child … it is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him’. The over-organised child, who never disconnects, or who demands constant interaction with others, can actually block their own development. Girls at BHHS have had a very demanding term of study, hard-work and full engagement in a busy and exciting environment. The forthcoming break offers the chance to slow down, reflect and be thoughtful and I hope we can all make the most of the opportunity for some ‘boredom’ by switching off, doing nothing and letting our minds wander.