Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bring Back Boredom

 We need the slogan, “Bring Back Boredom,” claims Dr. Michael Rich when he speaks of the impact technology is having on our brains. Do we allow ourselves the chance to occupy a moment of boredom without turning toward a digital device?

How often have you gone to Starbucks, a restaurant or a bar by yourself, either to wait for someone or to dine alone? Do you look at your phone when you are waiting? I do, all the time, but I began to wonder if this constant need for connectivity interferes with my ability to be present with myself. How often do people spend alone time on their phone, not because they are working or communicating, but because they are bored, unaccustomed to being without stimulation? I am pretty sure that if I did not have my head down intently looking at my phone, I would be able to have a conversation with someone around me if I wanted to, but what about when we are completely alone?

“Think of sitting quietly in a spartan room. There are no TVs, computers, smartphones, books, magazines or music,” states Aran Levasseur in his article, “Why we Need to Teach Mindfulness in a Digital Age.” He supposes that most would think this was an environment for boredom. The highly connected technological world we live in has made many boredom averse, but what if we need boredom in counteract the adverse effects of our over-connectivity.

Recent brain imaging studies reveal that the brain is highly active during times when there is no external stimulus to the brain. The brain needs to be bored, quiet, still in order to memorize, synthesize and innovate. When the brain is stimulated all of the time, there is no space nor room for creativity, for unique thought, or for presence with oneself. Dr. Michael Rich states in a 2010 NY Times article that “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.”

One of the problems in today’s world of high media consumption is that our brains are becoming addicted to the amount of information and stimulus provided by the digital arena. The average American consumes 40 gigabytes of content and 150,000 words every day. When we “consume” data to this degree, we develop a chemical dependence on it because the dopamine from the text message notification or the high speed of the video game creates a “high,” and the brain seeks more stimulation when the dopamine level decreases, not less stimulation.

Downtime without media distractions, or boredom, becomes all the more important, but much harder for many to tolerate in this era. Tolerance for this lack of stimulation to the brain becomes one of the goal of mindfulness practice. Formal practice with 20, 10 and even 5 minute meditations helps train the brain to quiet and calm, but there are several informal mindfulness practices that can accomplish the same thing.

How often are we silent without a digital device or external stimulation including other people? We could take a solo walk in nature without the iPod. We could drive in the car without talking on the phone or listening to the radio. Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and staring out the window is one way to unwind, and working in the garden, pulling weeds is another.

The next time you are bored, feeling like you are not doing anything, recognize the fact that your brain is more active at this moment than many other moments of activity or stimulation during the day. Your brain needs to be bored just as much as it needs to sleep, and children and teens need it even more.

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