J R R Tolkien was grading exam papers when he came up with the idea for The Hobbit. CS Lewis invented Narnia while daydreaming. The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude occurred to Gabriel Garcia Marquez while he was driving.
See a pattern here?
What we call boredom, neuroscientists call ‘positive constructive daydreaming’ or mind wandering — and it has big benefits for our brains.
The idea that letting our minds wander is good for the imagination is not a new one.
Freud believed daydreaming was key to creative writing and this idea has been echoed by philosophers, writers, artists and musicians ever since.
But it wasn’t fully investigated by researchers until the 1950s when Yale psychologist Jerome Singer produced the first definitive study (The Inner World of Daydreaming, 1975).
In a 2013 paper, researchers Rebecca McMillan and Scott Barry Kaufman examined Singer’s idea of ‘positive constructive daydreaming’ and neatly summarised the research to date, finding that daydreamers were better at:
Future planning — self-reflection, setting goals
Creativity — developing original ideas, storytelling, problem solving
Attentional cycling — shifting attention to absorb different information
Dishabituation — learning by taking frequent breaks from a task
So far, so interesting. But the bulk of the scientific research on daydreaming and mind wandering has focused on its benefits, rather than its impediments.
When Freud touted the benefits of a good daydream, he didn’t take into account the iPhone.
The rise of technology has meant the fall of boredom.
Thanks to email, social media and the widespread availability of wi-fi, there’s very little dead time in our days anymore.
The average person shifts their attention from one task to another every 45 seconds and checks their email up to 74 times a day.
Technology has declared war on boredom and, while no-one knows for certain what this means for creativity, it’s probably not good.
Journalist Manoush Zomorodi was so fascinated by this concept she launched the Bored and Brilliant project which sets participants a series of challenges encouraging them to wean themselves off technology and into the real world, hopefully sparking their imagination in the process.
She’s also written a book on the topic, detailing her research with neuroscientists, her own experiences (she got the idea for the project in the boring and exhausting days of early motherhood) and tips for anyone wanting to join the movement.
Her advice is to start small. Put the phone in your pocket for a day, have a photo free day, delete your most addictive app.
Carve out time in your day to be bored. Who knows what it might unleash?