Brain waves reveal when boredom kicks in


The changes come later than researchers expected. Nick Carne reports.


A student digitally turns pegs for 10 minutes while wearing an EEG cap to measure her brain waves as she becomes more bored.

Washington State University

The brains of people who are prone to boredom react differently to those of people who aren’t, but not until the boredom kicks in, a new US study shows.

That means, says a research team from Washington State University, that how these people react to a boring situation is the key – the implication being that it might be possible to teach coping mechanisms specifically to avoid those negative responses.

"Previously, we thought people who react more negatively to boredom would have specific brain waves prior to being bored," says lead researcher Sammy Perone.

"But in our baseline tests, we couldn't differentiate the brain waves. It was only when they were in a state of boredom that the difference surfaced."

Those tests involved asking 54 people questions about boredom and how they respond to it, before measuring their brain waves with eyes open and shut.

Each then wore a special cap that measures brain waves at 128 spots on the scalp while doing what Perrone says was rated, in previous research, “the most boring task tested” – sitting in front of a computer, clicking to turn a peg each time it was highlighted. In all, there were 320 clicks required over 10 minutes.

When analysing the brain wave results, Perrone and colleagues looked at two specific areas. Left frontal activity is higher when people are looking to engage or stimulate themselves by thinking about other things. The right frontal activity is increased when people are feeling more negative emotions or becoming more anxious.

"We found that the people who are good at coping with boredom in everyday life, based on the surveys, shifted more toward the left," Perone says. "Those that don't cope as well in everyday life shifted more right."

Perrone says there are several ways people cope positively with boredom.

"We had one person in the experiment who reported mentally rehearsing Christmas songs for an upcoming concert; they did the peg turning exercise to the beat of the music in their head," he says. "Doing things that keep you engaged rather than focusing on how bored you are is really helpful."

Of course, that has to happen in the real world, and requires people to be proactive.

"The results of this paper show that reacting more positively to boredom is possible," Perone suggests. "Now we want to find out the best tools we can give people to cope positively with being bored.”

The findings are published in the journal Psychophysiology.

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  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/psyp.13427
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