Happy daydreaming

Boredom can facilitate creative thinking – let’s put that to good use

In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, The Einstein Approximation, Sheldon Cooper, a leading physicist, is stumped on a graphene problem — a problem that he tries to solve by doing routinized work. He subsequently ends up as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory and discovers his answer by accidentally dropping a plate of peas: the peas fall in a pattern he was looking for in electron movement.

By completing tasks that were mundane in nature, Sheldon was able to creatively discover the answers to his problem. This principle is applicable to students in many cases. Take, for example, the scenario of sitting in a boring lecture and catching yourself doodling in your notebook. Maybe you were completely oblivious to what the lecturer said, and instead used the time to determine the main argument for your essay. Alternatively, maybe repetitive workouts in an underused gym led to an “a-ha” moment that would not otherwise have occurred.

Although boredom is often portrayed as a bad thing, there has been a shift in thinking about the role boredom plays in our daily lives. Currently, academics have been trying to show that boredom can heighten creativity.

A study conducted by Mann and Cadman shows that boredom leads to a phenomenon they call the ‘daydreaming effect.’ When we are bored or not challenged by our work, we tend to gravitate to activities that fuel “inner thoughts…or could involve thinking about unrelated problems or ideas the consideration of which is more appealing than the boring task at hand.”

To support their hypothesis, Mann and Cadman conducted a series of experiments of groups engaging in boring tasks. The first group was given a humdrum task of copying numbers from a phone book, and to control for external factors, another group was not assigned this task. To measure creativity after being given their tasks, both groups were tested on their ability to think of different uses of a plastic cup, which tapped into their divergent thinking.

[pullquote-features]When we are bored or not challenged by our work, we tend to gravitate to activities that fuel “inner thoughts…or could involve thinking about unrelated problems or ideas the consideration of which is more appealing than the boring task at hand.”[/pullquote-features]

In another experiment, Mann and Cadman gathered three groups: a control group, the group that copied numbers from a phone book, and a third group that had a task of just reading the numbers (intended to be the dullest task out of the three). The same creative activity was given to the groups to perform, and Mann and Cadman discovered that the number-reciting group, despite performing the most monotonous task, were in fact the most creative.

The researchers suggest that this occurs because boredom creates more room to daydream during the task which means that an individual is more likely to be creative after the activity. Essentially, boredom “…can induce challenge seeking behaviour, and therein lies the paradox that boredom, associated by many with lethargy, can actually be energising, inspiring a search for ‘change and variety.” This may be surprising to those who consider boredom as a primarily negative aspect of daily life.

As another example, take the 3M engineer Arthur Fry. Fry attended a meeting conducted by Sheldon Silver, who was trying to come up with adhesives that would hold paper together; yet after several tries, they could not come up with a reliable solution. This soon changed when Mr. Fry, while sitting in on a monotonous sermon, intended to mark the pages of the songs within the hymn books, but the papers would not stay in place due to the weak glue that held them together.

Out of sheer boredom, Mr. Fry devised a creative the solution to the adhesive problem experienced at 3M: add the weak glue to pieces of paper, thereby creating what we now know as Post-it notes. With this considered, boredom can lead to innovation in unexpected ways.

Moreover, the link between boredom and creativity has been demonstrated to be neurological. Research conducted by Mark Beeman and John Kounios shows that creativity originates in the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG), which displays heightened activity during our creative moments by pulling together abstractedly related information. This is why boredom helps: it isn’t until we are bored that we start to daydream, and draw on the distantly related information that we process in the aSTG. Jonathan Schooler, a prominent psychologist, also discovered that students “who daydream more score higher on various tests of creativity.”

[pullquote-features]Boredom can lead to innovation in unexpected ways.[/pullquote-features]

Altogether, the research suggests that, as students and as employees, it is wise to harness the benefits of boredom. It may well be that we can devise potential solutions to difficult problems at the most unexpected times. Boredom can help students and employees alike become creative thinkers, and in fact, being narrowly focused on the task at hand can impede creativity by engrossing our mind in the wrong solution.

When you need to write an essay, solve a math problem, or create a new product at work, consider allotting your time to drab activities such as cleaning, attending meetings, photocopying, or typing reports. Completing ‘boring’ tasks before or in conjunction with problem-solving sessions can help stimulate your imagination, and may be the key to your success.

Alexa Lopreiato is a Master’s student in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

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