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Center for the Study of Boredom and Interest-Entertainment

A Call for Collaboration

The first occurrence of “bored” (the verb) in the English language occurred in a private letter as late as 1768, in which the Earl of Carlisle articulates his pity for his “Newmarket friends, who are bored by these Frenchmen.” “Bore,” meaning “a thing that bores,” first appeared in the English lexicon in 1778. The “bore” as a tiresome person emerged in 1812. The first citation of the noun boredom occurred in 1864, less than a century and a half ago. Cultures appear to validate their experience of the world by creating words or linguistic labels that subsequently serve to shape and codify previously quasi-inchoate, imprecise, fuzzily-defined feelings and experience. The addition of a given word to a culture’s lexicon typically occurs when a critical mass of individuals discovers shared experience of some heretofore unnamed/imprecisely defined feeling.

The relatively recent emergence of “boredom” and its variants in the English language suggests the possibility that boredom experience in prior eras of Western culture might not have been as prevalent or prominent compared to boredom experience in contemporary times. Boredom researcher Orin Klapp has documented an enormous increase in the use of the word “boredom” between 1931 and 1961. A 1981 West German study found that between 1952 and 1978, the percentage of the population who considered boredom “a great problem” in filling leisure time increased from 26 percent to 38 percent, almost a 50% increase.

The past half-century, particularly the last decade, has seen an expanding chronicling of the power of boredom in impelling and shaping behavior. Newspaper stories and magazine articles regularly trumpet boredom’s putative more dramatic effects-homicides and suicides-and self-help magazine articles focus on combating job, housewife, marital, and relationship boredom. Teenagers use the word boring, pronounced “bowwww-ring,” with an elongated first syllable and a two-octave tonal drop on the second, to express distaste of situations and people evoking boredom. Adults are more apt to use euphemisms of comparable meaning, such as “he’s just not interesting” or “she’s a bit on the dull side.” The high frequency with which Westerners use variants of the the word “interesting” in everyday parlance, as in the clichés “it’s interesting that…,” “fascinating,” “I’m very excited about ….,” are added testimony to boredom’s power in modulating behavior, as are the growing number of advertisements alluding to boredom, e.g., “Fly around the world in the Concorde, everything else is boring”; “I dreamed I found a 365 day-a-year cure for boredom”; Fight boredom in every Club city with the Playboy Superkey.”

The range of touted “boredom busters” is extremely broad. Interviewed about their boredom experience, most individuals report engaging in one or more of the following partial list of activities to help keep boredom at bay: turn on the TV or radio, “party,” go for a drive, smoke a cigarette, drink an alcoholic beverage, eat or over-eat, go on a diet, read, write, “stay busy,” work, smoke marijuana, drink coffee, have sex, sleep, go without sleep, gamble, play a video game, play cards, take a vacation, travel, sign up for a tour of an exotic locale, go shopping, shoplift, surf the internet, go bungee jumping, sky-dive, watch/play competitive sports, go to a movie, hike a trail, climb a mountain, join the military to see the world, get a job, phone a friend for conversation, change one’s hairdo or hairstyle, dye one’s hair, get a crush on a political candidate, run for political office, fantasize, participate in a political rally, seek out new challenges, create a new business, hang out at the local bar, use the remote control to change the TV channel, think, drive an automobile, drive one’s car fast or faster than usual, turn on the NASCAR channel on TV, terminate a relationship, divorce one’s spouse, get a pet, leave a job, work on a crossword puzzle, engage in creative activity, engage in risky/challenging endeavors, do volunteer work, seek out/perform in a live arts or other performance, and so on.

The above partial list of everyday activities engaged in for the mitigation of boredom is impressive for the immense breadth and intensity of activities routinely employed to combat boredom/induce interest. For some of us, boredom busters can entail engaging in much darker, harsher, destructive behaviors, including a broad range of sadistic and masochistic activities engaged in for the shock, pain, and suffering that such behaviors effect in others and in ourselves. Bored people report that they engage in activities that effect injury, pain, stress, humiliation, and torture for others and/or for themselves. The bored tell us that they often prefer pain and suffering over the stress of eventlessness, peace, monotony, tranquility, and boredom. The bored report often mitigating their boredom by engaging in sadistic acts when their boredom can no longer be assuaged by more harmless pursuits.

On a social scale, the Ku Klux Klan, the beginnings of the public Nazi movement in Germany before World War II, and American football-to name a miniscule fraction of such sociocultural developments-all began with people “just wanting to have a little fun,” i.e., trying to mitigate the boredom/monotony of their everyday experience. Increasingly larger numbers of us appear to prefer inflicting and/or experiencing pain and humiliation in others and in ourselves over the peace, tranquility, and boredom of activities and environments made routine by repeated experience with such stimuli or activities. The incredible popularity of television “Reality Shows” is an exemplar of this trend, as are participating in/observing “extreme sports” and “designer kidnappings,” the latter entailing clients in New York and other large cities paying handsomely for the chance to be roughed up a bit and being able to experience anxiety and uncertainly of what the kidnapper has next in store for them.

But boredom experience has its “positive,” constructive, creative aspect as well. Many of the world’s most creative individuals of their eras have commented on boredom’s power to impel them to new heights of “creative” activity. Goethe, the great 18th century German poet, dramatist, and scientist, described boredom as “the mother of invention,” a muse to be courted, encouraged, nurtured, and sought out. Ralph Linton, the dean of 20th century American social anthropologists, posited that “the human capacity for being bored, rather than man’s social or natural needs, lies at the root of man’s cultural advance.” Boredom experience apparently impels individuals “to play” to mitigate their boredom. The unfettered play engaged in to mitigate personal boredom experience is often “entertaining” for the bored individual, occasionally providing an “innovative, creative advance” for the cult or culture in which the bored individual is embedded.

Consider the following familiar description of normative life in the contemporary West. Large numbers of us have access to an astounding smorgasbord of entertainment and “infotainment” events and activities undreamed of only 10 years ago: access to hundreds of TV channels and radio stations/programs on a 24/7 basis; personal computers and their capacity to take us practically anywhere on the always growing Internet; myriad books, magazines, newspapers, movies; a plethora of 24/7 participatory and spectator games and sports contests; access to a planet of travel/touring to far-away, exotic locales we’ve not been to before; work/job or leisure activities of increasingly enormous breath and freedom of expression; artistic activities/events to participate in/attend; squirming, dynamic children to keep us on our toes and to surprise us with their activities and developmental trajectories; a vast array of educational vehicles (including the virtually limitless internet) through which we can expand our skills and knowledge base; exotic modes of travel such as airplanes , trains, boats, and automobiles that have become available only in the last half-century, each generation of vehicles offering faster and increasingly varied and often risky ways of getting from point A to point B.

And yet for a great many of us, this vast array of stimulation/activity is very quickly habituated to/attentionally automatized, our boredom experience, associated behavioral restlessness, and need for more stimulation quickly returning, propelling us and our community/planet of fellow “bordees” to new adventures and activities that we anticipate will assuage our boredom. Many of us find our fun, bliss, interest, and entertainment mainly in contentious, competitive activities such as war, fighting, and battle, or in reading about or re-witnessing such fights and competitions; and in TV or movie re-runs of the latest natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other events that change myriad physical and psychological landscapes. Much of the time, we seem to seek and consume more: more new things, gadgets, and activities to help re-capture the interest and excitement in what only yesterday was new, interesting, and entertaining.

Increasing experience with any set of repeating stimuli/activity builds up our cognitive, attentional, representational apparatus for increasingly efficient filtering or buffering of the repeated stimuli, events, or activities. The buffering/filtering wrought by increasing development of cognitive structure (i.e., the development of “analytic intelligence”) typically results in our extracting less and less information/stimulation from any stimulus/activity, the phenomenologic consequence of which is a lowering of our “intensity of consciousness”(excitement, interest, and entertainment) to the repeated stimuli/activity. We attempt to rectify the correlative boredom experience obtaining in response to repeated stimuli/activity by engaging in activities that rectify our increasingly low intensity of consciousness, i.e., that mitigate the increasing mechanicalness or automaticity of the way we increasingly attend to our experience of the world as we gain experience with our own "attentional maps" of the world.

Increasing numbers of us seek out and gravitate towards situations, people, and/or activities (including contentious, violent, aggressive, hyperactive, injurious behaviors) that promise the delivery of enhanced/more stimulus for us. But some of us create great new works of art and/or science in response to our boredom experience. As Colin Wilson put it, “The story of man’s triumphs cannot be separated from his crimes because they spring from the same source: that specialized instrument for problem solving…Because of this ‘specialized instrument’ (of analytic intelligence and the capacity for problem solving), man suffers from boredom more than any other creature. Most animals dislike boredom, but man is tormented by it.” For Wilson and for me, a gradually incrementing analytic intelligence (development of “cognitive structure”) and the correlative experience of boredom is the primary modulator of crime, violence, war, and other destructive activity, but also the source of man’s greatest cultural achievements and creations.

Equally indexical of boredom’s power and influence in contemporary Western living is the mind-boggling financial reward our society bestows on those who can allay our boredom. “Entertainers,” a rubric inclusive of actors and actresses, amateur and professional athletes, comedians and comediennes, among others, have long been and continue to be by far the most highly financially remunerated and revered people on the planet. In 2004, our most popular/in-demand U.S. movie stars commanded fees of upwards of $20 million dollars for appearance in a single movie. TV stars and other celebrities have not lagged too far behind. Today, top U.S. professional athletes in football, basketball, and baseball command multimillion dollar salaries per year. Even their coaches and marketer-shills command salaries in the millions of dollars per annum, including many toiling at the college/university-level.

In the past decade or two, “entertainment,” which includes the multi-billion dollar tourist industry, has become the world’s largest industry. The experience of interest-entertainment is increasingly the world’s most highly prized commodity. The video games industry, itself only one of a myriad components of the entertainment industry, is itself now a $12 billion/year enterprise world-wide. In 1998, the “entertainment” industry (movies, television, videos, popular music, spectator sports, theme parks, radio, casino, magazines newspapers, books, children’s toys, etc., but not including the sale of consumer electronics, which one could argue are bought primarily for entertainment) was estimated to be in the vicinity of a $500 billion/year industry in the United States.

“Entertainment” ranked ahead of clothing and health care as a percentage of household spending. In the contemporary West and in many other parts of the world, “entertainment” is the fastest-growing sector of the economy. For some time now, Las Vegas, the raison d etre of which is the provision of “entertainment,” has been the fastest growing city in the United States. Estimates on spending for entertainment in the United States in 2004 suggest a figure of tens of trillions of dollars/year. Extrapolating these dollar figures from the United States’ to world spending on entertainment yields a view of boredom and interest/entertainment of gargantuan, always-growing power and influence in our lives.

Several authors have pointed out that Westerners are increasingly structuring their lives around events and situations that hold the promise of effecting interest-entertainment-fun, i.e., that mitigate or relieve boredom experience. In the contemporary West, the choices we make about the food we eat, the work and leisure activity in which we engage, where we shop, our choice in a mate or marital partner, the car we buy, the news we watch, the newspapers we read, what we talk about at work around the water cooler, what we do on the weekends, and a myriad other activities-all are apparently increasingly influenced by a growing entertainment factor, and help to quell a growing, increasingly modal boredom experience for growing numbers of us. Most of us fail to appreciate the necessity of boredom for the endeavor of reading and writing‑indeed the existence of the publishing industry/enterprise-all of which would be non-existent were not boredom so fundamentally a part of who we are and what we experience when left “alone in a room with nothing to do.”

My 1983 book (see the Reviews section of this web site) reviewed a broad range of literature that intimated a central role for automatization of attention and correlative boredom experience as a powerful modulating factors in the development and expression of a broad range of illnesses and disorders. Individuals, particularly adult humans, apparently can and do bore ourselves to tears, distraction, psychosis, destructiveness, hyperactivity, various sleep and eating disorders, and even to death, the latter from some varieties of somatically, behaviorally, and mentally-expressed diseases that serve a de-automatizing function, i.e., the diseases effect a decreasing mechanicalness or decreasing automaticity of attention/experience for minds/brains and various bodily parts. The pain, suffering, and destabilizing effect wrought by a broad range of disorders for some individuals was conceptualized as a maladaptive attempt by bored, understimulated, automatized, relatively informationally-isolated, excessively stable bio-cognitive structures in nature to introduce interest and de-automatization via the de-stabilizing effect of and challenge provided by various illnesses/diseases.

This is not to say that other factors play little or insignificant roles in the development and expression of some forms of illness in some individuals. Rather, I suggest that automatization of attentional processes and correlative boredom experience for bio-cognitive processes in nature have long been overlooked or ignored as potential etiologic and/or modulating factors in the development/expression of some varieties of disease/disorder for some individuals. In my recently completed book manuscript Knowledge, Boredom, and Automatization: A Seminal Dynamic Modulating Behavior, Cultural Change, and our Enormous, Always-Growing Need for Entertainment, Community, and Spiritual Experience, I describe a line of thinking and conceptual perspective that assigns even greater power and agency to boredom than has been suggested in the foregoing paragraphs of this web page and in my previous book.

The most powerful and obvious “truths” within cultures are often the things that are not said or not directly acknowledged. For some time now, boredom has been the quintessential taboo topic in the West. For various and obvious reasons, boredom is not to be displayed, admitted, or talked about in our culture. Despite our not-infrequent allusion to boredom in our day-to-day discourse, and frequent reference to it in newspaper and magazine articles, our society/culture-including especially our educational institutions, faculty, and curriculum offerings-tacitly agree to view the experience of boredom as a generally unpleasant, but transient experience of little consequence for behavior, health, and the trajectory of physical and cultural evolution. In their muteness about boredom, contemporary psychology and psychiatry, as well as our educational, research, business, religious, and political institutions, reinforce the culturally-accepted view that boredom is transient and inconsequential, and thus not deserving of formal acknowledgement and study as a factor of appreciable consequence for behavior, health, and cultural change.

A formal course on the psychology or psychophysiology of boredom/interest has possibly never been offered by/at an American college or university, indeed possibly nowhere in the world. In the past decade, I have been unable to interest American university psychology department chairmen in offering a course/courses on the psychology/psychophysiology of boredom, interest, and entertainment. Our culture’s reluctance in acknowledging boredom as a state of mind of great importance for behavior, health, and cultural transformation is not surprising. Individual and collective egos typically eschew seeing themselves in such a non-flattering, non-romantic, non-aggrandizing light. In addition, professional knowledge, the domains of the known and the knowable, generally conforms to political realities. As argued by the biologist Lynn Margulis, attempts to breach the acceptable are summarily dealt with, occasionally by devastating criticism and derision, but far more often by neglect and ignorance, the potential trespassers of the domain of the acceptable and the knowable subtly punished with rejection and oblivion.

The annual meetings of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association of the past approximately one hundred years have seen no more than a handful of presentations on the topic of boredom/interest. Only one of approximately 15 recently published college-level introductory psychology textbooks has referenced ‘boredom,’ and that one textbook referenced my 1983-published book on boredom. Only a handful of academic-style books have been published on boredom/interest (see the links page on this website for a listing of each). Currently, boredom and interest-entertainment is the major area of interest/research of not more than ten individuals on the planet, all widely separated by geography, academic background, and conceptual-methodologic approaches.

There is now a sufficient body of literary and cultural commentary, as well as a growing theoretical and empirical base emanating from contemporary cognitive science and developmental psychophysiology to support the idea that the experience of boredom and mankind’s attempts to keep boredom experience at bay has long been, and is increasingly one of the world’s most powerful shapers of behavior, health, and cultural development/change. As the cartoonist Sol Steinberg put it, “Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” As Patricia Spacks concludes in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, 1995:

    ……all endeavor of every kind takes place in the context of boredom impending or boredom repudiated, and can be understood as impelled by the effort to withstand boredom’s threat. …the dynamic of promise and threat between writing and reading typifies the tension of all production and consumption. Like the reader seeking entertainment and enlightenment, the housewife yearning for a vacuum cleaner to relieve her drudgery want something to make the world new. All “cultural advance” derives from the need to withstand boredom; literature is a single instance among many. Boredom, in this theory, explains everything: a new version of the doom assigned to humankind in the original fall from grace. That it recurs insistently as literary subject only reiterates an embracing truth.  

Given our culture’s proclivity for ignoring ideas that challenge its most cherished, aggrandizing beliefs about the nature of man, knowledge, and “reality,” a presidential commission is unlikely to be appointed anytime soon to study boredom/interest-entertainment and their consequences for individual/collective behavior and health. Similarly, it seems unlikely that a national/international center will be established in the near-future by those who control the purse strings for the funding of such centers or institutes. Apparently, no American university or faculty member has offered a course on the psychology or psychophysiology of boredom/interest. Only one team of faculty members in the United States (Steven Vodanovich and colleagues at the University of West Florida in Pensacola) is currently researching boredom experience and associated behaviors with the tools and methods of empirical science, a research effort that has recently emphasized the psychometry of boredom experience (see the Links page of my website for an overview of Vodanovich’s work and for overviews of the work of the handful of individuals and researchers in the Western world who are currently researching and/or writing about boredom).

My current goal is the establishment of a center/institute for the study of boredom, interest, and entertainment, preferably in an academic and/or research milieu. Boredom, interest, and entertainment would be studied from a broad set of approaches and perspectives, including developmental psychophysiological; social, developmental, experimental, physiological, vocational, differential, personality, and clinical psychology; psychometrics; sociology; cultural anthropology; behavioral economics; cultural studies; linguistic history; quantitative and qualitative phenomenology, etc.

If you’ve interest in collaborating (professionally; providing financial and/or research support, office space, clerical help, etc.), please e-mail me at adelapen@prodigy.net or click on the Contact bar on this web page and keyboard your message.


Augustin de la Pena home page    ideas and interest, psychophysiological perspective of boredom    consultation and services for boredom and sleep complaints    reviews of boredom book    contact Augustin de la Pena    boredom related links

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