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Q: Evolution and boredom ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Evolution and boredom
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: qpet-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 09 Feb 2003 15:52 PST
Expires: 11 Mar 2003 15:52 PST
Question ID: 159214
What is the "value" or "benifit" of the experience of boredom in the
context of evolution?
Subject: Re: Evolution and boredom
Answered By: j_philipp-ga on 10 Feb 2003 01:49 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hello Qpet,

It seems to me boredom is largely an invention of civilization, modern
technology and globalization, as opposed to one of evolution. For
evolution needs time to implement its strategies, whereas boredom is
often benefit of modern tools of the last few thousand years. However,
if we take boredom as the lack of stress, we can find explanations in
evolution, to which I will get later.

So let me define boredom as a lack of external stimuli recognized by
the human brain as some (positive or negative) sensation, at a time
when the body is still fit. I will not discuss it in terms of the
body's need for relaxation; usually, we think of boredom as "too much"
relaxation, more than our body needs. (With exception of some people
who even find sleep boring and unproductive -- supposedly, Leonardo da
Vinci was one of them [1].)
Boredom as unwelcome "restlessness", not simply being tired.

The brain will get used to input. The more it is repeated, the less
critical value it has (the less signal the information carries). If
you watch the same thing over again, it will likely become boring to
you -- it's repetitive, because you know what to expect. Boredom in
this sense results in positive action; you want to find something new,
expand your horizon, learn more complex skill-sets. This mechanism
moves culture onwards; it sparks new technological inventions, as well
as works of art & entertainment.

Repetition is an old phenomenon. But exact repetition starts with the
invention of recording technology; we can record an event (with e.g.
the film camera) and repeat it over and over. Every time, the "Circo
Massimo" (Circus Maximum) in Rome presented a new live thrill to its
nearly 250,000 people. (Here, boredom of the masses is a threat to the
upholding of a political system -- and massive entertainment a way to
tackle it.) A live event exposes one to more thrill because it's
unique and even if certain patterns are repetitive, there is a chance
of something unexpected happening.

Let me quote from the following page:

Dr. Catherine Collins: Boredom and Laughter
"Boredom is an interesting phenomenon. Monkeys do not seem to be
bored, nor do they search about to divert themselves, either by
gambling or by visiting natural history museums. If there were nothing
more to be said about man than that he is descended from apes, we
would not be bored. We would not be bored by our existence on earth,
and we would have no interest in any other. We would have no longing
to know God, no longing for anything beyond a determinate range of
instinctual drives. Boredom, thought Pascal, is proof of the existence
of God, and proof also of our dissimilarity to the beasts."

Is it true that animals do not seem to be bored? I think they are more
similar to humans than discussed above. Imagine a wild cat. It will
naturally have instincts to hunt. Those are evolutionary since without
modern civilization, the cat will not survive without looking for
food, and staying fit to do so. What if you expose the same animal to
a household where food is provided? It will start to play around to
keep in shape, to learn and train, receive new input. In other words,
civilization has the means of making us bored, because we can be
provided for without actual continuous work throughout the whole day;
and we are training to be in shape for potential danger ahead or to
simply keep our mind sharp.

Sometimes, boredom can be a result of "living by eating your
neighbor's fruits", while still the neighbor has to plant the seeds.
Which is why I mentioned globalization. Yes, there were and are people
who basically work the whole day. Are they ever bored? The work might
be physically exhausting. But the mind is still exposed to relatively
monotonous input. Think of Gospel or Blues music:

Blues History Stages
"The work was so hard the men sang the blues so the time could pass by
and keep them from being bored."

Let me discuss the opposite of boredom for more insight; complete
alertness. Evolution needs one to be alert to sense and escape or
battle danger. These so-called "stressors" can be other species trying
to hunt one down, or natural phenomena like wild rivers, heavy rain --
resulting in the sensation of stress (the symptoms of which are
increased heart rate and high blood pressure).
Imagine a man by the fireside at night; even during sleep, he needs to
be aware of poisonous or otherwise deadly animals. It has been said
that the sensation of tickling is evolutionary explained by being
alert to small insects, snakes, spiders -- anything that crawls up on
you at night. (And according to Daniel E. Berlyne" laughter is the
result of either high arousal beyond our normal tolerance, or a brief
arousal followed by a sudden 'jag' when the arousal turns out to have
been unnecessary." [2])
In this sense, the absence of alert must find contrast to the stimuli.
The lack of sensation is boring; because a constant feeling of
sensation would not keep us alert.

Compare with the following excerpt:

The Neurobiology of Stress and Emotions
"Stress is an adaptive response (...). In humans and animals, internal
mechanisms have developed throughout evolution, which allow the
individual to maximize their chances of survival when confronted with
a stressor. A stressor in this context is any situation that
represents an actual or perceived threat to the balance (homeostasis)
of the organism. In a wide variety of real, life threatening
situations -- such as an actual physical assault or a natural disaster
-- stress induces a coordinated biological, behavioral, and
psychological response."


"Emotional responses are essential for the survival (...). For
example, the emotion of fear and/or anger, and the associated fight or
flight response is essential to avoiding harm from an aggressor; the
emotion of love (attachment) is essential for bonding between
individuals; the emotion of disgust may have evolved initially as food
aversion to avoid ingestion of harmful materials."

If we take all these emotions -- fear, love, sexual arousal, disgust,
even sadness -- we can easily see they are exactly what modern
civilization needs to substitute for to prevent boredom, to keep up a
"normal" dose of those stimuli.
Think of the roller-coaster, or house of fear on a fun fair! People
deliberately expose themselves to fear and disgust (of course, in
controlled environment). And we deliberately expose ourselves to sad
movies; some people cry during those movies. Does that mean they want
to avoid them next time? No, ironically people are even looking for
sadness and drama to keep from being bored.
What kind of shows do people love the most? Those where others need to
eat worms; where they have to do dangerous stunts; where people fall
in and out of love; where things blow and innocent people are
As much as it's hard to not react to tickling, you can't look away
when a contestant has a life spider crawling up his face; evolution
taught us so. Even when there is no real danger ahead, there is
associative irritation based on evolutionary memories.

Getting back to the cat example, I'm inclined to argue mankind is
civilization's "house pet", oftentimes deprived of natural context in
which to act instinctively and be exposed to stress. We become bored
to look for toys that will keep us in shape.

I hope this helps!


[1] Famous Sleepers

[2] Theories of Humor


Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Patricia Meyer
"This book offers a witty explanation of why boredom both haunts and
motivates the literary imagination. (...) Spacks shows us at last how
we arrived in a postmodern world where boredom is the all-encompassing
name we give our discontent."

Search terms:
stress evolution stimuli
evolution boredom
langeweile evolution
"Daniel Berlyne" boredom
"why are people bored"
qpet-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Thank you, good answer.

Subject: Re: Evolution and boredom
From: czh-ga on 10 Feb 2003 11:57 PST
Hello qpet-ga,

I was also researching this question when I realized that I wouldn’t
have time to complete my answer. You might as well have the
information I’d collected. It is clear that there has been a lot more
research on the psychology of boredom than on the physiology. Boredom
can be transitory. This is the situation when someone gets tired with
repetitious activity. This type of boredom is easily relieved by
changing the activities. Another type of boredom is the loss of
meaning when no activity offers relief. The psychological literature
is replete with discussions of this type of boredom as a manifestation
of several types of mental disorders including attention deficit
disorder and depression.

What is the purpose of boredom in terms of evolution? Human beings –
and some animals as well – seem to have a need for novelty. This leads
to enhancing social interactions and exploring the world.

I’m including all the links I was planning to include in my answer.

Psychobiology of Boredom  By Carlo Maggini, MD
CNS Spectrums 2000;5(8):24-27
Boredom may be defined as the suspension of intentionality, fidgety
indifference, frustration, and painful estrangement from a reality
experienced as meaningless.1 Normal boredom emerges in specific
environmental situations (reactive boredom) and quickly dissolves
(acute boredom), while pathological boredom, arising unrelated to
external circumstances (endogenous boredom), becomes a pervasive and
long-lasting cognitive-affective state (chronic boredom) and causes
mental suffering as well as functional and social impairment. To
overcome this painful condition, behavioral attempts (eg, making
journeys, compulsive buying, gambling, nicotinism, or bulimia) and/or
pharmacologic attempts (ie, substance abuse and dependence) are
frequently made.2

The study of the biological correlates of boredom has been hampered by
the vagueness of its constructs and by the difficulties in applying
adequate experimental models. The theoretical background of previous
research has been based on cognitive and behavioral psychology by
using neuropsychological concepts including arousal, attention,
motivation, sensation-seeking, and the reward system. Data recently
acquired lend a complex albeit fragmentary interpretation of the
psychobiology of boredom, expanding on and, in some cases,
contradicting original concepts and theories, emphasizing the need for
continued investigation of this affective condition.,,0787951404%7Cau%7C2551,00.html
Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play
25th Anniversary Edition
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD
ISBN: 0-7879-5140-4
Hardcover 272 Pages
March 2000, Jossey-Bass
US $38.00
Boredom, That Powerful Emotion
What is it about advanced nervous systems that demands excitement,
that requires absorbing stimulation? For that is the need that boredom
creates: exciting stimulation. The urgency with which we try to avoid
boredom has a function, a purpose. It makes animals want to explore
and learn what their environment is about. For us humans that learning
has wide encompassing implications. We are indeed meant to be life
long learners: a learning with which we enrich not only our own lives
but potentially the rest of human society. And if we fail to fulfill
the demands of our nervous system for productive stimulation, lurking
like demons are the dangers of destructive alternatives.
Dr. Richard Bargdill
Saint Francis University, Behavioral Sciences Department
Research ARTICLES PUBLISHED: (single author)
"A Phenomenological Investigation of Being Bored with Life" 
Psychological Reports, 2000, Vol. 86, Ammons, editor.
The Boring Institute was created in 1984 to spoof the media, but has
since evolved to examine the more serious connections between boredom
and its impact on individuals and society.  In 2002, its annual
events, satirizing movies, television, and celebrity news were
terminated.  Now what remains are the recommendations and research
that reveal how boredom can lead to suicide, anti-social behavior,
divorce, and other problems.
Meaning is necessary in social processes. An absence of meaning in an
activity or circumstance leads to an experience of boredom. This is a
restless, irritable feeling that the subject's current activity or
situation holds no appeal, and that there is a need to get on with
something interesting. Thus boredom emotionally registers an absence
of meaning and leads the actor in question towards meaning. Boredom,
then, is central to key social processes centered on questions of
meaningfulness. Given the pervasive preconditions for boredom, release
from boredom is a factor that explains characteristic social
practices, including risk taking and intergroup conflict.
Merriam-Webster's Word for the Wise
15 - Tedium, boredom, ennui
Beating Polar Bear Boredom
This intelligence has researchers at a dozen zoos across the nation
studying polar bear stress. They suspect that the reason captive polar
bears show signs of stress more frequently than other animals is
primarily because they are so smart.
Animal Boredom - A Model of Chronic Suffering in Captive Animals and
Its Consequences For Environmental Enrichment
The author describes how the term "boredom" is frequently used to
interpret the abnormal behavior of animals who are permanently housed
in small, barren cages. Many scientists, however, regard this term as
an unfound projection of human values upon animal behavior. The author
proposes some starting points for a scientific understanding of animal

boredom psychology
boredom physiology
animals boredom
happiness boredom
boredom definition

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