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 .)
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." )
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
"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!
 Famous Sleepers
 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."
stress evolution stimuli
"Daniel Berlyne" boredom
"why are people bored"