What's Really Happening To Your Brain When You're Bored?

The brain is the New York City of the body: it simply never sleeps. The most complex organ in the body, it's also perhaps the least understood by doctors and researchers. The three-pound organ is responsible for, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, our intelligence, interpreting senses, initiating our body's movements, controlling our behavior, and so much more — and it never takes a day off. As a western culture we have become so obsessed with the notion of "hustling" that we are often too busy for the basic necessities of life, like getting enough sleep, eating properly, getting adequate regular exercise, and so on. But not allowing our brain to rest and recharge can be detrimental to our health. That's where boredom comes into play.

According to neuroscientists, occasionally being bored can actually increase creativity, job productivity, and task engagement. While there is no universal, medically accepted definition of boredom, we all know the feeling: general disinterest in an activity, show, or situation, along with possible weariness or restlessness.

Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, believes it's necessary and critical for the brain to experience boredom every once in a while, according to Forbes. Walf also claims that occasional boredom can actually improve social connectivity in the long run. 

Your brain goes into a "default" mode when bored

Through past experiments, neuroscientists have identified a default mode network (DMN) in the brain, which is highly active during periods of boredom and idle thinking. Activity in the DMN significantly decreases when people perform tasks that require active cognitive thinking and processing. In a 2015 study, neuroscientists hypothesized that time spent bored — or with high DMN activity — could actually help prepare the brain for social interaction with other brains (via Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience). Dr. Matthew Lieberman, Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA Department of Psychology and co-author of the study, explained to Forbes, "The brain has a major system that seems predisposed to get us ready to be social in our spare moments. The social nature of our brains is biologically based." Findings of the study suggested that boredom or idle thinking (what we often refer to as daydreaming) helped prime the brain for future social stimuli.

While there may be some benefits to experiencing occasional boredom, it is important to note that several studies have associated increased and frequent DMN activity — that is, too much boredom — with anxiety, depression, and even addiction. Fortunately, meditation has been identified as a simple tool that can help decrease DMN activity and improve our attention spans and working memory performance. Meditation can thus also help in the management of anxiety, depression, and even substance use.

Though there is still a long way to go in understanding the intricacies of the brain and the effect boredom may have on it, it seems as though daydreaming every so often may actually sharpen your cognitive and social functioning. So go ahead... drift off.