[-empyre-] Welcome to May: Boredom: Labor, Use and Time

B. Bogart ben at ekran.org
Wed May 6 03:07:13 AEST 2015

Hello all,

Thank you Renate for inviting me to participate as an official guest.
Thank you John for your overview. Rather than jumping into a fresh
introduction, I thought the following passage from John's introduction
resonated with my work and I think makes a great jumping off point.

On 15-05-04 09:15 PM, John Stadler wrote:
> Boredom itself often carries certain assumptions: it typically holds a
> negative valence, is treated primarily as a psychic disturbance, and
> characterizes a temporal condition of repetition and routine. Under
> these assumptions, what boredom fails to deliver is surprise,
> pleasure, excitement. To be bored is to know the future that will
> shortly be delivered, to experience displeasure in that knowingness,
> and to disengage from such an epistemology.

I thought Boredom would be interesting for me to engage with because of
my PhD work on dreaming [1]. Through my literature search on the
neurological mechanisms of dreaming I developed (in collaboration with
my supervisor and committee) an Integrative Theory that considers
perception, dreaming, mind wandering and mental imagery all as enabled
by overlapping mechanisms of internal simulation supported by a learned
predictive model.

There is a set of brain regions often referred to as the "Default
Network" or "task-negative network" that are associated with mind
wandering, partially in dreaming and also when imagining oneself in the
past or future. This network was discovered in early brain imaging
experiments when it was found that brains showed significant activity
when the subject was not engaged in the task meant to be studied [2]. In
short, when we are not told to do anything specific, and we lay quietly
in an MRI machine, we engage our Default Networks and mind wander.

I expect that boredom is highly correlated with mind wandering, where
(as John says above) we find ourselves overly able to predict the world
around us and thus loose interest in it. Under the conception of the
Integrative Theory, times of boredom would cause shift of attention away
from the stimuli towards these internal simulations. Once decoupled from
the constraints of external information, simulations are free to
progress beyond the fixed context of the here and now.

It is certainly interesting to consider boredom as a "psychic
disturbance" in the context of the normality of mind wandering. Due to
the ease with which we can switch between task orientation and mind
wandering, it's certainly plausible that we mind wander for significant
periods of time. The *Default* Network label itself implies that the
base state of a mind/brain is the simulation of an internal reality, and
not engaging with an external task at all. Is boredom the norm, and it's
actually task oriented behaviour that is the "psychic disturbance"?

It has even been proposed that the kind of simulation that occurs in
dreaming (and I would argue also mind wandering) is the origin of self,
as fetuses have been shown to spent the majority of their time in REM
sleep [3]. This brings up an interesting epistemological question: if we
begin life and self in our internal simulations before we have any
significant experience of the external world, then what exactly are we
simulating? I find the idea that we could begin life by constructing
reality in the relative lack of sensory information very interesting.
This sense of mind as predictor explains our interest in controlling
reality. The more we control nature, the more we can predict it. This is
quite related to my TEDx talk [4], where I talk about the relation
between our predictions and the constructed environment where they form
a reinforcing loop where we make the world we expect.

I recall a study where they asked people what they were doing and how
they felt using a smart-phone app. The results indicated that people are
most happy when we are engaged in a task, and not when we're bored, idle
or mind wandering. Studies have also shown that being exposed to the
natural world decrease feelings of depression; I would explain this by
saying the complexity of the natural world is less predictable, and thus
forces people to attend to the world around them and less to their
internal simulations. If all we see is what we expect, how can that not
effect our well-being?

I have not thought about the relation between boredom and pleasure, but
I expect it would be related to the notion of happiness. Is pleasure
increased in a less predictable context? On the surface, this seems
related to risk. I also expect that, for some people, pleasure would be
negatively related to risk and a predetermined easily predicable pattern
could be the source of ultimate pleasure.

I would like to close with one final concept, the notion of abstraction
in predictions. I would define an abstraction as a representation where
the those features that are common across a category are emphasized over
features that emphasize the individual. Predictions operate at a
particular level of abstraction.

We can say our prediction tells us what happens next, but that depends
on the abstraction of that prediction. We may be able to predict the
broad strokes, but perhaps not the details. At high levels of
abstraction more becomes predicable, while at lower levels of
abstraction nothing is predicable. This dependence of prediction on
abstractions and representation seems to relate to culture. The degree
to which we can predict the world around us seems related to the
cultural concepts that define the categories and to some degree the
levels of abstraction that support prediction.

Thus, what is boring depends on the cultural context, and also the
degree to which we attend to the details (or not) of the world (or
cultural artifact, e.g. porn film). I wonder what the relation between
pleasure is in the context of changing the degree of abstraction, i.e. a
scenario that begins as very predictable and then defies our
expectations in the end. i.e. one conception of a joke is a setup that
seems predictable, but a punch-line that causes pleasure because of its
tension with our expectations. It does seem that pleasure and tension
would be highly related. What about the reverse form? A scenario that
begins as totally unpredictable and resolves into a predictable obvious
end? e.g. a comedy?

Apologies; this ended up quite a bit longer than I intended.

Ben Bogart, PhD



2. Buckner, Randy L. "The serendipitous discovery of the brain's default
network." Neuroimage 62.2 (2012): 1137-1145.


3. Hobson, J. Allan. "REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of
protoconsciousness." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10.11 (2009): 803-813.


4. https://youtu.be/xYtt8qSwJws

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