The Case for Boredom

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This episode kicks off the biggest project New Tech City has ever done: Bored and Brilliant. Our goal is to get you rethinking your relationship with technology. Sign-up for the NTC newsletter to get the challenges. 


Here's the issue: It goes back to when Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007 — that's less than a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent of American adults have a smartphone today. Sixty-seven percent of the time, people are looking at their phones without any sort of ring or vibration. Forty-four percent of Americans have slept with their phone next to their beds.

Statistics aside, all you really have to do is go outside and see how many people can't even walk without staring at a screen. We counted them!

When we asked for your stories, many of you told us smartphones make you feel like you have the power to be connected all the time, organized beyond measure, and never, ever without entertainment while you're waiting for coffee. But you've also told us they make you feel dependent, exhausted, and addicted — some of you say you're actually relieved when you lose or break your phones for a day.

There's a paradox here. But one thing is clear: Paying attention to our smartphones through so many of our waking moments means our minds don't spend as much time idling.

And that matters! We talked to boredom researcher Sandi Mann of the University of Lancashire of the U.K.  

"You come up with really great stuff when you don’t have that easy lazy junk food diet of the phone to scroll all the time," says Sandi Mann. 

Mann's research finds that idle minds lead to reflective, often creative thoughts (we discuss her projects in depth in this week's show). Minds need to wander to reach their full potential. 

During bouts of boredom our brains can't help but jump around in time, analyzing and re-analyzing the pieces of our lives, says Jonny Smallwood, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York in the UK. He says inspiration strikes in the shower because it's a moment when we're not really looking at or focusing on anything else.

Researchers have only really started to understand the phenomena of "mind-wandering" — the activity our brains engage in when we're doing nothing at all — over the past decade or so.

"There’s a close link between originality, novelty, and creativity... and these sort of spontaneous thoughts that we generate when our minds are idle," Smallwood said.

But when mental stimulation is a touch of the phone away?

"That’s where daydreaming and boredom intersect," Smallwood says. "What smartphones allow us to do is get rid of boredom in a very direct way because we can play games, phone people, we can check the Internet. It takes away the boredom, but it also denies us the chance to see and learn about where we truly are in terms of our goals."

And that's where Bored and Brilliant comes in. 

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