Boredom is not a universal experience. That is to say, any two people may have two entirely different experiences with being bored. Typically when thinking of boredom, one has the idea of a temporary state of mild discomfort and lack of interest. Most of the time, this is true; we are only feel boredom for a short while before we find something to alleviate it. Most people have not investigated what prolonged and inescapable boredom is like, or how damaging it can be. It is simply not human nature to allow oneself to be bored to the point of self-harm. Throughout time, this idea has been examined in different ways, and the results are interesting. Boredom, when left unchecked, has close ties to the (much more extreme) fate of insanity.
I am no stranger to boredom. And not just the casual, day-to-day boredom that most teenagers would admit to feeling, I mean the kind of boredom that comes from sitting and idling for 5 or 6 hours at a time. My summer job was on a strawberry farm, where I was a designated ‘field-watcher.’ I would sit in a golf cart at the edge of the field and wait for a tractor to bring customers to and from the field site. As one would expect, this very quickly became boring, as there was not much else to do for the sake of entertainment. My solace during this time came from two friends who also worked on my shift. We would keep each other going throughout the weeks, by planning little activities to break up each day. Mostly these were silly projects, like organizing elaborate meals for lunch, or devising pranks to play on the workers of the following shift, or teaching each other from a textbook on quantum mechanical physics. Despite the natural pain in the boring nature of our job, we found ways to have fun. Thinking back on this time of my life, I prefer to reflect on the positive memories I made. Even though I rationally know that our fun came as a product of prolonged boredom, and that still much of the time was filled with being bored, I don’t associate my experience with those feelings. In my memory, the brief moments of joy are much more significant than the hours I spent waiting. The boredom isn’t something that translates well retrospectively. Being that bored isn’t natural, and so it’s like a defense mechanism to not think about it. The same could be said for any similar situation, that it’s just not human nature to be so intensely bored.
A Historical View
“I am persuaded that those who designed this system… do not know what it is they are doing… I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” – Charles Dickens
In the late 18th century, the need for a major overhaul of the prison system was recognized. Specifically noted in Philadelphia, conditions of the average prison were deplorable, and the sickness and suffering of the inmates was thought of as cruel and unusual punishment. Locals carried out a movement to restructure the system of incarceration, beginning with the newly built Eastern State Penitentiary. The new system was designed to reform prisoners in the most efficient way possible, by giving them ideal conditions to reflect on their crimes and feel remorse. The state decided that the best method was to put prisoners into complete solitary confinement.
Prisoners were to be given no contact with the outside world or with other persons, aside from the prison guards. Even then, all communication was conducted through a small opening in the cell door. All necessary facilities were built into the cell, so prisoners had no reason to leave. For the entire period of incarceration, which in some cases was years long, prisoners were essentially abandoned, with nothing but their thoughts, and no relief from the insufferable boredom that arose from their complete isolation.
People of status came from all around to observe the new prison system. Some thought it was brilliant. Others, like Charles Dickens, immediately realized the mental consequence that isolation would have on the prisoners. It was evident that the mental health of the inmates was deteriorating, and there were numerous recorded instances of insanity. Prison doctors rarely acknowledged isolation as the cause of this, in order to preserve the image of the new prison system. However, it was clear that insanity was a direct consequence of the utter boredom and lack of stimulation that plagued the prisoners during their incarceration.
Many writers have explored the consequences of characters that face boredom. One extreme example can be found in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. The main characters of the book, Vladimir and Estragon, spend an inordinate amount of time (though it is unclear exactly how long) waiting for someone named Godot. At various points in their discussion, they reference their extreme boredom, including the mention that they are “bored to death.” As a result of this, and given that they are waiting in an empty and under-stimulating environment, the two are left to contemplate their existence and purpose. They share a good deal of philosophical ideas, arguing with each other about life, its meaning, and many insignificant details in between. The book takes on an existential nature in this way, but the theme of boredom and its consequences on Vladimir and Estragon stand out. The two are self-admittedly insane, a fact that is highlighted by their nonsense conversation. At several points in the play, they become so desperate to alleviate their boredom that they actually contemplate suicide. Their seemingly eternal state of waiting drives them mad (at the least, madder than they were before).
Another literary case of intense boredom exists in Stephen King’s The Shining. The story features Jack Torrance and his family, who travel to spend the winter months as caretakers of an old hotel. A snowstorm leaves the family trapped in the isolated Overlook Hotel, leaving Jack with nothing to do but work on his writing. After a time, Jack is found to be spending increasingly more time alone, and distancing himself from his family. The declining quality of his mental health is indicated to the reader first, when Jack begins having conversations with ghosts and participating in supernatural events. Jack’s wife eventually discovers his problem, when she happens upon his writing, which is nothing more than the famous “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY” repeated over and over, for dozens of pages. That line, in itself, exemplifies the extreme case of boredom Jack was facing as a result of the family’s isolated situation. Ultimately, the story closes when Jack turns homicidal and tries (unsuccessfully) to murder his family, bringing his insanity to a new level. Even though King’s story and Beckett’s play are fictional, they thoughtfully explore what would happen to someone dealing with an extreme case of boredom.
A Modern-Day Example
In the 1970’s, an astounding case of child abuse was uncovered. The child, once rescued, was named Genie, and she is known today as a feral child. During her childhood, Genie’s parents kept her locked in a bedroom, strapped down to a chair. Her parents and older brother did not interact with Genie, and rarely spoke to her, except to scold or beat her. When she was finally rescued, she was unable to speak or communicate in any way. She had been totally isolated for ten years, and even worse, during the time critical development should have occurred. One of the researchers on her case has been quoted as saying, “Solitary confinement is, diabolically, the most severe punishment, and in my experience, really quite dramatic symptoms develop in as little as fifteen minutes to an hour, and certainly inside of two or three days. And to try to expand this to ten years boggles one’s mind.” Through extensive therapy, Genie began to show improvement, but was never able to fully recover to the level of mental functioning expected of a normal person.
Genie’s case is, far and away, much worse and more horrific than regular boredom, and it’s not quite fair to say than Genie suffered insanity as a result of her situation. Yet, the basic implications remain the same: as a result of a lack of natural stimulation, Genie’s mental functioning was harmed. The damage that prolonged boredom inflicts upon otherwise healthy people seems to have been exponentiated for Genie, and instead of insanity, has manifested as the inability to properly develop.
What Science Has to Say
While Genie, the feral child, was a look at an extreme case of under-stimulation, scientists have recently been looking into the other end of the spectrum. That is to say, studies have been published on what harmful effects can come from day-to-day boredom in otherwise healthy people. Recent findings are indicating that boredom-prone individuals are at a greater risk for other mental health issues. Anxiety disorders, addiction, eating disorders, aggression, and other psychological issues have all been linked to chronic boredom. Depression, especially, has been positively correlated to easily bored individuals in a number of studies, in that boredom can cause depression, and that depression can cause boredom. Boredom has also been found to greatly exacerbate existing mental disorders in the patients studied.
Much like the implications of Genie’s studies, these recent scientific findings do not directly deal with insanity. Rather, they highlight what unnatural damage can be caused by boredom most people experience regularly. Knowing this, to say that insanity is an eventual product of under-stimulation seems reasonable. It would follow, then, that boredom is, in its very nature, something that humans would avoid.