All posts by krk71

This Is Crazy: Insanity and Human Nature

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.

It’s Unnatural

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.

From: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/eastern-state-penitentiary-a-prison-with-a-past-14274660

In Literature

            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

Genie_immediately_after_rescue

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.
From: http://www.businessinsider.com/critical-period-for-language-acquisition-2013-10

 

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.

From: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-history-of-boredom-138176427

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.

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A Lack of Effort

A Lack of Effort

Today’s society puts a great value on instant gratification. People don’t like to wait for anything, and patience is viewed as an irrelevant annoyance rather than a standard. Slowly, this need for a constant, immediate stimulus is putting a strain on our culture. People are having increasing difficulty entertaining themselves, or finding entertainment and meaning in the facets of everyday life. No longer is society willing to put in any effort. Boredom is becoming natural and more common. More and more often, individuals are giving up on trying to find meaning in what they do, and are ceasing to respond to their own lives. It’s become a game, a constant search for something, anything, to relieve boredom, and it’s hurting us. On every level, boredom is cropping up and interfering with the greater picture of a satisfying life. And society isn’t doing anything to stop it.

Boredom as Defined by Thomas Oden, 1969

 boredomstructure

In his 1969 book, The Structure of Awareness, Thomas C. Oden defined awareness by using the structures of Guilt, Anxiety, and Boredom. Guilt refers to a past self, while anxiety refers to a future self. Boredom deals with the present self, and the present awareness and experience one is having. Several pathways exist which ultimately lead to boredom. The first is the feeling of emptiness, which impedes the goal of self-actualization. This is what is most commonly experienced as boredom. On a larger scale, boredom can also arise from the feeling of meaningless, something more like depression.  By analyzing the diagram, we see that the “now” is related to the “self” by experiencing the present moment and being responsive, which would be to say that a lack of responsiveness would also lead to boredom.

A Website to Demonstrate “Instant Gratification”

http://www.i-am-bored.com/

Following this hyperlink leads to a website called “i am bored.” The entire site is a collection of other hyperlinks that lead to games, videos, articles, pictures, and other websites aimed at entertainment. From the home page, we see that 60 pages of the hyperlink list have been posted. In the sidebar, there are links to other feeds of the same nature. The entire website is dedicated to sharing links that will alleviate boredom. It’s actually marketed as a website for bored users to find immediate entertainment. In theory, the premise is useful, but the site encourages people to come back every day. If the site actually cured people of their boredom, it would be out of business. Not that this would ever happen, because the very nature of the website shortens people’s attention spans, making them ultimately more susceptible to boredom.

 

Similar Such Websites

http://www.boredbutton.com/random

http://www.stumbleupon.com

These websites are dubbed the “Bored Button” and “StumbleUpon.” They is similar to the premise of “i am bored,” but instead of listing other hyperlinks, these websites have a button that randomly jumps to another page of the Internet when clicked. Granted that some of these pages have educational value, the websites as a whole are even less interactive. Both contain a special code that leaves the button in a top bar on every new website, so as soon as the user is done looking at the current page, they can click the button again and find somewhere new to go. Rather than looking through a list for personally interesting topics, users just repeatedly click a button to find a source of entertainment. From personal experience, I can confirm that websites such as these actually breed boredom after a time, rather than combat it. It gives people an excuse not to try.

A Quote Society Could Learn From

“Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?” –Arthur Helps

This particular quote by Arthur Helps exemplifies the problem with commonplace boredom. Boredom is not something that a person should experience typically. To be frequently bored is to have an issue, mentally. Something is wrong when the average person can’t be satisfied with their life without being plagued by boredom. And as we have already seen, this is the case in society today, given the existence of websites previously mentioned and the culture that corresponds to them. People aren’t trying to fend off boredom; rather they are expecting to be presented with some entertaining thing at all times. I would say that this widespread attitude shows society’s faculties dying.

A Story

There was a young girl, who was exceptionally bright and had potential to do great things. As she grew older, it was apparent that she had a passion for science and math, and excelled at research and complex problem solving. However, she was also a young girl, and enjoyed doing normal activities like her friends. She spend a large amount of time on the Internet, and playing games, and online shopping, and watching television. This behavior never concerned her parents, as they knew how great her intellect was, and they felt assured that her partaking in normal teenage activities would never be able to disrupt her mental clarity. As time went on, however, the girl noticed herself having difficulty remaining focused on tasks that once came so easily to her. Simple things, like doing homework or reading an assignment, took hours to complete, as she was facing constant distraction. Even when she was alone with nothing but her work and her thoughts, she couldn’t remain focused, no matter how hard she tried. She tried to make light of it, and would joke about it with her friends, as if it were some funny stubbornness that was preventing her from doing her work, as she should have. But deep down, she knew something was wrong. Somehow, she had destroyed her ability to focus, and was bored and frustrated more often than she was productive, or happy, for that matter. In trying to be a normal kid as society would have, she had sunk to the level of the average, mindless person, unable to be entertained by anything. And she would never forgive herself for it.

 

On “Boredom Proneness” and a Study of Real People

            John D. Watt and Michael B. Hargis wrote a paper, entitled “Boredom Proneness: Its Relationship with Subjective Underemployment, Perceived Organizational Support, and Job Performance.” The body of the paper detailed a study that the two performed on a group of lab technicians, and explained the relation between boredom and the workplace. The basic findings related to three areas: subjective underemployment, perceived organizational support, and job performance, as the title states. For subjective underemployment, it was found that employees who were identified as “prone to boredom,” overall, responded that they felt underemployed, or underutilized in their job. A possible cause of this is that their intellect exceeds what is required to perform their job, which would naturally lead to boredom. The second aspect was organizational support, which means how much an employee felt that the employer was supporting them in their endeavors. Once again, the boredom-prone mostly responded that they did not feel supported by their organization. The last, and most telling, aspect was job performance. Taken across a wide pool of data, it was found that bored employees had the worst job performance across the companies. This is especially interesting when considering that these bored employees are the same ones who felt they were being underutilized at work. The two authors collected a great amount of data, and uncovered other trends aside from what was titled in the paper. For instance, they found that boredom proneness has been significantly negatively correlated with self-actualization, which corroborates the feelings of underemployment. They also mentioned that the “boredom proneness” was  “trait boredom,” meaning that each person who suffered the boredom experienced it as though it were a permanent character trait. All in all, Watt and Hargis concluded that boredom is an especially relevant concept when examined in the workplace, and further supports the harmful nature of chronic boredom.

David Foster Wallace and Chapter 44

             In his book The Pale King, David Foster Wallace makes the claim that boredom is a conquerable trait, and once a person has become unborable, they can accomplish absolutely anything. There are many different ways to approach this discussion, but the Watt and Hargis study actually makes a good argument in favor of Wallace’s point. The real people working at real companies who possessed a trait boredom were the most unfulfilled and unsuccessful employees at their companies. Given that the employees were aware of their displeasure and overall negative standing in the workplace, it begs to ask why they didn’t attempt to overcome their boredom, and make a serious effort to become more engaged in their jobs. The employees who did not experience boredom were successful and more satisfied in life, as Wallace suggested they would be.

Life and Needs

Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is at the top, while physiological needs are at the bottom. Boredom plays a role perhaps somewhere in the middle, as entertainment is not essential to life, but at the same time prevents the highest level from ever being reached. Human nature pushes us to climb Maslow’s pyramid, but society is breeding a harmful kind of attitude that leaves us stuck in the middle. People don’t want to be bored, but have been taught and conditioned to be bored much of the time. Instead of doing anything to rectify this, we are falling into complacency and further boredom. Putting oneself in a mindset like Arthur Helps or David Foster Wallace could be the first step towards alleviating boredom, and having people make an effort for their own well-being.

Pretzels

pretzels

A frequently uttered phrase in the dieting community is something along the lines of “only eat when you’re hungry, not just because you’re bored.”

In the spirit of being healthy, my parents also said this a lot to me when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time snacking, usually for no reason other than it was something to do. Now that I’m in college, I find myself having returned to this pattern of behavior. If I’m not doing anything specific, I’m probably just sitting in my room eating. My understanding is that this is typical college behavior, but it makes me think about what is really happening when I’m eating “out of boredom.”

My snack of choice is, and has always been, pretzels. I buy large, plastic jars of pretzels and keep them beside my desk at all times. Pretzels have basically become a staple of my diet. And when I’m bored, I pull them out and eat, either until I’m full, or I find something else to do or somewhere else to go.

Another aspect of typical college life is eating actual meals irregularly. That is to say, snacking is sometimes the only nutrition college kids have time for (or can afford) in a day. Personally, I have a schedule of classes that overlap with normal meal times, and ‘free time’ is more of a theoretical concept after school work and other daytime obligations. By the time I get home, usually 10P.M. or later, I probably haven’t eaten dinner, and am too tired or have too much to do to go back out for food. I imagine that many college kids experience this same thing.

At this point of my day, I’m sitting down trying to do my homework. But I also get distracted easily, as is prone to happen when working on a laptop with the whole internet ahead of you. And so, in a short while, I’ve stopped working and have cycled through all the social media and entertainment sites I could think of. Now, I’m just bored. Already decently hungry from not having eaten dinner, I’ll start eating pretzels without any thought. I think that’s fair, because even though I’m really eating out of boredom, I’m also genuinely hungry.

The problem is the times when I shouldn’t genuinely be hungry. I practice this late-night pretzel eating behavior nearly every day. It has gotten to the point where I sit down and eat pretzels almost out of habit. In a way, I’ve conditioned myself to want pretzels every time that I’m bored. Other times of the day, even if I’ve just eaten, I will sit down at my desk and get bored with my work, which makes me want to eat pretzels. I make myself think I’m hungry, because it’s not atypical for me to be hungry and bored simultaneously.

I’m not sure how this applies to the original hungry/bored eating advice. I don’t even think of eating pretzels as snacking anymore, but instead, I try to justify it by reasoning whether or not I only want pretzels when I’m bored.

Perhaps I should just stop keeping pretzels in my room.

 

Kaylee Kline