For many people, boredom and sleepiness often go hand-in-hand. Whether in church, in a difficult class or even a long meeting, most of us will feel our eyes become heavier and heads beginning to nod when we are bored. This can be very inconvenient but it remains a salient human behavior seen across cultures. Exactly why do we become sleepy when we are bored? New research may have found the exact group of neurons involved.
The Psychology of Boredom
Everyone is bored at times. Boredom is a very difficult emotional state to define, however, psychologists have found a few trends. People who are bored usually suffer from high arousal; their brains are in high gear at that moment but there is nothing to occupy them. A lack of control over the situation is also an important factor in boredom. People who are unoccupied yet free to do as they please can simply find another activity, while bored people are often trapped in a situation.
Last, people who are bored are often in environments with a high amount of stimulation. While this doesn’t make sense intuitively, it is consistent with the research finding that bored brains are more highly aroused. The little things going on in the background make it impossible to have a quiet mind and also impossible to focus on just one thing. Although there is a lot going on in our environments, we cannot get the mental reward of a focused activity.
The Societal Cost of Boredom
Being bored is not just a personal problem, but a cultural one as well. With our environments full of random stimulation, many people are bored throughout their days. The result is lost productivity and higher job turnover. In addition, bored people are more likely to get into accidents, partly from the higher risk of falling asleep and partly due to the fact that they are at higher risk of driving dangerously.
This could be problematic because more Americans are bored than ever before. On any given day, more than 70 percent of people report being noticeably bored. Part of this is due to the high levels of stimulating light and noise around us. However, our economy also may play a role. People are willing to take jobs that do not truly interest them in order to make ends meet. Modern people are busier than ever but also more bored than ever before.
Boredom and Sleepiness: Newly Discovered Neurons Play Double Duty
If you find yourself nodding off in board meetings, new findings suggest an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is likely to blame. The nucleus accumbens is responsible for motivation and reward as well as a wide range of other behaviors, including inducing slow-wave sleep.
The nature of this link between boredom and sleepiness is promising because it opens avenues for future treatments of sleep disorders. It also may help to reduce the societal and personal cost of boredom. Researchers noted that the same area of the brain lit up in functional scans when people were either bored or very sleepy. Further study of this region showed the biochemical activity underlying the connection. When we are bored, our highly aroused but also unrewarded and disengaged neurons release adenosine into the nucleus accumbens. This, in turn, stimulates the neurons in the same area of the brain that induce slow wave sleep.
Natural Ways to Fight Boredom
Although there will probably never be a medication for boredom, there are simple ways that you can help to reduce this unpleasant phenomenon and its effects in your life. First, you can reduce the amount of arousal in your brain. For instance, people can reduce external noise, screens and other sources of brain stimulation. Meditation is another simple way to quiet internal noise.
Second, boredom can be subverted by introducing an activity that has an intrinsic reward. For instance, crossword puzzles and simple video games induce a feeling of motivation and reward. These “rewards” can even be engagement or enjoyment as the reward centers of the brain know little difference. If you are driving, consider listening to a podcast or a book on tape. These options allow you to activate reward centers in your brain and thereby reduce boredom.
Last, make sure you are well-rested. While boredom can cause sleepiness, you are still more likely to fall asleep if you have not gotten enough rest. Nodding off in an important meeting is embarrassing, but nodding off in other situations may be dangerous or even fatal. Getting enough sleep is essential to your mental and physical health in every way.
While much of sleep is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the nucleus accumbens also appears to be an important area of the brain in determining sleep behavior. While this discovery is still very new, it opens possibilities for new therapies treating both boredom and insomnia. For people suffering from one or both of these, the future indeed may be bright.