Guest column: Being bored is a chance to boost the brain

Published 8:40 pm Friday, January 13, 2023

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Guest column by Dr. Ashok Seshadri

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Even though my kids got many gifts during the holidays, they complained about how bored they were at home. I can’t and don’t want to constantly entertain them. I remember being bored as a child and the need to find ways to occupy my time. Do you have tips for managing boredom in kids?

ANSWER: You are certainly not alone when you heard, “Mom, Dad, I’m bored!” during the holiday break. It’s not the parents’ responsibility to entertain children every moment of the day, though. Kids are naturally curious and creative. Being bored occasionally helps them strengthen their creative muscles and learn to cope with feelings of boredom as they get older.

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When your kids protest boredom, acknowledge their feelings and ask them to come up with a solution. If they struggle, offer ideas that don’t include an electronic device.

The interesting thing is that a little boredom for children and adults can be a good thing. It can stimulate creativity and problem-solving, while giving the brain time to recharge.

So why do kids and adults get bored? The feeling of boredom is when brains struggle to fill time. People may feel restless or have a lack of interest in their surroundings. Boredom is common, with over 60% of U.S. adults reporting that they feel bored at least once a week.

People’s brains rarely are bored while focused on taking part in demanding tasks, like work or school, or while taking part in a good conversation. When your brain is focused on an intense activity, it exerts a lot of energy.

When you finish the activity, your brain returns to a default or resting state. This is normal and the way that brains restore. Several interconnected brain regions are active during this time.

When people are in a resting state, many important things are happening in the brain. It is consolidating memories and reflecting on lessons learned. The brain plays through scenarios and applies what was learned and how it could be used in the future. People spend time thinking about themselves and others. They reminisce about the past and daydream about the future.

The resting state also can be a creative time, and it can lead to finding creative solutions to problems that are bothering people. For example, many people claim to come up with great solutions to problems they are grappling with while in the shower. This is because their minds are free to wander while their bodies are engaged in mindless tasks and captive to the tasks.

During the resting state, people seek ways to entertain themselves and their brains. Play and entertainment have been ways people have figured out to overcome boredom. Adults read, spend time with hobbies or tell stories to avoid boredom. Before the advent of TV and mobile devices, children overcame boredom by going outside or playing with a friend or sibling.

Today, electronics capture a significant amount of adults’ and children’s attention. But this readily accessible medium may have swung too far. Instead of short-term relief from boredom, many people spend hours on electronics. This lessens the amount of bored time, but it causes a different problem. The less people experience boredom, the less equipped brains are to deal with it. Step away from electronics to give your brain time to rest and embrace boredom.

Here are some tips to help overcome any uncomfortable feelings of boredom and boost your brain:

Balance activities with rest.

Seek a balance between structured activities and intermittent rest time to increase creative thinking. Do a variety of activities that you enjoy and that are mentally stimulating. This could include socializing with others, but put away passive entertainment, like using electronic devices. Add to this plenty of rest time to recharge your brain.

Try something new.

Encourage your kids to join a club, try a new hobby, play a game, read a book or cook a new recipe to ignite their creativity and provide a distraction from boredom.

Get outdoors.

Spending time with nature is one of the best therapeutic ways to ward off boredom. It also promotes creative thinking for kids and adults alike.

Embrace reminiscing.

For adults, reminiscing is a big part of time spent as they age. It’s normal and expected. If excessive reminiscing becomes a problem, try to channel focus on current or future goals and wishes for a few minutes.

Overall, kids and adults should not be afraid of boredom. It’s a normal part of life. Occasionally being bored is a great opportunity to boost our brains and problem-solving skills.

Dr. Ashok Seshadri is a psychiatrist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin.