The psychology of boredom, and your minute attention span (Part 1)

How long is your attention span? 5 seconds? 20 seconds? 2 minutes? How long can you focus on something?

Does it depend on whether that something is interesting? If the subject of your attention bores you, does your attention span drop dramatically?

When I was 11, a primary school teacher had caught me often “lost in thought”, daydreaming, I often wouldn’t respond to prompts. ADHD was just coming out as the catch-all for adolescent attentional and adjustment disorders. She managed to push for a full suite of tests to be conducted by a child psychologist. The results of that test were that, rather than being dull, I was in fact beyond the intelligence scale for children. The explanation for my distraction was that I was simply bored.

I never really lost that flight to fantasy. If my brain responds to reality with an idea, whether that’s invoked by my own thoughts, by what I’m looking at or something I’m watching, by what people are saying to me, my attention is literally stolen by my inner world. And frankly, it’s frustrating. Fantastic for introspection, but damning for anything requiring long periods of sustained focus on reality.

So I decided to take a look at some articles to see if I might find a solution. Surely, I figure, I’m not the only person struggling with being distracted.

According to Jonathan D. Cohen, it happens to everyone to some degree. Theories as to the cause and purpose of our involuntary shifts of attention have been generated for decades. He also seeks answers, suggesting that surely it serves some purpose.

His first suggestion is that perhaps it’s a protection mechanism: we daydream to shield our minds from monotony. We have many other involuntary practices to protect us from static stimulation: our eyes tremor, we miss words often repeated in a written sentence, our attention to information is as selective as it is subjective, primed for deriving the greatest utility from each passing moment.

Perhaps it’s simply a part of our internal infrastructure for maintaining sense of our perceptions.

John Eastwood and colleagues presented a meta-analysis on the origin and purpose of boredom. In the article The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention (2012), they relate that while boredom had been a topic for discussion for centuries, the underlying causes and psychological processes had never been identified, so for the purpose of further studies, and to identify and factor boredom into psychological analysis, a foundation was required.

Reviewing many previous studies, they identify some positive correlations:
• that boredom with a task might be alleviated by distraction
• A non-boring task may become boring if one is distracted
• Becoming distracted by pleasant, unrelated, imaginary scenarios may, by contrast, make the current task boring
• By using the imagination, one can manipulate a dull task into a positive experience.

Furthermore, anything that is not within the scope of attention is placed within a negative context. So, regardless of the relative importance of that task you should be doing, it will have negative connotations for you while you have something more interesting available to focus on.

References
COHEN, J. D. & SCHOOLER, J. W. 2014. Scientific Approaches to Consciousness [electronic resource], Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2014.
EASTWOOD, J. D., FRISCHEN, A., FENSKE, M. J. & SMILEK, D. 2012. The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 482-495.

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