Health: Today you're bored. Tomorrow you're ill: Raj Persaud explains a phenomenon that can cause air crashes, over-eating and violence

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BOREDOM has been blamed for clinical depression, alcoholism, overeating, obesity and drug abuse, and, beyond specialists' clinics, it is considered to be a factor in vandalism and other crimes.

Interest in boredom has grown recently with a revival of studies into a concept that boredom is a pathological condition. This may explain many current social problems such as youth violence, 'hotting' - which turned joy-riding into a spectator sport, often with tragic consequences - and other risk-taking behaviour.

Recent studies of school pupils show that while many are bored with at least one subject, a large number find all subjects boring. But it is not just school that these students find boring - they are bored during their spare time as well.

These results suggest that some people may suffer from pathological boredom; not task-linked, but more a characteristic of particular people

or their personalities. The same research also suggests that boredom runs in families - bored pupils have bored parents.

It also suggests that boredom decreases with age. People seem most prone to boredom during adolescence. This is when emerging adults are learning to focus their attention in ways that elude younger children. It may be that teenagers who fail to attain an adult ability to concentrate will suffer boredom, and - not ignoring the influence of other factors - turn to crime and drug abuse. The brain-wave patterns characteristic

of this 'selective attention' first emerge when a child is about 11 or 12 years old.

The brain's frontal lobes send messages to the rest of the nervous system to inhibit widespread activity, producing concentrated activity in specific areas of the brain. This provides the ability to focus on selective events and so prevents boredom.

Differences in brain activity have been observed, enabling researchers to distinguish between those who are easily distracted and those who can concentrate well.

Boredom is more profound than simply a lack of stimulation. Sometimes it is the lack of any impulse at all. The problem is not finding something to do, it is finding a reason for doing anything at all. This explains the hopeless task of trying to interest some bored people in any subject, despite the most riveting suggestions.

Complaints of feeling bored are common. Surveys have found that up to 56 per cent of British employees report that they find their entire job boring, while up to 87 per cent say they feel bored doing their work on some occasions.

Medical research has found that bored workers have three to five times the usual incidence of cardiovascular disease; four to seven times the incidence of neurological disorders; twice the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders; and two to three times the incidence of musculo-skeletal disorders.

They are absent from work for medical reasons three to five times as often as their non-bored colleagues. Swedish research published in 1975 said that 60 per cent of mill workers doing one particularly boring task were receiving treatment for peptic ulcers. Some even complained of hallucinations during periods when they were bored.

This may be explained by the surprising finding that adrenalin levels are twice as high as normal during boring work - in response to frustration. So those with boring jobs experience a great deal of stress. It is possible to be bored to death - literally.

Boredom research is not always predictable; many studies have found industrial workers who claim to enjoy repetitive work. A study of female Swiss watchmakers who worked at repetitive tasks found that monotonous jobs lowered the workers' intelligence scores.

Research on long-distance lorry drivers and airline pilots suggests that many motorway pile-ups, air crashes and oil-tanker accidents are directly attributable to boredom. In 1989 the entire cockpit crew of a commercial airline fell asleep and over-flew their destination by more than 100 miles before being awakened by air-traffic controllers, according to a report published in the journal Human Relations this month.

During the Second World War, the RAF was astonished to find that contact with hostile aircraft and U-boats reported by radar operators dropped substantially as more time was spent on duty. Because 50 per cent of targets were being missed, RAF Coastal Command commissioned psychologists to study boredom.

Research bodies such as the Industrial Fatigue Research Board had been set up in the Thirties in response to a high level of industrial accidents.

More recent research has identified a sub-type of boredom - 'Sunday boredom'. This is spare-time boredom peculiar to people who succeed in diverting themselves only at work. When distraction in unavailable, latent boredom manifests itself.

Psychopaths - ruthless, self-centred individuals - fall into this group of people who require constant stimulation. They have poor tolerance of routine work and rapidly become blase about novelty.

Others prone to boredom include those with higher abilities who find most tasks relatively simple and therefore not as stimulating as they are for the rest of us. Extroverts and the more socially outgoing, surprisingly, suffer more from boredom than introverts. Their high spirits are an attempt to generate the intense levels of stimulation they need to stave off boredom.

Understanding boredom can be difficult for researchers because it can be difficult to recognise. Boredom may manifest itself in anxiety, hostility, concentration difficulties, sleepiness, irritation, risk-taking and the experience of time slowing down.

This subjective experience of time is an important indication of boredom. In an experiment in which psychologists asked people to complete a task in a set time, clocks were tampered with to run fast or slow.

Interest was increased when the clocks were speeded up, and boredom was experienced when they were slowed down. One solution to boredom, then, may be simply allocating less time to boring tasks.

In fact many people already unconsciously do this; they may rush to complete tasks they have put off because they find them boring.

There is a technique called 'distraction management' which identifies occasions or situations in which the subject gets bored and distracted from a task and then removes the distraction. At its most simple level this could mean taking a television set out of the room in which a teenager is doing homework.

Another technique is 'stimulation management', in which the subject is encouraged to use the imagination to keep alert - for example by playing games during a long car drive. This could involve counting Jaguars or red Volkswagens.

One sub-type of boredom was described by an Austrian prince, Field Marshal Charles Joseph de Ligne (1735-1814), a raconteur and socialite who said: 'I am not bored, it is others who bore me.'

Research into what people find boring about each other reveals this is largely based on the quality of conversation. Boring people's conversation was found to be self-centred and trivial and their speech style was slow and low on emotional fervour.

Being boring is a huge social disadvantage - it results in extreme loneliness. As its links with serious personal and social problems become clearer, the need to discover more effective anti-boredom strategies has become more urgent than ever.

DEFINING TEDIUM

'. . . an unpleasant, transient emotional state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in, and difficulty concentrating on, activity . . .' Fisher, organisational psychologist, 1993

'. . . occurs when an individual decides an activity has no personal significance, they say to themselves - there in nothing in this for me . . .' Locke and Latham, applied psychologists, 1990

'. . . when we must not do what we want to do, or must do what we do not want to do . . .' Fenichel, psychoanalyst, 1951

'. . . a tendency to revert to sleep due to inadequate motivation to stay awake . . .' Barmack, psychologist, 1938

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