The groundhog year: This is what 12 months of monotony has done to your brain

You might have been told that ‘only boring people get bored’. But what happens to our brains after a year of enforced boredom? Natasha Preskey finds out

Friday 26 March 2021 11:57 GMT
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Every time I have a conversation with someone I don’t know (a treat which is these days limited to new or unfamiliar colleagues, supermarket checkout staff and, on one thrilling occasion, the dentist) I find myself reaching for the same lockdown cliches. Having an out-of-body experience, I hear myself mutter: “Oh yeah, I’m okay. Like Groundhog Day day though, isn’t it?”

The pandemic has been characterised by repetition. The same walk around the block, the same supermarket, the same uncomfortable kitchen chair to sit in for eight hours, the same two or three companions (if you’re lucky), the same drive - straight home - from work, the same unanswered worries. In the last 12 months, despite living through one of the biggest historical moments of our entire lives - that will undoubtedly be dissected and analysed by experts for decades to come - the whole thing has been, well, monotonous. And deviation from this monotony is something to be feared - a death, a job loss, a positive Covid test.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) weekly opinions and lifestyle survey, boredom has been a key issue affecting our mental health during the last year. In several surveys conducted during the first lockdown, over half of people who were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their wellbeing reported feeling bored. But what does a year of chronic boredom do to the brain? And what happens to our bodies when life is dull, monotonous and uninspiring?

To find out what happens in the brain when a person is faced with a boring, monotonous task, leading boredom expert Professor James Danckert, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, showed study participants a video of men hanging laundry while they were placed in an MRI scanner. When people are bored, he explains, what’s known as the brain’s “default mode network” is activated.

“You sort of turn inward,” he explains. “You might do things like mind-wandering or daydreaming, you might engage in something like nostalgic reverie, you might be thinking about your future plans for the day, or you might be thinking about some event in the past.”

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We may associate boredom with sleepiness and inaction - if someone asked you to draw a bored person, you’d likely sketch out a stick person with accompanying Z’s - but, actually, boredom is typically a mix of lethargy and agitation and restlessness, says Danckert.

Another study Danckert worked on examined the physiological consequences of boredom and found that it was correlated with an elevated heart rate and increased levels of stress hormone cortisol (which is linked to higher blood pressure and other long-term health issues). “Prolonged experiences of boredom are not good for mental or physical health,” says Danckert.

But responses to boredom can be complex, Erin Westgate, leading boredom researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, tells The Independent that some experiments have shown people do predictable things, such as, eat more - one experiment showed that study participants were more likely to eat M&Ms they were presented with when bored - but also boredom can be linked to “antisocial sadistic behaviour”. “People grind up bugs, they dock other people’s pay, they are more likely to punish people monetarily for behaving badly to others,” she says.

We’ve known for a long time pre-pandemic that people who are prone to boredom have higher rates of depression and anxiety

However, Westgate points out that boredom can also be a driver for creativity, something which she says is borne out in lab studies. This may come as no surprise to those of us whose social media feeds are full of people who used time stuck indoors to teach themselves to bake, sew, draw or finally take up that hobby they’ve been putting off for years.

There is, however, a difference between chronic boredom and fleeting feelings of boredom (known as state boredom). Chronic boredom is linked to all kinds of negative physical and mental health outcomes. “We’ve known for a long time pre-pandemic that people who are prone to boredom have higher rates of depression and anxiety, they also tend to have higher rates of drug and alcohol use,” says Danckert. “There’s an association between boredom proneness and problem gambling.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the country experienced elevated levels of anxiety during the first lockdown between March and June. Similarly, ONS data revealed that levels of depression among adults almost doubled from 9.7 per cent before the pandemic to 19.2 per cent in June 2020. 

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A 2009 study by Annie Britton and Martin J. Shipley of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health found that, of a group of 7,500 people who had been working for the civil service in the 1980s, those who reported high levels of boredom were 37 per cent more likely to have died by the end of the study period. Researchers suggested that this could be because boredom may cause people to take up unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking.

During the first nine months of 2020, deaths caused by alcohol hit an all-time high, with 5,460 deaths being recorded with this cause, according to the ONS. This marked an increase of 16 per cent on the same period the previous year. Although of course reasons for drinking could be more than just boredom, it is a noteworthy correlation.

There is some evidence that folks who live through natural disasters have losses in wellbeing that never entirely bounce back

One positive of this situation is that boredom is now being recognised as a potential public health issue in a way it never has been before, observes Tina Kendall, an associate professor of film and media at Anglia Ruskin University whose research focuses on boredom and the attention economy in networked media. “All of a sudden, there’s all this advice from the NHS to local councils and public health and mental health charities around boredom, where that has never really been kind of taken seriously as an aspect of mental health and wellbeing before,” she says.

As for whether this extended stretch of boredom - and the experience of living through the Covid pandemic more generally - will have long lasting cognitive effects on the population, Westgate says this is still unclear. “We have a lot of data about short term stressors but we don’t have a ton of data on long term stressors,” she says. “There is some evidence, for instance, that folks who have lived through natural disasters, have losses in wellbeing that never entirely bounce back.”

Like so many aspects of this period, understanding the legacy of people’s boredom is something that will only come into sharper focus with space and time. While boredom is not even close to being the worst aspect of this this Groundhog Year, leaving this 12 months of monotony behind will surely be a boost to our collective wellbeing.

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