The symphony of stimuli

“Argggh. I’m so bored. Can we do something?”

Most of us understand what this person is saying. But what do they actually mean? What the hell is boredom anyway? After some scouting around the general consensus seems to be this: boredom is a lack of interest in the surrounding environment, an inability or unwillingness to engage with anything.

Do you have a thermostat in your house? That thermostat may be linked to the heating system. If it drops below a certain temperature, click. On comes the heating. Boredom works in a similar way. Unless the stimuli we receive surpasses a certain threshold we remain un-engaged, uninterested, and ultimately, become bored.

But where do the stimuli come from? How do they make it into our mind? There are two primary routes. Stimuli are either externally imposed or internally generated. The state of boredom is a failure of both sources of stimuli. 

Without external stimuli we can still be entertained and engaged. Ask any day dreamer. Or consider someone in a sensory deprivation tank. The removal of all external stimuli generates an intense focus on our own thoughts. And without internal stimuli we can rely on the external. Who thinks on a rollercoaster? No one. They’re too busy screaming in response to the stimulation the ride provides.

Seen like this, boredom is less of a monster to fear, and more a cute kitten to stroke until it purrs. If boredom is a consistent problem, the solution is obvious: get some stimulation. We can get this two ways. We can seek stimuli from the environment. Watch TV. Listen to music. Go somewhere or do something that gives us a lot of sensory information to deal with. Or we can change nothing except where and on what we focus. We can decide to take an interest in something. We can allow ourselves to wonder, to question, to think, to explore, all whilst staying in exactly the same place.

The former—being stimulated by external things—is easier. We don’t have to expend much energy. But if used too often, we become reliant on external stimuli to generate interest and engagement. Nassim Taleb figured this out:

“Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.” 

But it’s not that their thinking is boring and repetitive permanently. It’s just that it has become that way because they’re so used to relying on external prods from the environment. The internal tune they use to hum to themselves is gone. It can no longer be heard because they’re so used to listening to the symphony of stimuli playing in front of them.

That’s why it’s important to denarrate. To deliberately cut and withdraw from external stimuli. It’s a way to maintain the ability to internally-generate interest and engagement in the outside world, whatever the state of that world may be. 

Remember, boredom is a failure of both externally-imposed and internally-generated stimuli. One of these—the externally imposed—can fail and become non-existent. The other—the internally generated—is directly under our control. So if you wish to forever banish boredom here’s what to do: practice existing in the absence of external stimulation. 

There are a few to do this. Go to a park, sit on a bench and look around. Don’t take out your phone or read. Or go to a coffee shop, order your favourite coffee and then drink it. Again, don’t read, don’t talk. Just sit and drink and observe. Or make a cup of tea at home and do nothing except sit and drink that cuppa.

Doing any of those things is hard. The bar for stimuli has been raised so high by the noise in our environment that most everything, especially just sitting and doing nothing, falls far below it. But it is something we should practise. Creativity and insight come not from the external environment, but when we shut off incoming information and synthesise everything we’ve been exposed to.

That’s the more insidious side of the reliance on external stimuli. It impairs our ability to see and create. We are bored so we seek external stimuli. And the seeking of external stimuli makes the re-occurrence of our boredom more and more likely. It’s a vicious circle. But it’s a cycle we can break if we choose to.