Thursday, August 04, 2011

Boredom - a Lively History

Peter Toohey's book with the title of this post is reviewed by Anthony Gottlieb in the NYTimes:
In Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance,” Lord Illingworth says of society: “To be in it is merely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy.” To be a bore oneself is the ultimate failing and makes one the target for a quintessentially English put-down. “Even the grave yawns for him,” the actor and theater manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree once said of an earnest writer. was (and still is) regarded in some quarters as stylish and rather aristocratic to suffer from boredom, so the English ought really to thank their bores for providing them with the occasion to display wit and appear grand.

Toohey...suggests that the unpleasant feeling of simple boredom developed as a warning signal to steer us away from social situations that are “confined, predictable, too samey for one’s sanity.” In other words, it is a useful aversion: the discomfort of boredom is a blessing in disguise...a colleague of his once argued that there isn’t really any such thing as boredom, just a blurring together of a constellation of feelings and moods — frustration, surfeit, apathy and the like. Toohey rejects this idea, and perhaps there is indeed little harm in keeping the word, provided that one is vigilantly aware of the loose, subjective and confusing ways in which it is often used. When the actor George Sanders — the archetypal cad, at least on-screen, and in the title of his autobiography — committed suicide in a Spanish hotel in 1972, he left a note that began: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.” It is worth noting that he was ill, lonely and had sold his beloved house on Majorca. Was boredom really what his death was about? When a man says he is bored — as Oscar Wilde never quite got round to saying — it sometimes means that he cannot be bothered to tell you what really ails him.


  1. In "A philosophy of boredom" Lars Svendsen argues that boredom is a modern phenonemon and is a by-product of the modernist project of self improvement. The word was invented relatively recently and doesn't really exist in older languages.

  2. I think the concept of boredom is very exciting :) from a neuroscientific point of view as well as from a clinical psychological one. When my clients tell me they are bored, I check for clinical depression since boredom is one symptom of depression. I have an intuition that George Sanders may have suffered from depression. But even non-depressed persons can feel depressed if they have no DREAMS, no passionate goals for the future. Also there is psychological research that some people require much more stimulation than others to avoid being bored and they are called "High Sensation Seekers".
    From a neuroscientific point of view, High sensation seekers have been shown to adapt or habituate more quickly to a repetitive visual stimulus. (Brain responses to repeated visual experience among low and high sensation seekers: Role of boredom susceptibility.
    By Jiang, Yang; Lianekhammy, Joann; Lawson, Adam; Guo, Chunyan; Lynam, Donald; Joseph, Jane E.; Gold, Brian T.; Kelly, Thomas H.
    Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Vol 173(2), Aug 30, 2009, 100-106.)

  3. Thanks for the comments!