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November 28th, 2020
Few people who haven’t trained for it can stand, let alone enjoy a few quiet minutes alone. Particularly if it’s unknown how long the quiet and the loneliness will last. The phone gets pulled out instead, the podcast gets turned on, the feeds are scrolled, email, texts - we now carry the ultimate cornucopia of stimulation with us wherever we go. One would think that we’ve finally conquered boredom, that it has been forever banished to the annals of the past. But this is certainly far from the truth.
Boredom has a strange and unappreciated utility. To sit down and ply one’s own mind with single focus upon a task is, somewhat boring before that subtle moment arrives when a sense of flow overwhelms the consciousness. The weird juxtaposition begs to wonder: what exactly is boredom?
Being in a flow state isn’t just productive, it’s fun. It can be incredibly rewarding, so why is it that we’re not always on the look out to try and dive into a spell of it? How is that work can be boring - even work that we generally claim to like, and yet something can flip and suddenly the subjective experience becomes quite the opposite? This is perhaps a question that’s impossible to answer with what we currently know, but our penchant for distraction has some likely evolutionary roots.
If an animal is single-mindedly focused on a task with no tendency or ability to be distracted from that task, then it becomes very very easy for a predator to sneak up on that animal and get an easy lunch. It’s likely that all such animals actually did become lunch, and those who were a little bit easier to distract noticed that predator in time to get away with their life, even if their task was left unfinished. Our penchant for distraction, whether it’s aided by the vibrant juvenile colors of a superphone or if it’s just our own internal pressure to switch tasks, the tendency might have some deep roots in survival.
The Darwinian world of natural selection doesn’t really optimize for the deeply contemplative creature, but civilization rewards for it, and it's only had cultural pressures to select for it. Those pressures are tepid compared to the brutalist culling of natural selection. It’s a wonder that we have the capacity at all to sit and work with single-minded focus of flow for hours and hours, blocking out all sorts of things, things that could potentially be dangers. If anything it’s likely that attention is operating on a few stratified levels that can maintain no crossover. Typing away in a café, it’s not difficult to get into a flow state, but if a car accident happens outside or if someone starts screaming at the barista, everyone is going to notice, flow state or not.
Attention might be thought of as a sort of pie that always has at least a couple slices. One of those slices was cut permanently, long ago, and is always scanning for danger. Our ability to pay attention after that is likely determined by how many of the remaining slices we can herd together onto the same topic.
Now if those remaining slices of attention have absolutely no capacity to endure boredom, how likely is it that someone can get into a flow state? Certainly such an individual has the capacity to be transfixed and hypnotized in order to avoid boredom, and if anything, a capacity to endure boredom determines the barrier to entry for deep focus. The transfixion of scrolling a feed on a phone is due to a pleasure adaptation. We get all these tiny dopamine hits as we search and discover for the new. But hedonic adaptation occurs. The dopamine response lessens, so we need more. And more. And soon enough, our incessant need for pleasure renders a person completely incapable of enduring boredom. The phrasing here is hyperbolic, surely, but not entirely.
Difficult work, especially learning or solving a hard problem is the exact opposite of the stream of dopamine hits that populate most of our phone usage. Difficult work isn’t just boring, it can be painful - at least at the start when the experience is likely accompanied with confusion and frustration.
But that adaptive change works both ways. Just as pleasure calls for more pleasure as it’s intensity dulls, so too is our capacity for boredom adaptive: the more boredom that is endured, willingly and with effort, the easier it becomes to handle that boredom. Eventually an individual can thrive in it by meeting that barrier to entry for deep work more often, and breaking through quicker in order to make the time count.
donating = loving
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