Boredom: That Powerful Emotion.

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2002 by Renée Fuller,

     Boredom. Remember how awful that feeling was in childhood. Time moved excruciatingly slowly. It seemed like forever before something exciting or interesting happened. Some of the bad kids in school who couldn't stand the boredom would make exciting things happen. But that often made things worse.

     Adults who understood the reasons for my restlessness would tell me, "When you're an adult, time will start to move with incredible speed." The implication was that then I wouldn't be bored any more. But by the first year of college I was convinced that the no more boredom part just wasn't true. The courses were a dreadful tedium.

     At home both my parents had been and were great conversationalists. We had exciting discussions about how various political programs related to economics. The psychology of people and animals and the books we were reading were regular dinner talk. And when I presented ideas I had digested as a result of my reading and thinking these were met with delighted responsiveness. My parents were especially congratulatory when I produced well thought out concepts.

     But away from home the first two years of college were a stark contrast. The courses were irritatingly dull. In economics we were expected to admire and remember mathematical functions and graphs presumed to describe economic activity. However, these mathematical abstractions didn't take into account human interaction. So why couldn't my professors see that the reason the graphs were poor predictors was because they didn't take into account human behavior? Psychology fared no better. Again we were supposed to admire and memorize mathematical functions. This time their purpose was to prove the professor's school of thought superior to that of his competitors'. That was not only a dreadful bore, but it struck me as cheating. Wasn't the purpose of experimentation to find out how reality is built, not to prove another professor wrong?

     After those first two years of college a dread hung over me; I would have to spend the next fifty, maybe seventy more years (I come from a long lived family) in meaningless work. What could be more stifling! On the immediate horizon were another two years of pointless memorization of meaningless facts and ideas. If I hadn't been brought up to be a well-behaved girl who gritted her teeth and did what was expected of her, I would have put an end to college.

     Instead my fiancé and I married. That created excitement. But then my husband had to continue medical school, which meant he was gone during the day and had to study till late at night. So, as expected of a good girl, I transferred to a college in New York where we now lived. And that's where what by now was the unexpected happened. Instead of boring and often dogmatic claims, several of my New York professors presented ideas and had discussion that resembled those we had at home. There was the music professor who so loved the symphonic form that he took us through it using the main classical composers as demonstration. To this day I draw from what I had begun to understand in his class so many decades ago. The same held for my arts professors. Then there were the chemistry and psychology professors with whom we considered different concepts as to how the real world is put together; and how one could test these different conceptualizations. I was fascinated. This was more even than great conversation; this showed a way I could become an intellectual explorer. Now that was exciting! The threatening dark cloud lifted. I would never again be bored. If I lived to be a hundred, it would continue to be an exciting exploration. I had found lifelong learning.

     Before long I realized that exploration need not be restricted to science, my chosen area. Musicians, artists, architects, carpenters, even entrepreneurs can also be explorers. They too can spend their lives in seeking to understand their world, be it music or art or whatever they have found exciting to explore. But then there are the numerous adults who are still locked into boredom, which continues to hang over them hours, even years of their lives. The antidote of excessive TV viewing can only partially overcome the apathy that comes with a life of tedium. Nor do drugs or the excitement of violence put an end to the listlessness that accompanies boredom. I remember so well how as a child I understood why the lions and tigers were pacing in their cells. They were experiencing a feeling I knew only too well. Their roars sounded like screams of rage because nothing of interest was happening.

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     Eventually I would understand that unique to advanced nervous systems is the requirement for absorbing stimulation. When this need for stimulation is not fulfilled we have the painful experience of boredom. The urgency with which we try to avoid boredom has a function, a purpose. It makes animals want to explore and learn what their environment is about. For us humans the need for stimulation has been the driving force that has produced our complex cultures. And because our human environment has become so complex, exploration and the learning that results has become a wide-ranging enterprise. We can be life long learners without completely exploring or experiencing the richness of our cultural environment. In turn it has led us to that most rewarding aspect of our explorations: which is that by enriching our own lives we potentially enrich the rest of human society.
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     But should we fail to fulfill the demands of our nervous system for productive stimulation, lurking like demons are the dangers of the destructive alternatives. Similar to the bad kids of my childhood, adults ensnared by these demons create their excitement, their stimulation, by making negative even appallingly deadly things happen. We have all known people who periodically pick fights for the excitement of it. And now we also know about those who get their excitement by terrorizing our world. Their pathological explanations and excuses for getting their thrills through destructive behavior instead of productive creation camouflages real reasons. The choices we make to provide our nervous system with the stimulation it demands determine who we are. In the case of destructiveness the choice is all the more terrifying because of its addictive quality.


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     Teaching productive instead of destructive ways to find stimulation is probably the most important function of education. Schooling, public, private or home is intended to give us the tools for a life of productive stimulation, even for mind-expanding exploration. With it our lives are not only freed from boredom but have the profound satisfaction that comes with creation. For our human society, the craving for stimulation is the engine behind the creative drive that has given us our arts, our sciences, our literature, our technology. It has enriched us in truly astonishing ways.
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     Why then do we so frequently fail to transmit the excitement of learning when we teach? Why instead of being exhilarating is it frequently so boring? What was it that my early professors did that took the joy out of the greatest game of all, which is to learn? My answer is that they took the exploratory "wow" out of their subject, making it either an autocratic memorization of bits of information or even worse, an ego trip. There are many other things that lead to boredom when we teach, but these are two big reasons.


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     But an even bigger reason for so many bored lives is the failure to successfully teach the tools with which to unlock the extraordinary creations of humankind. These essential tools are literacy, a mastery of basic arithmetic, and a mastery of basic chemistry and physics. Without these three tools the world of history, literature and all of the sciences are essentially closed.
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     Oh yes, parents can read to their children, and there are some wonderful TV programs. But that is not the same as being able to explore on your own. Without the three tools much of the intellectual and artistic world remains closed. And deprived of constructive stimulation the destructive thrill demons are lying in wait for their next victim.

     Horsley, my erstwhile house painter, is a sad little example. He is without doubt one of the most intelligent people I've known. However, our local New England elementary and high school failed in teaching him a true mastery of the three basic tools. And of course they blamed their lack of success on his supposed learning disabilities. So instead of an open sesame to the world of the arts and sciences, these have remained closed for Horsely. The eagerness with which he responds to conversations that tell him about his missing worlds, and the yearning on his face, suggest what the alternatives might have been to the petty destructiveness of his present life. His is a story of what might have been.

     On a personal level I realize that now, decades later, I too am still making up for what I missed because the schools failed to teach me two of the main tools (literacy and basic science) which I had to struggle to master on my own. Although I didn't admit it to myself at the time, there was at least an unconscious awareness that being illiterate meant I was lacking the key that would unlock an exciting world. Only much later did I realize what not being able to read until age twelve meant for my intellectual development, aside from bestowing on me years of boredom.

     Perhaps it was that unconscious resentment which was the reason why in the midst of my scientific career I took the time out to develop the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system. As it turned out the results were much more dramatic than I could have dreamed. These have been reported at scientific symposia and journals. From the homeschool world the phone calls from four-year-old Frederick's parents were the first of many from other parents. Frederick's pre-kindergarten had diagnosed him as learning disabled and a dyslexic, refusing to advance him to kindergarten, and insisting that he repeat pre-kindergarten. The parents balked. Having read about this new system called Ball Stick Bird they decided to teach Frederick on their own. Fortunately they went ahead with teaching before they called to tell me of Frederick's success. Because I would have told them "He's much too young. Wait until he's six or seven." And I would have been wrong; as I have since found out.

     For by the time Frederick was six he was a fluent reader on the adult level. In one of her telephone calls the delighted mother recounted his latest library sortie, "Freddie swaggered into the place like he owned it. At the circulation desk he demanded the Encyclopedia Britannica. The librarian complied by showing him where the tomes are located. Then she helped him lift the volume he had pointed to. He was looking for dinosaurs, his favorite subject. She didn't really believe he'd be able to read or understand the advanced text. But Freddie not only read several passages to her, he explained them! He's having such a great time."

      I suspect that Frederick doesn't spend much time in boredom. He's much too busy exploring the cornucopia of human knowledge and creation. The telephone conversation with Frederick's parents has been repeated many times with numerous parents in various guises over the past 27 years. They have made me realize how much I myself missed in those eight years before I finally taught myself to read. And how much painful boredom I could have been spared. As a developmental psychologist I also realize that those eight years represent a powerful critical period for learning. We can catch up what we missed during that period in later years. However, the completeness of that catch up is in question. On a personal level I am very much aware that I'm still missing some of the scientific understandings that I could have gained during those eight years.

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     Very few children can unlock the three fundamental tools (literacy, basic arithmetic, and the basic sciences) on their own. Nor is it a sign of laziness or a lack of intelligence that most of us require skilled instruction in the three basic tools. Some of our most creative minds have had difficulty acquiring the literacy tool and have been diagnosed as learning disabled or dyslexic.
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     My main objection to this kind of labeling is that it should be our standard teaching systems that should thus be classified. What Ball-Stick-Bird has accomplished for reading instruction Catherine Stern achieved for arithmetic in her CHILDREN DISCOVER ARITHMETIC. I have been told that Isaac Asimov achieved the same for the basic sciences.

     There's no need for children to be bored, no more than there is a need for any adults to resemble zoo animals screaming with rage because nothing exciting is happening. Our minds in their craving for stimulation have been given the tool of reading as well as the two other tools with which to open a cultural cornucopia. But all three tools must be taught for what they are: the most exciting open sesame to the astonishing accomplishments of our human history. They should be presented from the viewpoint of "look what we humans have achieved, wow!" Further, even in the early stages of mastering the three tools there can be the excitement of using them to explore, giving the child a taste for the pleasures of a life of learning to come. All children can be like Frederick, who now in his thirties is happily engrossed in exploring the world of science. "He's having a great time!"

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© 2002 Renée Fuller
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