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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Why a long, boring summer might be the best thing for children's creativity

A lot of parents feel it is their responsibility to manage their children's boredom but having nothing to do can often spark their imagination, writes Olivier Oullier

There’s no reason for children to sit at home being bored during the holidays
There’s no reason for children to sit at home being bored during the holidays

When, as a child, I would complain about being bored, my parents would always encourage me to deal with it and use my imagination.

Back then, they considered managing my boredom to be my problem, not theirs. And it is precisely because they let me get bored that I started to pay attention to what was happening around me and asked myself hundreds of questions, including why people behave in certain ways – which later became one of my passions.

But things have changed significantly since then. Today a lot of parents, including myself, feel it is their responsibility to manage the boredom of their children since it is generally associated with negative outcomes and discontent.

And people seem to be on a mission to avoid boredom – at all cost.

Experiencing boredom triggers various coping mechanisms, including impulsive shopping. Last month, for example, during my holiday in Catalonia, I was happy to pay extra in an amusement park for my children and I to avoid waiting in long lines at each ride.

Dennis Dal Mas and Bianca Wittmann, two researchers at Justus Liebig University in Germany, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) – a neurotechnology used to estimate changes in brain activity – to better understand why we spend more money to avoid boredom.

Their experiment spanned several days and revealed that individual experiences of boredom were accurate predictors of how much participants were willing to pay to avoid it. They found activity in the insula – a deep region of the cerebral cortex with many functions, including processing social emotions and boredom – was “increased during performance of the boring task and subsequently associated with individual differences in boredom-related decision-making”.

In other words, one might be able to predict consumer decisions based on changes in brain activity associated with boredom. It is a finding that will interest those designing products, marketing strategies and live experiences.

Buying those queue jump passes was a consumer decision also driven by my desire to spare myself hours of complaints from my children about the long and boring wait. It's not much better than one of the solutions a lot of parents use to keep their children busy and have a bit of time off taking care of them: switching on the TV.

There has been plenty of research looking at the influence of media and stimulation on children’s imaginations since a seminal experiment conducted in Canada in the 1980s.

The study showed that children in towns with no access to TV scored higher on imagination scales than those watching TV. Interestingly, a few months after TV became available in some of the towns, the imagination scores dropped.

Since then, there has been growing evidence of the key role of boredom in forcing people to be imaginative and creative.

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Read more from Olivier Oullier:

Why you just can't get that song out of your head

Why testosterone drives you to buy that sports car

Artificial intelligence can help veterans deal with the trauma of war

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However, two groups of researchers from Taiwanese universities published studies earlier this month that reminds us of the negative effects of boredom.

Conducted on undergraduate students and teenagers suffering from attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders, they both conclude that a lack of external stimulation could increase the time these individuals spend gaming online and on social media.

Regardless of the intention behind it, research in cognitive science seems to indicate that efforts of parents to prevent their children being bored are unlikely to be helping them at all, especially in the long run.

Evidence seems to show that overstimulation can also lead to boredom if there is a lack of meaning in the tasks that young ones are offered.

I can already see parents scratching their heads after reading that scientific studies hint at under and overstimulation being potentially problematic.

Although the topic is still under-investigated by scientists, one thing seems clear: there is an adaptive function of boredom and children should definitely experience it.

In Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay Intentions, one of the characters observes that a group of people seem bored by each other.

It's an observation that another character confirms, adding that it is the idea of the club they belong to. Maybe it is time for us too to create clubs where we are and our children can be bored in order to stimulate curiosity, creativity and the pursuit of new goals.

In the meantime, why not start with 30 minutes sitting on a bench with no phone, book or music – where the only thing to do is to observe the environment and people around you. Worst case scenario, you will have a free reminder of what life offline is like.

And who knows, it might prevent you from spending a lot of money on impulsive shopping and allow you to conceive of the big idea that will change your life.

And just in case you found this column boring, maybe this was my goal: to foster your imagination.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ