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Would you rather experience physical pain or boredom?

Imagine this: you are alone in a room with nothing to do.  No cell phone, no book to read or TV to watch, no other people to talk to.  Just you and your thoughts for 15 minutes.

For those of us who spend time around kids all day, that sounds like a dream come true, right?

But, how much downtime can our brains tolerate?  How long can we endure a seemingly boring environment before we seek out something novel, even if that novelty brings with it physical pain?

University of Virginia researcher Timothy Wilson and his colleagues sought to answer some of these questions and what they found out is simply amazing.

About 400 study participants were asked to sit alone in a room for up to 15 minutes with no external stimulation.  About half of the participants reported not enjoying the experience of solitude.  They had the chance to just sit and think, but many of them didn’t like it.   Even when subjects were given topics to think about, they didn’t like the experience.

To spice things up a bit, the researchers then threw in a very interesting variable.  They gave each of the participants a small electric shock before they entered the room.  Then, when the participants went into the room, before them was a small machine that produced the electric shock.  The shock was nothing major – something like static electricity; not enough to be harmful but certainly not pleasurable.

So, that begs the question – would you rather be bored or self-inflict a slightly painful electric shock?  Remember, we are only talking about 15 minutes of down time.

It turns out that 67% of the men and 25% of the women were so bored – they were so deeply in search of something novel and stimulating – that they voluntarily gave themselves a shock!

As educators, we need to realize how deeply boredom impacts our kids.  While the scientific study of boredom is still relatively new, there is a lot we can learn.  Our brains seek engagement, stimulation, choice, movement, meaning, and novelty among many other things.  If students are constantly being provided boring and meaningless tasks that contain no relevance or challenge, they are still learning.  But, they are learning all the wrong things.

Source: Wilson, T. et al. Science 345, 75-77 (2014)

Bryan Harris, Ed.D. is the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande (Arizona) Elementary School District. In his 20+ year career in education, he has served as a teacher, district-level specialist, principal, and central office administrator. His work focuses on student engagement, motivation, classroom management, brain-based learning, and standards implementation. As the author of three highly-regarded books published by Routledge, he has a passion for helping educators discover ways to inspire and engage students.

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