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The knowns and unknowns of boredom: a review of the literature

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Abstract

Despite the ubiquitous nature of boredom, the definition, function, and correlates of boredom are still poorly understood. In this review, we summarize the “known” (consistent evidence) and “unknown” (inconsistent evidence) correlates of boredom. We show that boredom is consistently related to negative affect, task-unrelated thought, over-estimation of elapsed time, reduced agency, as well as to over- and under-stimulation. Activation of the default mode network was consistent across the few available fMRI studies, while the recruitment of other brain areas such as the hippocampus and anterior insular cortex, was a notable but less consistent correlate of boredom. Other less consistent correlates of boredom are also reviewed, such as the level of arousal and the mental attributions given to fluctuations of attention. Finally, we identify two critical factors that may contribute to current inconsistencies in the literature and may hamper further progress in the field. First, there is relatively little consistency in the way in which boredom has been operationalized across studies to date, with operationalizations of boredom ranging from negative affect paired with under-stimulation, over-stimulation, to negative affect paired with a lack of goal-directed actions. Second, preliminary evidence suggests the existence of distinct types of boredom (e.g., searching vs. apathetic) that may have different and sometimes even opposing correlates. Adopting a more precise and consistent way of operationalizing boredom, and arriving at an empirically validated taxonomy of different types of boredom, could serve to overcome the current roadblocks to facilitate further progress in our scientific understanding of boredom.

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Notes

  1. Although many studies refer to task-unrelated thought as mind-wandering, we attempt to use more precise terminology here by referring to what most of the studies are truly measuring: task-unrelated thoughts. See Christoff et al. (2016) for a more detailed discussion.

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Raffaelli, Q., Mills, C. & Christoff, K. The knowns and unknowns of boredom: a review of the literature. Exp Brain Res 236, 2451–2462 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-017-4922-7

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