In Defense of Downtime

The always interesting Jonah Lehrer channels Joseph Brodsky and defends moments of boredom:

…boredom can be a crucial mental tool. In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we're not preoccupied with something in our external environment. (That's another way of saying we're bored. Perhaps we're staring out a train window, or driving our car along a familiar route, or reading a tedious text.) At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn't what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel.

Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time lying on my bed with either a Captain Planet toy or a miniature football and daydream for hours.

Most kids have plenty of time for imaginative fantasies. As busy adults, however, reflective, idle time is harder to come by. But still important for allowing our brain to "form connections among seemingly disperate ideas."

Staring blankly out the window of a car, train, or plane, thinking about nothing in particular, not listening to an audiobook, nor talking to anyone else: this is my present-day version of idle downtown that most often leads to mental time travel and creative "what if" scenarios.


Jonah Lehrer's blog is excellent, by the way. Here he is on gender differences and decision making.

10 comments on “In Defense of Downtime
  • I think this is why great ideas come so often in the shower.

    For myself, my best thoughts come while going for long directionless walks. Boredom is too negative a word for the feeling. Zoning out, perhaps.

  • Default Network – I kinda’ like that:-)

    I think they are essential to rejuvenate and recreate the Regular Network, by giving it the much needed rest and gestation.

    The reason why we get flat tires occasionally – putting us in pause mode from the rat race that goes on and on.

  • I just finished reading Lehrer’s How We Decide, which I thought was very interesting.

    This downtime is actually a very important component of my writing. Without it, I’m doomed. I even put together a formula for writing and it’s right smack in the middle of it.

  • Interesting thoughts. I find that I almost never feel bored so long as I am within reach of a computer — my mind never has time to settle, there is always some stimulating titillation within easy reach. I got rid of my iPhone in part to make sure that I always have at least *some* time each day without the presence of a computer (it takes a lot less will-power to not have one, than to avoid using it if it’s sitting in my pocket and I’m starting to feel listless…).

    On a different note, I like what Nietzsche wrote about work and boredom:

    “Looking for work in order to be paid: in civilized countries today almost all men are at one in doing that. For all of them work is a means and not an end in itself. Hence they are not very refined in their choice of work, if only it pays well. But there are, if only rarely, men who would rather perish than work without any pleasure in their work. They are choosy, hard to satisfy, and do not care for ample rewards, if the work itself is not the reward of rewards. Artists and contemplative men of all kinds belong to this rare breed, but so do even those men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, or in love affairs and adventures. All of these desire work and misery if only it is associated with pleasure, and the hardest, most difficult work if necessary. Otherwise, their idleness is resolute, even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure; they actually require a lot of boredom if their work is to succeed. For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable “windless calm” of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for is effect on them. Precisely this is what lesser natures cannot achieve by any means. To ward off boredom at any cost is vulgar, no less than work without pleasure.”

  • I completely agree…in college, while I’ve been working on my thesis, the “aha” moment usually comes when I’m walking around campus at night w. a smoke. By the way, I used to watch CP…was not a big fan. I always thought “Heart” got the short end of the stick.

  • “You cannot be creative unless you are bored”.
    To praphrase Freeman Dyson in the excellent NY Times magazine profile of the man last week.
    Then, or course, there is the recent study showing that we’re paying more attention when we doodle.

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