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.

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