0468 – boredom is a bug of the mind

(The following vomit gets a bit messy because I jump back and forth and repeat myself)

I want to think and write about about boredom, and how many people misunderstand it. I suppose I want to make sure that I have a clear sense of what it is myself, so that I can engage with it appropriately.

Boredom is “I have nothing to do” the same way a messy closet is “I have nothing to wear” or a messy bookshelf is “I have nothing to read”.

It’s an inaccurate statement, but it shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, because it’s a sincere attempt to express genuine frustration. The problem is that most of us aren’t very good with expressing ourselves clearly. Let me give it a shot.

What we DO know is there’s some sort of mess that we can’t entangle, and we’re stuck. We can’t choose which book to read over all the others. The actual statement should maybe be more akin to, “there are a bunch of things in front of me, but nothing crosses the ‘action threshold’ enough to make me prioritize it over everything else”. [1]

The logical thing to do will be to pick something, anything. Some people are better at doing that than others. But many of us get stuck. It’s kind of weird and irrational. The behavior strikes me as similar to insects flying into the lights and getting burnt to death. It’s not that the insect is choosing to hurt itself– the insect is merely following a sort of internal logic that’s terrible for its unforeseen context. It’s a sort of bug (heh).

Boredom is a bug we encounter when

1- a tired mind
2- attempts to find an optimal solution
3- in a cluttered space
4- with options that have unclear utility-values

This is a very fertile idea that can be opened up in many, many ways. It’s quite clear, when you think about it, that the ‘action threshold’ is different for different people with different backgrounds and different skillsets in different situations under different circumstances. Some people simply seem to be able to take action much more easily than others in all situations. Everybody is better at taking action in domains that they like, and in spaces (both ideaspaces and meatspaces) that they’re comfortable navigating.

It’s also interesting that there’s clearly a “paradox of choice” element to it. Which is to say that choosing between two brands of ketchup is way easier than choosing between 25. And in life, I think, there’s a lot of pressure to choose what is optimal for you. You inherit an expectation that you should spend your time in a way that is globally optimal. If you only have 2 things you can do, it’s pretty simple. But in modern life, we have hundreds of possibilities. Should I practice the guitar? Should I learn to code? Should I read a fiction book? Should I call a friend? How do I decide? Should I learn how to decide? How should I choose how to learn how to decide? Next thing you know, you’re opening hundreds of tabs, and the situation just gets worse and worse.

And so you’re bored. The ‘executive’ part of your mind (I don’t know the precise scientific terminology– prefrontal cortex, whatever) gets flustered and overwhelmed. So the ‘simplistic’ part of your mind takes over, and you end up doing things that give you cheap, guaranteed stimulation. You hop over to reddit, imgur, or you play video games, and so on. And it feels good in the short run, but you know that over time it’s just going to leave you underdeveloped as an individual.

A quick but highly-related diversion: The problem with BS isn’t that it’s false. Outright falsehoods are easy to deal with, we dismiss them altogether. A bullshit statement is frustrating because it’s presented as truth, but you don’t actually know whether it’s true or not until you verify it. And verification is costly, it takes time and energy.

That’s why “it takes an order of magnitude more effort to refute BS than it does to create it.”

Boredom and clutter are conditions of accumulated BS. Boredom = BS in the mind, clutter = BS in your environment. (Worth noting that our environments affect our mind, so decluttering an environment can be very therapeutic.

It’s very reasonable, when you encounter a BS statement, to ignore it until you have the time and energy to verify it later on. Dealing with BS is frustrating, it’s like trying to untangle many different strings. It takes a lot of patience– you have to be very calm as you go through something that seems overwhelming and insurmountable. Sometimes what we do is we wait for the strings to become a truly Gordian knot, and then we finally feel justified in slashing open the whole thing. That’s when we throw out everything and start over from scratch.

Attempted summary:

So boredom is a bug when happens when a tired mind attempts to find an optimal solution in a cluttered environment. You have too many options to choose from. You feel like you ought to choose the optimal option, but you don’t have enough energy to go through the process of figuring out what is optimal. So you end up either weakly shuffling through your options, or picking something that gives you short-term pleasure.

When you describe the problem clearly, the solutions reveal themselves. Rest your tired mind. Reduce the clutter in your environment. Decide that it’s better to satisfice than to get overwhelmed by the endless optimization problem. If your options have become a sort of overwhelming Gordian knot, chuck everything and start from first principles.

This solution applies to multiple sets of problems, including “I have nothing to do”, “nothing to read”, “nothing to wear”, and so on. What we DO know is there’s some sort of mess that we can’t entangle, and we’re stuck. We can’t choose which book to read over all the others. The actual statement should maybe be more akin to, “there are a bunch of things in front of me, but nothing crosses the ‘action threshold’ enough to make me prioritize it over everything else”. [1]

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