Remembering Boredom

A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.

The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.

Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.

Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.

I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.

Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.

Some other interesting questions arise:

  1. If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
  2. Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
  3. Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
  4. My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?

8 thoughts on “Remembering Boredom”

  1. I have worked with children for much of my life and have my own. 90% of their lives are not suffering….unless they are living in an abusive situation.

    2 year olds don’t get bored! 😉 They never stop moving and a tupperware container, a rock, a stick, or a bug crawling across the floor in front of them is something that can keep them entertained for hours.

    I remember many boring moments in my life, but I don’t know that I would describe them in terms of despair and emptiness.

    Mind-numbing yes…despair, no.

    Maybe there was more to these events than simply boredom. Emotional abandonment? Your examples have a certain amount of isolation attached to them. Maybe it wasn’t boredom as much as it was loneliness?

    I doubt you would have to face the kind of boredom you faced as a child. Children have no control over their lives and are frequently stuck in whatever circumstances their parents put them in. Luckily, you have the freedom and ability to seek out ways to fill your life with meaningful, interesting activities.

  2. Yeah, 90% might be an exaggeration. Many of the scenarios involved siblings, but I assume they were equally bored. The key factor in these situations was that I was in an environment that didn’t have much stimulation for a child. Adult friends of my parents, grandmother’s house with no toys available, etc.

    I’m a parent as well, and I agree that kids can be easily distracted. But I think I’m correct about the sheer magnitude of the discomfort that boredom causes in kids. Kids aren’t good at communicating these things, and we assume that when the say, “I’m bored”, it means the sort of boredom that we sometimes feel. And as soon as they get distracted by the next shiny thing, their boredom is forgotten and they have no interest in describing the exact magnitude to us. Indeed, I never thought about it until this moment.

    Remembering what it was like has made me more sensitive to the kids’ complaints of boredom, but I’m still not sure it’s prudent to solve the boredom for them. Maybe learning to cope with it yourself is an important part of growing up.

  3. Sorry.

    Didn’t mean to sound dismissive. I had just never equated boredom with despair.

    I think boredom is probably a very individual emotion.

    One of my sons could spend hours alone making up his own fun. My other son is more social and needs people to interact with to amuse himself…someone to talk to, someone to play a game with, someone to play outside with him.

    Different things bore them. For my youngest, being forced to be into a “grown-up” social gathering without the ability to escape and do his own thing, or other activities to keep him busy, would be extremely boring. For my more social son, the same gathering wouldn’t be as frustrating because he wouldn’t mind being around a bunch of grown-ups, listening in on the conversation, maybe even piping up every once in a while.

    Different temperaments may make different experiences.

  4. My kids’ boredom drive them to creativity and fun. They want to watch TV to still the boredom but are rewarded to find active happiness far deeper (albeit more difficult) then passive stimulation.

    “Suppressed Experiences” are difficult for me to relate to — fortunately.

  5. @Sabio – Like your kids, we grew up without TV, and were forced to become good at finding more creative stimulation. So I’m biased toward letting the kids suffer the boredom, even if it could be easily staved off with a video game or TV show. I just forgot how painful that boredom was as a child.

    Regarding suppressed experiences, I suspect that most people have suppressed massive parts of their past, and if they can’t relate, that just means the suppression is effectively doing its job. Having it bubble to the surface isn’t all that grand, but isn’t bad, either.

    @Terri – Agreed that different kids get bored by different things, and it can vary widely. Today I was walking around the botanical garden and reflecting on the fact that I have never been bored or unhappy when out in nature; while my wife can’t stand nature. So my personal anecdotes probably don’t say much about other people. However, I think the general insight is still sound — that kids have a far stronger negative reaction than we can identify with as adults, and that we forget it by the time we’re adults.

    After writing this, I was reminded of an old friend of mine who had a terrible gambling addiction. When she would talk about what prompted her to go to the casino, she would always say “I got so bored; too bored; and I needed to go to casino”. The addict described in the book “The Addict: One Doctor, One Patient, One Year” used very similar language to describe her day-to-day interactions while fiending for the next opiate fix. And when I just did a quick search for a description of a cocaine comedown, I found this:

    Its like a mental clouding where you’re not sure what you want to do, but you feel uneasy about doing almost anything. The only thing you’re really up to doing is another line. You also might find yourself searching everywhere for those crumbs that you’re sure you dropped on the floor last night. I know they’re around here somewhere….

    Which is not a bad description of the gnawing pain of boredom that I sometimes felt as a young child.

    All three of these things (gambling, opiates, cocaine) involve the dopamine system. Interestingly, as a teen and adult, I’ve been freakishly immune to any sort of dopaminergic addiction. I wonder if kids who are forced to regulate early in life are less likely to fall prey to these sorts of addictions later in life? It would be easy enough to test empirically, and I would be surprised if some relevant research hasn’t already been done.

  6. I can remember this kind of feeling as well. Excruciating boredom that at the time seemed almost unbearable. I’m much better at keeping myself preoccupied now, and I do wonder how much of those memories have been suppressed.

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