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May 2024
Vol. 23, No. 8
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Unsolicited Advice

In Defense of Boredom

by Josh WeinsteinOctober 2023

Music is a time art. The same way that painters, sculptors, and architects “adorn” space, musicians decorate time.

You may have heard the saying, “It’s the notes you don’t play that mean the most.” But silence in music isn’t really the absence of something; it is the presence of quietness. There is nothing unsaid or unshown or unplayed in those moments. Silence is as carefully and intentionally deployed as the sounds that come before and after it. It is the thing being said and played. In fact, it is what gives those other sounds meaning.

Painters use negative space to give whatever is in the foreground meaning. That space isn’t empty, any more than an inflated balloon is empty. It is part of the composition of that art.

Musicians use something more like positive space. Those silent moments are not empty cups waiting for water, they are completely full of the pauses needed to make the surrounding sounds matter. They are tangible and meaningful—commas in sentences of sound.

Life is also a time art. We decorate time with our actions. The result is a work made in real time, whose creation ends when we do.

And, holy cow, do we live in an amazing age. Our ability to connect with others and accomplish tasks—both necessary and diversionary—has never been more expansive. We can pay bills from bed and talk to friends in South Africa from a Peet’s in South Park. Our kids have information in their pockets that previous generations had to march to the musty library and paw through World Book Encyclopedias to discover. We have constant and immediate access to the world’s smorgasbord of data, products, and ideas. This post-internet period is a golden age, a society-changing “after” in human development that will be spoken of by future historians in the same way that we currently speak of the Industrial Era.

But it’s had an interesting side-effect: in the time art of life, we no longer have spaces between. Our sentences have no commas. Because the ability to do, one way or another, is literally in our own hands, our silences are as loud as our sounds. Everyone’s busy and nothing is getting done. We’ve assumed that the only reason people didn’t constantly do before, was because they couldn’t.

We are wrong.

The human brain requires down time. Not sleep, not pampering/self-care, not laziness or disengagement, some of which we also require or at least enjoy, obviously. What we need, both practically and evolutionarily, is boredom. What the Italians call il dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing. Spaces between notes. This is where the brain forms its ideas and recasts its understanding of what came before and after. Space-out time—or rather, positive space time—is the private playground of our creative souls.

Picture a snow globe. Shake that globe. That’s our brains, all day long. Synapses firing at full speed, processing input and completing tasks. It’s even our brains when we sleep. We’re busy inside our beans—all night long. You’re busy inside yours right now, involuntarily singing Lionel Ritchie’s worst song, based on the end of the last sentence. And if you weren’t then, you are now. We’re busy when we text, game, light a joint or pour a drink; when we talk to each other or seduce one other; when we write an article or read an article. Stimulus is the finger that’s tapping on the fish tank of our mind.

If we leave the snow globe on the shelf, it’s inert. Just a weird water holder. When we zone out watching a show, not really taking it in but not really thinking about anything else either, we are that water holder. Dead fish. No positive space.

Now, picture the time in between that big shake-up and the “shelf” state. Those little flurries had a job at first, but now they are floating around, undirected. They are not at rest, but they are not at work either. They are engaged in an act of elegant unfocused-ness. That is our brains when bored.

We require this state. It’s known (ironically, given its rare use these days) as default mode. Our brains are not turned off in default mode—in fact, they are almost exactly as on as when we are focused on an active task. All those flurries are still floating around. But that energy, without something external to guide it, turns inward. Humans selected for this tendency and it’s highly correlated with our sense of self, our ability to think as others, and the creation of autobiography—that is, making sense of what we have done and seen, and what we will do and see. It’s “where the wild ideas are.”

Creative people—artists, writers, musicians, inventors, thinkers—thrive on default mode time; it’s practically synonymous with the very concept of creativity. Art requires being more there than here. But remember, we are all creative people; life is a time art. To live meaningfully, we require positive space.

My unsolicited advice to you this month is this: in the real-time time art of your life, carefully and intentionally deploy silence. Reintroduce boredom into your day. Normalize not doing.

I don’t mean me time. I mean time itself. Take 10 minutes and stare at a glass or a street sign. Or turn off your phone and watch and radio when you drive somewhere. Don’t listen to music or podcasts, don’t mindlessly navigate Genshen Impact. Don’t get stoned or dive down a TikTok rabbit hole. Give yourself the uncomfortable task of not having a task. Let those flurries float and wander and collide and dance together. I don’t want you to check out; I want you to space out. 10 minutes.

This is terrifying. We have created so many myths around productivity in general, and around doing as producing, that we have turned boredom into an act of shame. We have masterfully counter-programmed the unpredictable contents of our inner world. But remember: for our brains, it’s the outside world that is unpredictable. Default state lets us make sense of that constant flow of input. It is where we find our place in the Jackson Pollack canvas of everyday life. Knowing this connects us to the world, rather than removes us from it. It is not the absence of action, it is the presence of understanding.

Create the commas that give the bursts of color, light, action, and motion that decorate our days, meaning. Music is a time art. Life is too. They both need silence for the moments of not-silence to mean anything.

For more on boredom/default mode, you can check out https://sqonline.ucsd.edu/2020/11/the-science-of-boredom/, https://this.deakin.edu.au/self-improvement/what-does-boredom-do-to-your-brain, and https://nautil.us/what-boredom-does-to-you-236854/

Is there something I should offer unsolicited advice about in future columns? Shoot me a line via the contact form at joshweinstein.com and let me know.

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