The Case of Boredom: Enduring Empty Time

Why the experience of time is so intimately linked to ourselves

Posted Mar 28, 2016

Blaise Pascal’s famous sentence in his Pensées “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone” can only be understood in the context of subjective time. What happens when we quietly sit in a room when we have to wait through a period of time without distraction? Just waiting through time — without anything to do — can be painful. In a series of experiments an induced waiting time of only 6 to 15 minutes was experienced as stressful by many of the participants [Wilson et al. (2014) Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345, 75-77]. So what happens when we are bored? Boredom does not necessarily arise from being in a waiting situation forced upon us. Sometimes we feel the lack of motivation to do anything. Boredom then comes from within. During waiting situations and during states of boredom we strongly feel ourselves and we feel the passage of time. I experience myself in an unpleasant way while time seems to pass much too slowly. I feel trapped in time, a feeling that according to the research by the Psychologist Dan Zakay functions as a signal which, similar to pain, activates us to react, to change the situation.

In fact, many different states of consciousness are describable as conjoint modulation of the self and of time. Take the feeling of flow, which is somewhat opposite to the state of boredom. In the flow of an engaging activity we are so absorbed in what we are doing that we hardly feel ourselves, and time passes very quickly. Moreover, in a variety of altered states of consciousness such as during meditation, under hypnosis, when absorbed in music or under the influence of drugs the awareness of oneself and the awareness of time may even dissolve for a while. These extreme states again let us conclude that self-awareness and time consciousness, according to my work, are intimately linked. This is indeed a fascinating area of research: Through the study of subjective time we might better understand consciousness and, in essence, self-consciousness.

What do I mean with awareness of the self? On a basic level there is the bodily self, which is created through the continuous input from body signals. That is, on a basic level of our existence, with phenomenal experience and a complex mental self, we depend upon the bodily self. That is why many philosophers and researchers in psychology and neuroscience speak of the embodiment of mental states. Also the perception of time then has to be embodied. Time is so intimately linked to the bodily self because, in contrast to our other senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, there is no dedicated sense organ for the passage of time. One solution to this explanatory gap of ‘how we perceive time when there is no sense organ dedicated to time’ is that we feel time through our bodily feelings. This means that subjective time emerges through the existence of the bodily self as an enduring entity across time. This is an idea that has initially been put forward by the functional neuroanatomist A.D. (Bud) Craig from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There are now several psychologists and neuroscientists, including me, who follow up on this idea in their experimental research.

When we are waiting for something to happen, when we are exposed to an empty interval of time, we intensely feel our bodily and emotional self. Boredom in this case means that I am bored by myself; I cannot stand the presence of myself at this moment; I would prefer to be distracted from myself. We all know some escape routes we can take to let go from ourselves and of time: switch on the TV, surf the web, listen to your favorite music, play some sport, read a fascinating book … in essence it means: get absorbed in an activity so that you feel less of yourself and the passage of time. Blaise Pascal’s introductory quote hints at other escape routes that have caused “humanity's problems”, acts that may relieve us of boredom right now but in the long run are detrimental to us and others: excessive drug use, addiction, violence, etc. Of course, there are better ways to escape boredom. For example, research in social psychology has shown that many people feel happier when they are in the company of other people – family and friends. Time flies when you are having fun with friends.

But what to do when we encounter a waiting situation we cannot escape and no pleasant distraction is at hand: in a traffic jam, in the line at the supermarket, when the flight is delayed, when we are bored on a sunny afternoon? Spiritual traditions exist that aim at savoring empty time through contemplative immersion. The increasing popularity of Asian meditation techniques in western societies can partly be understood as a way for people to learn to cope with empty time through states of mindfulness. Eventually that is what you learn to “do” as a skilled meditator: Experiencing an empty time interval of an hour or much longer without any distraction; to be in the present moment and happily accept this state of being. There is much more to say about meditation in the context of the feeling of self and time. Meanwhile, however, for those of us, who have not learned this skill: We can train ourselves to nevertheless savor waiting time through a moment of cognitive restructuring. We often complain in our busy lives that we do not have enough time at hand. Now, in the line at the supermarket, think about it: do not check your smart phone, enjoy the situation that now actually, just for a few minutes, you have time for yourself – and relax.