“Bring Back Boredom!”


I have a lot of pen pals and phone pals, most of whom I’ve never met. Sometimes one of them makes it to New York and I get to connect the voice on the phone or the person on the page with its matching face and shape. Usually there’s no resemblance to my long-imagined friend.

Last week I was visited by a writer from the Midwest, in town with her husband “to see some shows.” Over the years she had occasionally called me to talk over some point of writing or teaching, and I was looking forward to getting to know her better. She duly arrived at my office in mid-Manhattan and we settled down to catch up. Although she now lives in another state, she explained, she was born in New York City, at a long-gone institution called the New York Lying-in Hospital. “As a matter of fact,” she said, “I think it was right around here, on one of these blocks.”

I asked her to tell me about her life and her work, but suddenly I realized that she was no longer looking at me. She was fussing with her iPod, grimacing into its tiny screen. I thought maybe she had received a message about a sick child or a husband lost in the New York subway system.

Finally I said, “What are you doing with that thing?”

She said, “I’m trying to find out where the Lying-in Hospital used to be.”

My face, which she had resumed looking at, must have suggested that I didn’t care where the Lying-in Hospital used to be.

“What’s the matter?” she said. “Don’t you want me to multitask?”

No!” I said. I was practically screaming at her. “I want you to mono-task!” She looked as if she didn’t know if she could do that.

I know I’m not reporting a new social phenomenon; the rudeness of multitaskers is now so habitual that it’s no longer even perceived as rude. But for me that writer’s visit was a tipping point. For the first time I understood the heroin-like tug of constantly available information. The address of the Lying-in Hospital was in no way pertinent to what the writer had come to talk about; she could have looked it up later. But she was hooked. I saw that if data exists, it has to be accessed, whatever the cost in friendship or civility. Information trumps conversation.

That trend was massively confirmed a few days later in a New York Times article called “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” which explored the growing difficulty for teachers trying to reach students who are less and less able to sustain attention. “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

What to do? Give those brains some rest! “Recent imaging studies,” the Times report said, “have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas, and even develop the sense of self.”

“Bring back boredom!” says Rich, who gave a speech in October to the American Academy of Pediatrics called “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

I never thought I’d hear an educator put in a good word for boredom. But I salute the Harvard professor. So should everybody in the business of creating new ideas or rethinking old ones: writers, artists, composers, scientists, inventors, reformers. Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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