A too-skinny model with a bored expression and vacant-looking eyes is showing more than one type of starvation.
Boredom can gnaw at you like hunger, according to Dr. Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Biederman’s lab has been investigating receptors in the brain that, he proposes, need regular hits of fascination.
“You have a system that’s trying to maintain a certain level of nourishment,” he says, and being bored is a cry for stimulation. Without this stimulation we get dragged down into a boredom spiral, which can put a serious damper on your relationships, happiness quotient, beauty and the way you take care of your health.
The explanation involves opioids, a chemical in the brain that gives us pleasure. In fact, the receptors Biederman studies are the same ones that give heroin and morphine their power. That’s right, heroin or morphine.
These opioid receptors are most dense in the parts of the brain that interpret sights and sounds. A new experience will stimulate the release of opioids—a wow. The brain is hardwired to seek out more. The human eye fixates on two points a second, looking for stimulation. “Anything less is boring,” says Biederman.
But once you’ve had an experience, some neurons essentially take over the job of responding to that piece of data, freeing neighbor neurons for other tasks. A second or third go round won’t give you the same rich opiod hit. Fewer neurons are firing, and it’s been there, done that.
The system makes the brain efficient. Biederman holds that it also turns us into “infovores,” always seeking out new experiences, whether in the form of a fact, idea or sensation.
The tendency to get bored, like many traits, is somewhat hard-wired. One study, at the University of Kentucky, found a neurobiological basis for boredom susceptibility, or the tendency for some people to lose interest faster than others.
When it’s chronic, boredom may be linked with depression, a mental illness that interferes with sleep, libido and healthy eating—it’s not pretty. Things get worse when boredom leads to risky behavior such as sex with strangers, gambling, speeding and addictions. Perpetually bored people mess up their lives when they drop out of school, change jobs too often or ditch good marriages. “They may simply not be stimulated enough to feed their inner infovores,” Biederman says.
But is there something to be said for appearing bored, even if you’re not? Think about the too-cool-for-school person who seems uninterested in everything, but still manages to get people clamoring for her attention. According to Biederman, bored beauties stare off into space to let you know that they’re bored with you. Their high status means you’re beneath their attention. Higher status translates to sexy, since we’re primed to desire the best possible mate. (Not that we’re suggesting this particular route to attracting a partner.)
Sad as that sounds, both women and men do value intelligence in a partner, which means it’s not attractive to look actually stupid. There’s a fine line between appearing casually superior and brainless.
To stoke your inner opioids, read, take a class or visit an exhibit. Pick new subjects or delve deeper into an area you already know and love, triggering fresh insights. “You can get hits either way,” Biederman says. “The best way not to be bored is to do what you like doing, typically something you’re good at.”
Some people say they like doing the same thing over and over. Biederman makes the case that repetition—to a point—is a way of reducing anxiety. It’s possible that when those people do take a drawing class or try a new dish, they may enjoy it more. If that sounds like you, your assignment is to get out there and feed your inner infovore. You’ll be all the more beautiful for it.
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