We must rediscover the psychological importance of idleness, play and even boredom (updated a little, including new videos and some pop sociological speculations)

Aeon brings us an important, beautifully-written and profound meditation by psychologist Peter Gray on the importance of play during and for human development that should be read by educators, politicians and parents alike. Children’s own self-directed play has been systematically devalued and squeezed to the margins in developed societies in favour of adult-directed and controlled activity. There are lots of malign consequences – we are in danger of producing lots of somewhat neurotic, high-achieving conformists, driven by measures of explicit achievement (standardised tests and exams), with a dulled sense of creativity and play. There is a startling transgenerational decline in creativity scores which must disturb anyone interested in building a knowledge economy and creative society. The transgenerational rise in narcissism is just as disturbing.

Some quotes:

the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.


as we move increasingly toward standardised curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has analysed those scores and reported that they began to decline in 1984 or shortly after, and have continued to decline ever since. As Kim puts it in her article ‘The Creativity Crisis’, published in 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal, the data indicate that ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’.

Rhona reminded me of the famous and most popular TED talk ever by Sir Ken Robinson, where he argues that our current education system does little to nurture creativity:

Bertrand Russell, of course, famously praised idleness, hoping ‘that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.’

And we shouldn’t forget that during conscious disengagement, that the default mode networks of the brain are highly active:

‘the default mode network (DMN) is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. Also called the default network, default state network, or task-negative network, the DMS is characterized by coherent neuronal oscillations at a rate lower than 0.1 Hz (one every ten seconds). During goal-oriented activity, the DMN is deactivated and another network, the task-positive network (TPN) is activated. The DMN may correspond to task-independent introspection, or self-referential thought, while the TPN corresponds to action, and thus perhaps the DMN and TPN may be “considered elements of a single default network with anti-correlated components”.


In humans, the default mode network has been hypothesized to generate spontaneous thoughts during mind-wandering and may relate to creativity. (both quotes: wiki; see also the resting state).

The point here is that during apparent idleness, the brain is engaged in lots of other activity. However, we have created a society where wandering minds are unhappy minds, and where people would rather self-administer electric shocks to themselves than sit alone with their own thoughts!

There is a different way of thinking about boredom – that it isn’t necessarily to be feared or endured – that it isn’t necessarily intrinsically aversive – it can be put to some use. It might even be the wellspring of some forms of creativity. Pop culture has certainly given us some fine examples of this.

The freedom to be bored, to ‘do nothing’ (as the great song by The Specials puts it) and finding your own solutions to being bored is such an important part of the music of growing up:

A little after The Specials emerged, another singer of that time who gave us a wonderful paen to boredom (and without the experience of boredom this song couldn’t possibly have emerged):

(Of course, Morrissey has made a career out of singing about his own oddly-disconnected ennui, but there is a wonderful echo of the all embracing boredom of a small seaside town so dull that ‘every day is like Sunday’).

And of course, the Pet Shop Boys gave us:

I wonder is there something significant in the fact that all of these bands emerged from the industrialised north of England during the 1970’s and 1980’s (Morrissey – Manchester; The Specials – Coventry; Pet Shop Boys – Newcastle and Blackpool) during a time of the collapse of traditional industry and huge unemployment? Where traditional roles in shipbuilding, mining, manufacturing or whatever were disappearing, and there was nothing else to do, except perhaps turn inwards and be creative?

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

One thought on “We must rediscover the psychological importance of idleness, play and even boredom (updated a little, including new videos and some pop sociological speculations)

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