Here is the full transcript of author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk: How Boredom Can Lead to Your Most Brilliant Ideas.
Manoush Zomorodi – TRANSCRIPT
My son and the iPhone were born three weeks apart in June 2007. So while those early adopters were lined up outside, waiting to get their hands on this amazing new gadget, I was stuck at home with my hands full of something else that was sending out constant notifications — a miserable, colicky baby who would only sleep in a moving stroller with complete silence.
I literally was walking 10 to 15 miles a day, and the baby weight came off. That part was great. But man, was I bored.
Before motherhood, I had been a journalist who rushed off when the Concorde crashed. I was one of the first people into Belgrade when there was a revolution in Serbia.
Now, I was exhausted. This walking went on for weeks. It was only until about three months in that something shifted, though. As I pounded the pavement, my mind started to wander, too. I began imagining what I would do when I finally did sleep again.
So the colic did fade, and I finally got an iPhone and I put all those hours of wandering into action. I created my dream job hosting a public radio show. So there was no more rushing off to war zones, but thanks to my new smartphone, I could be a mother and a journalist. I could be on the playground and on Twitter at the same time. Yeah, well, when I thought that, when the technology came in and took over, that is when I hit a wall.
So, I want you to picture this: you host a podcast, and you have to prove that the investment of precious public radio dollars in you is worth it. My goal was to increase my audience size tenfold. So one day, I sat down to brainstorm, as you do, and I came up barren. This was different than writer’s block, right? It wasn’t like there was something there waiting to be unearthed. There was just nothing.
And so I started to think back: When was the last time I actually had a good idea? Yeah, it was when I was pushing that damn stroller. Now all the cracks in my day were filled with phone time. I checked the headlines while I waited for my latte. I updated my calendar while I was sitting on the couch.
Texting turned every spare moment into a chance to show to my coworkers and my dear husband what a responsive person I was, or at least it was a chance to find another perfect couch for my page on Pinterest.
I realized that I was never bored. And anyway, don’t only boring people get bored? But then I started to wonder: What actually happens to us when we get bored? Or, more importantly: What happens to us if we never get bored? And what could happen if we got rid of this human emotion entirely?
I started talking to neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, and what they told me was fascinating. It turns out that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the “default mode.” So our body, it goes on autopilot while we’re folding the laundry or we’re walking to work, but actually that is when our brain gets really busy.
Here’s boredom researcher Dr Sandi Mann… (Audio ) Dr Sandi Mann: Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place. It’s really awesome, actually. – Audio clip concludes]
Totally awesome, right? So this is my brain in an fMRI, and I learned that in the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called “autobiographical planning”. This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them.
But now we chill out on the couch also while updating a Google Doc or replying to email. We call it “getting shit done,” but here’s what neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin says we’re actually doing.
(Audio).. Dr Daniel Levitin: Every time you shift your attention from one thing to another, the brain has to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish that. So if you’re attempting to multitask, you know, doing four or five things at once, you’re not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go…. (Audio concludes)
So switch, switch, switch, you’re using glucose, glucose, glucose. (Audio) Dr Daniel Levitin: Exactly right, and we have a limited supply of that stuff.
A decade ago, we shifted our attention at work every three minutes. Now we do it every 45 seconds, and we do it all day long. The average person checks email 74 times a day, and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day. I discovered all this talking to professor of informatics, Dr Gloria Mark.
(Audio) Dr Gloria Mark: So we find that when people are stressed, they tend to shift their attention more rapidly. We also found, strangely enough, that the shorter the amount of sleep that a person gets, the more likely they are to check Facebook. So we’re in this vicious, habitual cycle.
But could this cycle be broken? What would happen if we broke this vicious cycle? Maybe my listeners could help me find out.
What if we reclaimed those cracks in our day? Could it help us jump-start our creativity? We called the project “Bored and Brilliant”. And I expected, you know, a couple hundred people to play along, but thousands of people started signing up. And they told me the reason they were doing it was because they were worried that their relationship with their phone had grown kind of “codependent,” shall we say…
(Audio clip) Man: The relationship between a baby and its teddy bear or a baby and its binky or a baby that wants its mother’s cradle when it’s done with being held by a stranger — that’s the relationship between me and my phone. Woman: I think of my phone like a power tool: extremely useful, but dangerous if I’m not handling it properly. Woman 2: If I don’t pay close attention, I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve lost an hour of time doing something totally mindless.
OK, but to really measure any improvement, we needed data, right? Because that’s what we do these days.
So we partnered with some apps that would measure how much time we were spending every day on our phone. If you’re thinking it’s ironic that I asked people to download another app so that they would spend less time on their phones: yeah, but you gotta meet people where they are.
So before challenge week, we were averaging two hours a day on our phones and 60 pickups, you know, like, a quick check, did I get a new email? Here’s what Tina, a student at Bard College, discovered about herself.
[(Audio) Tina: So far, I’ve been spending between 150 and 200 minutes on my phone per day, and I’ve been picking up my phone 70 to 100 times per day. And it’s really concerning, because that’s so much time that I could have spent doing something more productive, more creative, more towards myself, because when I’m on my phone, I’m not doing anything important.