At a more functional level, the ability to focus or engage also plays a significant role in boredom. People with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) are more likely to be bored, as are those who score low on measures of sustained attention. So, too, are individuals who have brain injuries or are prone to flips of attention (such as driving on autopilot or putting the milk in the cupboard). In fact, direct manipulation of attention can lead to boredom. In a classic experiment from 1989, James Laird at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., found that low-level distraction—by way of a quiet television in the next room—caused participants to find a reading task "boring."
These results support the idea that we label tasks as boring when they require a great deal of focused effort to hold our attention. In the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is now at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., coined the term "flow psychology"—the idea that great absorption, focus and enjoyment of work results from a balance between our skills and the challenge of the tasks we face.
Both tasks that are too dull, such as factory work, or too complicated, such as doing taxes, feel tedious. Of course we all differ in our ability to focus, see the beauty and complexity of our surroundings, or ascribe meaning to our actions. We also differ in our interest or knowledge of an area. "You might love something that I would consider incredibly mundane," Vodanovich says. "I have some good friends who love classical music and I cannot stand it."
Boredom, like so many quirks of the brain, remains a mystery. One step toward unraveling it would be to develop better tools to measure boredom. There might even be different types, ranging from the existential, always present ennui to the transient, toe-tapping kind. As a result, different explanations may apply to different situations. "It is about bringing together all these different areas and trying to make some kind of synthesis," Danckert says. "Is it an emotion that we can't understand? I think we can understand it much better than we currently do. But like all things in the brain—there will be some parts of it that continue to elude us."