Readers Respond to "Chronic Boredom May Be a Sign of Poor Health"

Letters to the editor from the July/August 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND
July/August 2013 issue cover
July/August 2013 issue cover

Scientific American Mind

The research on boredom as described by James Danckert in “Chronic Boredom May Be a Sign of Poor Health” is interesting in a number of ways, but it also shows that there are limitations to research that concentrates on a single emotion. Instead emotions should be viewed as parts of a more general system of experience. For example, one model called reversal theory posits that boredom can only be fully understood as one of a set of four related emotions: boredom, excitement, relaxation and anxiety.

These four emotions differ on two dimensions: whether high or low arousal is desired and what level of arousal is actually being experienced. Boredom occurs when the desire is for high arousal, but it is low arousal that is actually experienced. In contrast, relaxation is the desire for low arousal when arousal actually is low; excitement is the desire for high arousal in the presence of high arousal; and anxiety is the desire for low arousal in the presence of high arousal.

Whether a given level of arousal is pleasant or unpleasant, therefore, depends on what we might call motivational state. By studying these emotions related to levels of arousal, as well as other sets of emotions and motivational states, reversal theory pursues questions such as what brings about reversals among different motivational states and how people respond to these internal changes.

Danckert reflects on the lack of definition regarding boredom; reversal theory, however, clearly defines boredom in psychological terms and how it relates to arousal and state of mind.

Mitzi Desselles
Louisiana Tech University Ruston, La.

In the article “How Your Eyes Search a Scene,” Michael C. Hout and Stephen D. Goldinger suggest that baggage screeners looking for weapons may make errors because they do not expect to find any weapons. It seems more likely to me that the making of errors would be because of agitated boredom, as described in “Chronic Boredom May Be a Sign of Poor Health,” by James Danckert. The finding of a weapon would probably be very extrinsically stimulating to a baggage screener. After screening hundreds (or thousands) of pieces of baggage and not finding any weapons, agitated boredom would undoubtedly arise because of the lack of external stimulation, and mistakes would tend to occur because of the boredom. One way these two effects might be dissociated might be to monitor the occurrence of mistakes over a longer term. If the mistakes are more or less uniform over a given period, then low expectation may be at work. If the mistakes increase over time, then agitated boredom may be at work.

Richard Sieb
Edmonton, Alberta

As a child psychologist who has diagnosed and worked with many children and adults with autism for many years, I have never encountered a case where a child properly diagnosed with autism has “recovered,” as Jennifer Richler describes in “Is It Possible to Recover from Autism?” [Perspectives]. Rather I have observed cases where a person, usually high functioning, has memorized responses that give the impression of social engagement when it is not present.

The problem is rooted in misdiagnosis. I have found the rate of falsely diagnosed autism to be upward of 30 to 40 percent—even higher for Asperger's. In some cases, very young children are diagnosed when they respond to the pressure of testing by exhibiting behaviors that are mistakenly attributed to autism, such as hand flapping. Some of these children may be identified as having a different developmental disorder by the time they enter kindergarten, but the inaccurate label of autism remains.

This article was originally published with the title "July/August 2013."

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