Background: Boredom is a prevalent emotional state. Even brief experiences of boredom diminish feelings of meaningfulness and reduce motivation (van Tilburg & Igou, 2011; Vogel-Walcutt et al., 2012). For some individuals, however, boredom is more pervasive than a passing state. Individuals high on trait boredom are unable to regulate the negative emotion. These individuals are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, aggression, and substance use (Mercer-Lynn, Flora, Fahlman, & Eastwood, 2011). Previous research suggests that people with low trait boredom resolve state boredom by reframing or restructuring their experience to something more interesting, novel or meaningful (Mannell, 1984). This kind of emotional regulation is characterized as an approach motivation which is examined on a neurophysiological level using asymmetry in electroencephalography (EEG). Specifically, frontal EEG asymmetry (FEA) in the alpha band (8-13 Hz) is considered a neural correlate of approach and avoidance emotion regulation motivations (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 1997; Tomarken, Davidson, & Henriques, 1990). A growing literature investigating frontal EEG asymmetry as an online regulatory process points to the possibility that greater left FEA might be associated with approach motivations that might alleviate boredom. This study investigates the neural correlates of boredom measured at a trait level, and how that relates to induced state boredom. Uncovering mechanisms of boredom will allow for more effective approaches to mitigate boredom’s role in risk behavior.
Methods: Fifty-two subjects (ages 18-25) completed two standard trait boredom scales – Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS; Farmer & Sundberg, 1986), and Boredom Susceptibility Scale (BSS; Zuckerman, 1994). EEG was then recorded while subjects completed a 10-minute boredom induction task called peg turning. This task required subjects to turn virtual pegs one-quarter turn at a time until fully rotated, at which time they began turning the next peg. Subjects were then asked rate their boredom.
Results: The results indicated low levels of trait boredom were associated with a leftward shift in FEA as boredom was induced. Individuals high in trait boredom rated the task as more boring and showed more right FEA, a signature of negative affect and avoidance motivation. These results describe the neural processes involved in boredom regulation in real-time and point to potential mechanisms for future boredom interventions. We will expand on these results by presenting data from an adolescent sample with measures of executive function and boredom. Executive functions may provide a cognitive mechanism targeted in prevention programs to reduce boredom and associated substance use and mental health problems.