What’s the point of boredom?

Well, not much really – but it turns out that it’s quite interesting to find out how and when it arises.

According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary boredom is a result of ‘unnatural detachment’ characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain. Indeed, the whole book is an epic exploration of the battle between the left and right hemispheres. Traditionally, the left hemisphere has been seen as the rational side and superior to the frippery of the right. However, McGilchrist turns this view on its head, so to speak, arguing that that the right side is the more holistic, organic and insightful, and should actually be the senior partner while the left should be seen as its invaluable analytical servant.

Just as an example of his argument – and it should be said that the book covers a huge range of topics and adduces a vast amount of evidence to support his case – he writes that the left’s need for certainty leads to ‘devitalisation’. The author draws on the work of Patricia Spacks in her book Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind in which she makes the claim that boredom arose in the 18th century and relates it to ‘the dreariness of non-engagement’. Now, as with so much of McGilchrist’s book, one has to be cautious here. Spack’s book is about the literary manifestation of boredom and is not a sociological treatise. Taking her too literally produces absurd claims that boredom didn’t exist before the 18th century. But, with that caveat in mind, McGilchrist goes on to write: “I would connect the rise of the concept of boredom with an essentially passive view of experience; a view of vitality as mediated by novelty, a stimulant force which comes from the outside, rather as the power supply comes to the computer.” His reference here to a computer is particularly apposite because it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand how the modern person seems to crave external stimulation, whether it be from television through to the continual absorption of social media and self-confirming algorithms. It’s the sight of the modern zombies, plugged in and head bowed in silent homage to the tech giants as they check their ‘phones – completely oblivious of the real world around them and rendered stupefied by the external stimulant.

McGilchrist makes his point most clearly when he writes: “Devitalisation leads to boredom and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism.” And again: “Since the rise of capitalism in the 18th century, when according to Patrician Spacks boredom as such began (and here we need to recall the earlier caveat), an appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitement has lain at the heart of successful bourgeoise society, with it’s need above all to be getting and spending money.” This analysis seems to speak to our times as McGilchrist builds his argument that the Servant (the left side) is making a play to take over the Master (the right). There is a sense in which McGilchrist appears to refer to the two sides of the brain as though they were two characters in a book or play, and this takes on an epic, and possibly strained, sweep when he scales this up to involve such movements as the Reformation, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism and post-modernism. He can also be guilty of cherry-picking at times and this is most apparent when he picks on the two ultra-rationalists Jeremy Bentham and Rene Descartes to make his point, while ignoring those who tend to undermine his case like Voltaire, Hume and D’Alembert. The latter thinker, in response to similar criticisms of the Enlightenment, rejoined: “In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even farther from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in in addition.” And as Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Enlightenment ‘because the philosophes repeatedly stressed the weakness of the human mind it is probably misleading to refer to the Age of Reason, which ought to be the Age of Trying to be more Reasonable’, although Gottlieb acknowledges that this would be a less than snappy title.

There is also an element of the ‘just-so’ about the book when his analysis of the relationship between the left and right sides of the brain sometimes just happens to fit his criticism of the modern world.

Nevertheless, and despite some major flaws, The Master and His Emissary makes a seductive case that seems to underpin many of the perceived ills of modernity. It’s the sort of book that needs to be taken as a whole. That does not mean papering over the cracks but seeing them as part of this flawed but majestic edifice. If we follow McGilchrist’s advice and try to read the book with the two sides of the brain working in harmony, then it has the potential to be, if not life-changing exactly, then definitely perception-shifting.

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  1. I want acknowledge I have read your blog post yet I struggle to form a short quick response. It is an in-depth review of McGilchrist’s book (which I have not read) and his thinking. Nor am I a neuroscientist. He does seem to ignore other parts and functions of the brain such as the hypothalamus and amygdala which it is now thought to have a very specific function. Taken from a short summary, I do agree though with his conclusions about modern society losing something; searching for freedom yet being bound by even more rules and controls, wanting to ‘experience’ something yet losing sight of what it is we want to ‘experience’. Substituting freedom and experience with material goods, celebrity, notoriety, fitting in, being seen to achieve.

    Okay, at least I read your post and did some thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for responding. I should say, as I point out in the article, that I have only scratched the surface of a book that covers a lot of ground, and it’s not without its flaws. Nevertheless, I think it is an important book and well worth reading. It would be interesting to work out whether you could make the same claims he makes about modern society without reference to the left and right sides of the brain.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Dickie, it is a very comprehensive book and it covers a lot of ground. I am currently reading Behave by Robert Sapolsky. The sub-title is: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worse. Pretty serious stuff. My views though on McGilchrist’s book is that psychiatrist’s always seem to have a fairly fixed view of the mind, an allopathic medical perspective, which has its limits. A friend of mine is a neuroscientist (very clever) and she writes about intelligence in the central nervous system, limbic system and even in our DNA. So how does all that control behaviour?

    In terms of the modern world; in part, we are too many. We are still essentially animals and with a world population of 7 billion are now so densely packed that at a psychic level it is making us anxious. Imagine this: Lion packs keep a respectful distances from each pride. In doing so they tolerate each other and live comfortably on the same savanna. Now, squeeze them into a wild life park with no opportunity for movement and expansion. At first they might cope but as the population density increases the number of aggressive interactions increases. They feel the tension of the proximity of the other prides. Too close for comfort. Chimpanzees are known to become very aggressive if crowded with other packs. Whilst we are not in the same situation, we are refined, social, we have rules of interaction, but as the tension increases those rules and customs start to break down. I am not suggesting violence is the evitable outcome (though it seems so) I am though saying the anxiety we feel is leading to some odd behaviours, withdrawal into a virtual world, shallowness, numbness, a craving for something we can’t quite perceive, space, the freedom to be, the lack of scrutiny, safety, the ability to shut down our constant danger awareness warning antenna, and experience people, emotions, simple joy. (or am I just talking about myself.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mike, no I don’t think you are talking just about yourself but I do think that those of us who identify odd behaviour tend to think that we are excluded from it. In other words, yes I do think there is some odd behaviour but, no, I don’t think I’m susceptible to it. And another question to be raised is whether this really is odd behaviour or simply the manifestation of a world I don’t feel totally comfortable with.
      With regard to neuroscientists and psychologists, a fairly common thread is that we are not as rational or as conscious as we like to think we are. One observation doing the rounds is that only two per cent of our brain is conscious. Fair enough, but this is a quantitative measure, not a qualitative one. And while it’s difficult to measure quality I would draw an analogy with DNA. We share more than 97 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees, but look what a difference that two per cent or so makes.
      The book by Sapolsky looks interesting.


  3. Hi Richard, It is all very interesting. In my last comment I was going to say, `I have no idea if it is the left or right side on the brain. Determining that is beyond me’. It is also a very big subject.

    Thinking about McGilchrist’s book, and our comments, there is a supposition in there somewhere that there is a problem with modern society, the world. I haven’t read his book yet I am prompted to wonder who decides there is a problem and how is that problem defined. Or in simple terms: what is the problem? Is there a problem?

    In the short time I have been on this planet certainly aspects of society, life, has changed. Then it has changed for every generation. How do we determine that ‘this change’ is detrimental? Before we can begin to discuss why, how we first have to be specific about what the problem is.

    As an aside, I often wonder how people from the early 1900’s who experienced moving pictures for the first time and were in awe, excited, bewildered, would deal with a modern CGI film? That is just a small example of how life has changed in 100 years. Add the rest…

    However, is it a problem? Does it cause a problem? We are animals. According to my neurologist friend we are controlled by our Limbic System (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain) which is the first brain we developed some thousands of years ago. If that is the case then we are just doing what our Limbic System is prompting us to do. In other words, we do not have the higher conscious control we as Homo Sapiens like to think we have.

    Each generation just does what it does and whilst there is change determining whether that change is a problem is simply left to the domain of the outgoing generation. They deem it a problem because as the outgoing generation they are no longer in the driving seat.

    They are spectators of the incoming wave.

    Liked by 1 person

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