Look What Utter Boredom Can Do

Mow’d you like to be paid for doing absolutely nothing? Forty-six McGill students were — but they couldn’t take it. After twelve hours they began to see the weird apparitions pictured here, rhese scientific experiments open new doors to the study of a puzzling twentieth - century ailment

FRANK CROFT May 15 1954

Look What Utter Boredom Can Do

Mow’d you like to be paid for doing absolutely nothing? Forty-six McGill students were — but they couldn’t take it. After twelve hours they began to see the weird apparitions pictured here, rhese scientific experiments open new doors to the study of a puzzling twentieth - century ailment

FRANK CROFT May 15 1954

Look What Utter Boredom Can Do


WHEN WORD got around the McGill campus about a year ago that the university’s psychology department would give any student $20 a day and all he could eat merely for lying comfortably on a bed for an indefinite period the stampede was on. “This,” an eager student cried, “is the greatest thing that’s happened since the introduction of the co-educational system. Gentlemen, the line forms on the right.” Several students planned to devote a month of their summer holidays to blissful repose, pocket an easy $600 for the next year’s tuition fees, then go fishing.

Forty-six have taken the lotus-land treatment. Only one has been able to stick it for more than live days. His record is 135 and a half hours. Two others abandoned their dreams of sudden wealth after 127 and 113 hours. Most of them were willing to go back to work after 72 hours. One man, when asked if he would repeat the experience, replied, “No, not for a hundred dollars a day and champagne every hour.”

The condition induced in these human guinea pigs was nothing more than complete and utter boredom. The man who ran the strange experiments claims that boredom exists scientifically. He is Professor 1). O. Hebb, chairman of the department. of psychology at McGill University. “Hitherto,” he says, “boredom has been ignored in psychological treatises, or thought to have been something else; but we find that boredom is a malady itself.”

Why did the students cry quits in the McGill tests? Simply because they began fosee things. In a relatively short time, with their eyes open and

fully conscious, they saw apparitions which for duration and vividness have until now been experienced only by the mentally unbalanced, or produced by drug intoxication. They not only saw things but they heard things which weren’t there and they felt, things which weren’t there and they ran through all the emotions from elation to depression, including fear, self-pity and anger.

The experiments were made so scientists could learn more about the actual workings of the brain processes when a person is in an environment of extreme boredom. The scientists were aware that boredom today cuts across the lives of most of us, makes us careless and inattentive at our work, sickens us with empt iness and discontent and causes all kinds of tragedies from highway and industrial accidents to divorce. It keeps personnel executives in a tail spin trying to make employees alert and happy, while in the same plant efficiency experts and production engineers are thinking up ways and means of making the work more boring still. The housewife, they know, is similarly afflicted. She too is bored because the implements of that deceptive modern virtue, efficiency, leave less and less of a challenge for her mind and hands.

The modern home laboratory, still called a kitchen, is not as extreme as the experimental cubicle at McGill but it is closer to it than the old farm kitchen. Working in its glistening, antiseptic whiteness, the housewife produces pre-prepared meals from pre-mixed, pre-cooked ingredients which she reheats on a stove whose temperature and time controls do the rest. Is the supper a success? In a way, yes, thanks to the workers in our communal

kitchens, those larger glistening, antiseptic labor tories, who turn out our meals in quantity, ur formly labeled and of uniform flavor. But toda) housewife is often missing the thrill of person triumph which her mot her gained from experiment and creative kitchen tasks.

Much of her life has been robbed of variety ar the need for imagination. Inactivity becomes habit. Her initiative to create other interests die So t he soap opera and kindred remedies which ma! no demands on the intelligence partly fill the ga In such an environment thoughts easily becon clouded in unhealthy imaginings. The ordinal doubts and annoyances which are either unnotice or quickly forgotten in a full life are built one upc the other until a wall stands between the wife ar her family.

it. is not without significance that 96 percent ' the divorces granted in Canada in 1952 were urban dwellers. The average farm wife hasn’t tl time for a divorce or a nervous breakdown or ar other such luxury.

One of the objects of t he McGill experiments w; to learn more about the cause of lapses of attentie or memory of people at work. Why does a plai crash when it has left the ground in good mechar cal condition with a competent crew in fine weathe Why does an inspector in a shoe factory sudden allow faulty workmanship to escape his not ice wh( he has been spotting such faults regularly all da) Why does a transport truck driver expertly gu his truck over miles of familiar highway, then eras through a guard rail trying to avoid an anim which wasn’t there? Why does an experienced c; driver of normally sound judgment find himself Stepping on the gas in order to pass the car ahead Mhen both are reaching the crest of a hill? Why does stenographer, after scores of flawless letters, find lerself typing “religion” for “region” or “apples” or “applause” and then addressing half a dozen mvelopes in a row to her mother?

Mow’d you like to be paid for doing absolutely nothing? Forty-six McGill students were — but they couldn’t take it. After twelve hours they began to see the weird apparitions pictured here, rhese scientific experiments open new doors to the study of a puzzling twentieth - century ailment

Professor Hebb and Drs. W. H. Bexton, W. deron, and T. H. Scott, who have been conducting ixperiments under Dr. Hebb’s guidance, now believe people become inattentive, careless and jrritable, not because their minds have been overworked but because they haven’t been worked mough -that we may be tired of a certain t ask but ye are not tired from it. The girl who says, “I’ve >een addressing envelopes all afternoon and I’m vorn out,” isn’t worn out either physically or yientally, as she will discover if her boy friend aiggests going to a dance or a movie. True mental ^aligue should leave you in a satisfied condition •eady for sleep. But the brain seldom reaches this pítate. There are many psychologists who believe he brain is capable of carrying a greater load than yiost people give it, whether they are streetcar lonductors or nuclear physicists. Hebb appears to be a modest man and, like all scientists when first looking at the results of an experiment, is extremely caut ious. But he calls the VlcGill experiments “startling,” largely because of «he hallucinations, which apf>eared before subjects _vhose physical comfort was all that box-spring nattresses, foam rubber, air conditioning and quiet Jould provide; and in a friendly atmosphere. But ‘'hat was the whole trouble. Life was too easy. All

that was asked of the 46 students was that they do nothing.

Paving the way for the experiments Bexton and Heron decided late in 1951 to learn more about lapses which occur when a person is forced to give close and prolonged attention to a small part of his environment, in which nothing much is happening, or in which changes occur at regular and expected intervals.

It seems fantastic that boredom could be the cause of many lost fingers, limbs or even lives among industrial workers, or that such lapses could cause air, rail or highway disasters—yet scientific surveys

of accidents have proved this to be the case.

The normal, alert functioning of the brain depends on a continual and varied bombardment of impulses initiated by all the senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, as well as the motor senses which produce muscular action. Such a bombardment keeps the brain in a continual state of “arousal reaction,” or top working condition. When these stimuli of the senses do not change frequently, or when most of them are unused for hours at a time to allow concentration of just one or two, the grey cells lose their power to maintain arousal reaction and the efficiency Continued on page 88

Look What Utter Boredom Can Do


of all brain functioning diminishes.

Each signal to the brain has a specific purpose, such as the sound of the typewriter bell telling the stenographer that the end of a line has been reached. But it also has a non-specific function to contribute to the general sensory bombardment which keeps the mind on its toes. Unless these signals and impulses change frequently, intelligence and adaptability slacken.

The brain is not like a calculating machine run by an electric motor which can respond at once after having been idle or semi-idle. It has to be kept warmed up to work properly. To learn what happens to the brain processes when it is idle the McGill experimenters set out to create an environment in which a person would be in a prolonged state of isolation. The Defence Research Board at Ottawa offered the $20-a-day fee for volunteers.

A quiet room on the top floor of the psychology building was chosen. A cubicle was built, just large enough to enclose a three-quarter bed with three feet of head room. Besides lying on a box-spring mattress, the subject’s head rested in a U-shaped pillow lined with foam rubber. Other attentions to his comfort were air conditioning which kept the cubicle at an even 70 degrees, and a blanket or two. Ear phones were fitted into the pillow and a microphone hung from the ceiling of the cubicle so that the experimenters could communicate with their subjects. The cubicle was illuminated with a 40-watt bulb and the subject at all times wore opaque goggles which allowed a dim diffused light to enter. His forearms were enclosed in a pair of rigid cardboard cuffs extending from below the elbow to an inch or so beyond the finger tips. This restricted the play of fingers but allowed free use of the arms; the hands were also enclosed in thick cotton gloves. The door was fastened from the outside. A couple of small windows allowed the experimenters to watch the subjects. The subjects sat up for meals with the gloves and cuffs removed. The goggles were never removed. Under these conditions the men were cut off from sensations produced by the five senses, as well as the muscular senses, or at least, had these sensations reduced to a minimum.

Whatever was expected to happen when the cubicle had been set up, the experimenters were not prepared for the revolt of the first three subjects to enter it. All three complained of seeing “discs and squares and things” in bright colors, moving at changing speeds in no particular direction. Their eyes were open and they were fully conscious. They didn’t like it. All demanded to be let out within 24 hours or less. Bexton decided to become a subject himself and see what all the excitement was about. In less than 12 hours he was seeing colored discs and simple geometric patterns such as we sometimes see before dropping off to sleep. These changed to more complicated patterns and finally took the form of intricate but balanced designs like a wallpaper. These images occupied the full field of vision and could be studied quite easily, although Bexton knew that his eyes were open and that there was nothing in front of them but the opaque goggles.

When Bexton came out of the cubicle he and his colleagues knew they were on to something. Such imagery seen by fully conscious, rested, healthy people was unheard of. As other subjects

came forward they were assured that there was no cause for alarm in anything they might see. The opaque goggles, it was pointed out, prevented their seeing actual objects.

Before entering the cubicle each student was given a number of tests for general mental alertness and problemsolving ability, such as: How many times greater is twice two and a half than one half of two and a half?; complete this series of numbers: 47,41,36, 32,29; multiply mentally a three-digit number by a two-digit number; how many words of four or more letters can be found in the word elementary?; genhac is an anagram of what word? Similar tests were given after the men had been in the cubicle for 12, 24 and 48 hours.

In the first five to eight hours in the cubicle, the guinea pigs caught up on lost sleep. When they awoke they explored the cubicle with their arms and legs, sang or whistled or tapped the cuffs together or threshed about on the

bed or did all of those things. They were bored and were seeking such stimulation as the situation allowed. They tried to engage the experimenters outside in conversation but this was discouraged. Some reported a feeling of elation during this period but many were almost uncontrollably restless. After being released they said they had tried to work out self-imposed tests or had started to review their studies to pass the time but they found it difficult to concentrate even during the initial stages. They soon had to abandon organized thinking and give themselves up to day dreaming. There were also periods when their minds were completely blank and they couldn’t think of anything at all.

Hallucinations usually started soon after the first 12 hours. One man saw first a German helmet swimming in front of him. Others saw everything from peaceful rural scenes to prehistoric animals crashing through tropical forests. One subject saw a pair of spectacles loom up. They were joined by dozens more spectacles, without wearers, which were fixed intently on him. Faces appeared behind the glasses but eyes could not be seen. Sometimes the glasses would turn away from him in unison, as in a sort of drill, then they would all return to their solemn contemplation of the man on the bed.

One student saw a field, then a bathtub entered the picture from the left. It was moving slowly on rubber-tired wheels with chrome hub caps. In it was seated an elderly man wearing a battle helmet. The man peered intently at the subject during the time his vehicle moved across the field to disappear at the right-hand side of the picture. Several subjects reported scenes in three dimensions. A student who had a landscape appear turned his head to the right and more of the picture unfolded, like a panorama; when he turned his head to the left, still more of the countryside came into view in that direction. CinemaScope and 3-D in one !

Sometimes the images were tilted and a few were inverted. When the hallucinations started the subjects were interested in them and generally amused. They said it was “having a dream while wide-awake.” The man, who saw a troop of squirrels marching in single file across a snow-covered field, wearing snowshoes and carrying little bags over their shoulders, was quite taken with the creatures and sorry to see them go. The student who had a row of small yellow men wearing black hats staring at him with their mouths open tried to get rid of them by blinking his eyes, but they stayed for hours.

The hallucinations changed from time to time but there was always imagery of some sort. The man who was under the scrutiny of the bespectacled horde didn’t enjoy much variety. He saw nothing but spectacles, on people and off, from the 30-hour period to the 75th. Sleep did not occupy more than 12 of the 45 hours, and as with mostsubjects after the 24hour period, was intermittent and fitful. Most subjects were interested in the hallucinations for the first few hours but tired of them and finally became highly annoyed, although none were alarmed. Irritability increased with the length of each experiment.

When time for the 12, 24 and 48hour tests came (which were also for mental alertness, similar to the original set of questions) the subjects were always eager to start. This eagerness was not diminished by the fact that they made progressively poorer showings. It was seldom they realized how poorly they did. Usually, like a drunk at the steering wheel, they felt that they were doing fine. Many asked for tests repeatedly in hope of relieving the boredom.

All hallucinations were not entirely visual. One man saw a woman seated at a piano playing a Chopin etude. It wasn’t the inaudible “hearing” of a dream, but sound which to him seemed perceptible to the ear. Another subject heard a train pass the building, which is about a mile from the nearest railway tracks, and thought it was making the windows rattle. A student was enjoying a flight of space ships above him when one swooped down and started pelting him with tracer bullets. They didn’t cause pain; the feeling was similar to being hit by pellets from a pea shooter. Still another man imagined himself walking across a room to open a door. When he grasped the knob he felt an electric shock.

Another man, who felt an electric shock at his back, demanded to be let out of the cubicle. When it was shown that none of the wiring in the room was connected in any way with the bed he was still unconvinced.

Many people might say that the McGill experiments were made under conditions of boredom too intensified or too remote from even the dullest of everyday tasks for there to bo any comparison. The man who steps on a t readle every five seconds for eight hours a day will admit that he is bored with his job. He will also admit that he makes seemingly inexplicable mistakes, especially from midafternoon on. But he will also maintain that his environment is not to be compared with the McGill cubicle—and he will protest that he doesn’t “see things.”

Maybe so. However, a Harvard psychologist, Alfred L. Mosley, made a study of accident causes among a group of experienced truck drivers. Hé discovered that on long trips over familiar highways the drivers became bored and “saw” things. One man was delaying traffic at night by crawling along the highway at lit t le more than a walking pace. He protested that he couldn’t pass the house ahead of him— a house which was being moved bv gondola. When he looked ahead to point it out it had disappeared. A house never had been moved along

that highway or any road near it.

Another driver left the road, nearly wrecking his truck, to avoid a dog which had appeared before him. A man who happened to be on the road at that point said there was no other moving thing in sight except the truck and the witness himself.

The physical aspect of the problem is the working of two sets of brain processes called the peripheral processes and t he central processes. The peripheral processes receive all incoming signals from the eye, ear, nose, fingers and so on. 'The central processes help to sort these out and co-ordinate them into some kind of action.


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But although central and peripheral processes work reciprocally, the central processes have no connection with the outside world. They have a life of their own; they don’t need the peripheral processes to keep working—but they need them to keep working rationally. The central processes are always functioning, whether we are sleeping or waking.

The peripheral processes, on the other hand, have to be red continuously by the senses if they are to be kept going. When a decrease of sensory stimulations causes the peripheral processes to slacken off or run down, the central processes step in and take over larger and larger brain areas and try to compensate for the decrease by supplying sensations which don’t exist. Then comes the condition which, according to the degree of boredom, can be anything from lack of concentration, inattention and bemusement to emotional upsets and hallucinations.

Intelligent—But Stupid

Although the McGill experiments were made on subjects whose peripheral processes had been deadened as far as psychological planning could devise, the person who is not exposed to a variety of stimulations may be closer to the cubicle than he thinks. Even the limited variety of stimulations which are present in the most humdrum environment lose their punch through a condition the psychologists call sensory habituation. People living near railway tracks don’t hear the trains. A person working over a desk all day becomes so accustomed to the sensory stimulations of his job and surroundings that the feel of the pencil or pen is no longer “felt,” nearby business machines are not heard, and even the work sheets in front of him are no longer seen comprehensively as such. After hours of this kind of thing he tells himself that he is fed up with the whole show.

It is in this state of boredom that intelligent people do stupid things,

watchful people allow glaring errors to go unchecked, and normally cautious people seek an escape from boredom by doing reckless things. The motorist who has been on a familiar highway for hours on end suddenly accelerates, starts cutting in and out of traffic, attempts to pass those ahead at the wrong time and finishes his journey in an ambulance, if at all. The man tending a stamping machine tries to alter his monotonous pace and leaves a finger or two at the shop that afternoon. The pilot, after gazing for hours at a radar screen, reaches the point where he doesn’t see it while still looking at it. He, his crew and plane become scrambled on some mountain slope.

From the experiments at McGill there is now firm ground for the belief that boredom is not a harmless condition, having no physical effect on the brain. It upsets the proper functioning of the brain and can upset it to such a degree that one’s job or even one’s life is endangered.

The robotlike worker on many industrial jobs is the chief sufferer from boredom but in this mechanized age few can escape it entirely. This is the age of “you don’t have to.” You don’t have to stoke your furnace; you don’t have to make your own music or play your own games. You don’t have to shift gears. You don’t even have to row a boat; outboard motors fill the peaceful summer air with the insistent whine of the dentist’s drill, propelling flabby holidayers nowhere, fast. Fewer and fewer skills are needed in factories. Just shove the raw material at a machine and it will do the rest.

All these gadgets and aids, which rob the hands, thews, imagination and intellect of their rightful tasks, are meant to make life easier. But perhaps they are really making it harder harder for those who want to contribute the products of their own minds and dexterity to society. While they simmer in a stew of frustration and take it out openly or secretly on the boss, neighbor, spouse or friend, the geniuses at the drawing boards continue shaping the world into what could become a moron’s paradise.