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​LETTER: On being bored in college lecture

In the field guide to college emotions, boredom is the sparrow: opportunistic, resilient and found everywhere. It’s also difficult to observe since the boring lecture, its most common habitat, is quickly forgotten. But by trapping boredom for long periods in Ballantine Hall, scientists and scholars have isolated its two main lecture-hall manifestations, Boredom Neglecta and Boredom Anxiosa.

Neglecta, the more common of the two, is the boredom of the slow introduction. “Does everyone have a syllabus?” Lists of terms and dates and definitions. “Importantly, you should note.” “Meanwhile, in Germany.”

When Neglecta first appears, undergraduates try to it flush out through stimulation. Results are poor. The student who pulls out a cell phone when bored is like the hiker trapped in a snowstorm who drinks whisky to keep warm. The warmth is transitory and the hiker, just as lost as before, now finds a strange new coldness filling her veins.

The antidote to Neglecta is not distraction, but attention and care. Even a train schedule is a romance when one of the stops is where your lover lives.

For the happy mathematician, a phrase like “fundamental theorem” might suggest the deep vaults beneath the city of reason; if it triggers boredom, you may still be looking at the manhole cover and waiting to lever it up.

Not always, of course. Boredom Neglecta often appears when a student is in the wrong class, preparing to study the wrong list. It feeds on apathy, but registrar shuffles and changes of major mean it usually resolves, for active students, by sophomore year.

By contrast with drab Neglecta, Boredom Anxiosa is a riot of colors. It appears, paradoxically, when the student is in the right class, at the right time, and faced with a chance to fulfill an intellectual destiny. Before the cover to the vault, and in possession of a crowbar, however, the sufferer of Boredom Anxiosa hesitates.

Will he be able to learn the theorem, argue the point, draft the plan, translate the sentence, understand the poem, write the code? The chance of failure is too much to bear.

He spends, instead, an entire semester wandering the barren surface, while bolder classmates explore below. These surface-dwellers, stalked by Boredom Anxiosa, are usually intelligent enough to pass, and even — on the surface — thrive. Far better, though, to banish it.

Anxiosa’s antidotes are varied. It stalks the lonely, and so intellectual companionship — the nerds who nerd like you — can draw you to descend below. For others, a dose of solitary courage sends them at last into an enchanted wood. As they see Neglecta resolve itself among their friends, those who suffer from Anxiosa should also take heart: it is the restlessness of the hero before the adventure begins.

Simon DeDeo is an assistant professor of Complex Systems in the Department of Informatics, where he runs the Laboratory for Social Minds. He is (these days) very rarely bored.

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