10/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Embracing Boredom

When I was a girl, my family took an annual seven-hour car trip to Montreal to visit my grandfather. Within 20 minutes, boredom set in and I would commit to reading every road sign that passed. Some towns were named after common words like West Point or Highland Mills. Others like Schenectady or Poughkeepsie, I struggled to sound out. I noted how I could impressively read some words automatically, while others required some effort.

The same went for hearing. My mother and father, in the front seats, debated on the next rest stop and I readily understood every quibble. Listening also took no proactive effort. Surely I didn't always listen automatically; when I was a baby, I couldn't have understood everything. I never understood when my grandfather spoke in Yiddish.

I tested my mind. I wanted to de-train it. Maybe if I relaxed, I could see the signs for West Point, but could not get the meaning. Maybe with concentration, I intentionally shed my mental recall. I stared at the word the. The, pronounced either th-uh or th-ee, is the most common three-letter word. Doesn't it look funny if you stare at it long enough? If it appears at the beginning of a title, it seems tall and important, but in the middle, it seems meek and misplaced. No matter how long I stared, I disappointingly did not forget how to read it.

I wondered what other things I did automatically. I investigated my mind suspiciously, frantically: I could run without thinking, I could eat without thinking, speak, sing the Star Spangled Banner, ride a bike, write cursive, do my multiplication tables, sleep. My hands got sweaty just thinking about it: I did almost everything without thinking! I've lived already 11 years, and the majority of the time, without thinking. Alarmed, I am missing something!

I looked around, but everything seemed to be okay. My brother's face was pressed against the window, sleeping soundly. My mom was driving steadily, her mind in space and eyes on the road. Dad was reading the paper. Did they think, or were they equally as unaware and automatic as I? Perhaps mildly paranoid, I was nonetheless impressed with my analytical achievement.

Boredom is a powerful state, a space for imagination and invention. Throughout history, cultural golden ages grew from times of abundance and ease: well-harvested Incas mapped the constellations, empirical Rome built architectural masterpieces, and peaceful Germany pioneered in engineering. In need of stimulation, humans challenge their current perspective. Not only do we investigate what is, we crave to redefine meaning. We get bored with how things are, so we reinvent: a better system for time, buildings with arches and columns, faster transportation. We create. Then, for a while we get distracted and forget to think, and as soon we re-experience a moment of boredom, we create again.

Think of the ideas to be had on the morning ride to work! The cure for cancer could be discovered on jury duty or while watching Gilligan reruns! So, during today's slow day at the office, I [try] to embrace my boredom.