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Manoush Zomorodi is a podcast host, author, and relentless examiner of the modern human condition. As host of Note to Self, the podcast from WNYC Studios, she unpacks the forces[…]

Are cell phones destroying creativity? Podcast host, author, and relentless examiner of the modern human condition Manoush Zomorodi believes that they are. When we are bored, the brain enters what is called “default mode”—think about the way your mind wanders when you’re in the shower or doing the dishes. This might not seem like valuable time but our creativity really kicks into high gear. We now use up a lot of that boredom-time by poking at our phones, and in doing so are starving ourselves of a main source of inspiration. This boredom issue goes beyond simple creativity: boredom is also useful for autobiographical planning and being able to solve big problems. Manoush posits that maybe we should put down the phones and start being bored more often. Her latest book is Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self .

Manoush Zomorodi: So the original Bored and Brilliant challenge was based on an extremely mundane situation that happened to me in that I sat down to try and come up with some good ideas for my podcast. We were doing well. I wanted to like, you know, I wanted to kill it. It was 2014 and I sat down to sort of make a list which has usually worked for me and I felt like there was nothing. There was this blankness. It was almost as though there was sand in my brain. And I started to think like what the—you know, first of all, what the hell, and second of all, well wait a minute. When had I had my last best ideas and why was I potentially having so much trouble now? And I thought back and it was really when I was staring out the window – it was such a cliché. It was when I was staring out the window or I was in the shower or I was pushing my kid’s stroller for miles and miles. That is when I had my best ideas. And now I realize that all those little cracks in my day, all those moments when I used to sort of just be spacing out what was I doing? 

I was looking at this thing, right? I was looking at my phone when I was waiting in line for coffee, when I was on the bus, every single one of those moments. And it made me realize like I was never bored ever in my life anymore. In fact, I might not have been bored since I think 2009 which is when I first got an iPhone. I was a late adopter. And so then it made me thing like well what actually happens in our brains when we get bored and what could potentially be happening if we never get bored ever again, if we got rid of this human state all together. Is boredom actually a useful sort of emotion. So I reached out to my audience and I was like are you guys thinking about this too? And you have to remember this is a couple of years ago, right. So are you thinking about this? Are you thinking about the fact that your phone could be disrupting the way you think, the way you come up with ideas, maybe your creativity. And people were like yes, absolutely I’m thinking about this. So I put it out to them. I was like well would you be willing to do an experiment with me where we take a week. We try to tweak our digital behavior and we see if we can indeed jumpstart our creativity by getting bored more often. And I kind of thought like 200 people would sign up to do this or something and 20,000 people signed up within the first 48 hours. So it was pretty exciting and gratifying that it wasn’t just me who was feeling like there was sand in their brain. 

So what I wanted to understand first of all was what actually happens in our brains when we get bored. And it’s fascinating. I had no idea that we are at this moment in history where we are starting to understand what happens in the brain when we allow it to just sort of wander where it wants to go. And so what they know now is that when you get bored you activate a network in your brain called the default mode. And you can’t – this is different than mindfulness, right. This is when you’re folding laundry or like ambling down the street or just lying on the couch. Not watching Game of Thrones and tweeting at the same time. So what happens in the default mode is this network ignites your most original thinking. It is where you do your best problem solving and you also do something called autobiographical planning which I had never heard of. This is where you look back at your life, you take note of the highs and the lows and you build a personal narrative. You figure out what is your story and then where are you going to go from there. Where does the story continue. You set goals and then you figure out the steps that you need to take to reach those goals. Now, of course, you can’t ignite the default mode if you are focusing on something like your phone or you can’t tap the brain power if you’re tapping a screen. Now this is extremely important things... understanding who you are, theory of mind, what you want to be when you grow up because... it feels like we all want to know what we’re going to be when we grow up. This is really it’s long term planning.

And so the fear is that if people are constantly thinking about what’s the next post that they’re going to be or being reactive or spending time expressing outrage to the latest headlines you can’t do the deeper maybe also difficult thinking about who you are and what you want to become, maybe changes that you need to make. And I think what was most striking to me was some of the younger people, teenagers in particular, who reached out to me and said I’m really scared to do Bored and Brilliant because I’m scared to spend time alone with my thoughts. I’ve never done that before. I had one woman on the book tour who said this is just too scary. I don’t know how to be with myself alone. I don’t think I can do this. And when you have an entire generation or decade of young people saying that they’re fearful of being alone with their thoughts or getting bored and being nervous about where their minds might wander to that’s very concerning to me because we have some serious issues in this country. We have racial divide. We have economic discrepancy. We have – we’re basically divided in half. And so we need this next generation of young people to come up with some incredibly original and creative ideas to solve some big problems. And how can they possibly do that if they can’t even sit alone with their own thoughts or they’re afraid to.