Bestial boredom: a biological perspective on animal boredom and suggestions for its scientific investigation

Burn, C C (2017) Bestial boredom: a biological perspective on animal boredom and suggestions for its scientific investigation. Animal Behaviour, 130. pp. 141-151.

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Abstract

Boredom is likely to have adaptive value in motivating exploration and learning, and many animals may possess the basic neurological mechanisms to support it. Chronic inescapable boredom can be extremely aversive, and understimulation can harm neural, cognitive and behavioural flexibility. Wild and domesticated animals are at particular risk in captivity, which is often spatially and temporally monotonous. Yet biological research into boredom has barely begun, despite having important implications for animal welfare, the evolution of motivation and cognition, and for human dysfunction at individual and societal levels. Here I aim to facilitate hypotheses about how monotony affects behaviour and physiology, so that boredom can be objectively studied by ethologists and other scientists. I cover valence (pleasantness) and arousal (wakefulness) qualities of boredom, because both can be measured, and I suggest boredom includes suboptimal arousal and aversion to monotony. Because the suboptimal arousal during boredom is aversive, individuals will resist low arousal. Thus, behavioural indicators of boredom will, seemingly paradoxically, include signs of increasing drowsiness, alongside bouts of restlessness, avoidance and sensation-seeking behaviour. Valence and arousal are not, however, sufficient to fully describe boredom. For example, human boredom is further characterized by a perception that time ‘drags’, and this effect of monotony on time perception can too be behaviourally assayed in animals. Sleep disruption and some abnormal behaviour may also be caused by boredom. Ethological research into this emotional phenomenon will deepen understanding of its causes, development, function and evolution, and will enable evidence-based interventions to mitigate human and animal boredom.