There’s a learning model educators use to allow students to measure their attitudes towards the topics they’re applying themselves to. You might have seen it: it’s basically three concentric circles that measure anxieties about learning.
The centre circle is the comfort zone. It’s the zone we spend most of our lives in—sure that the world around us conforms to the knowledge we have about it, confident in our abilities and functioning primarily on skills we’ve already acquired and information we’re familiar with.
The next circle out is called the stretch zone. This is where learning actually happens. The task we’re contemplating seems challenging, but manageable with a little work, practice, reading or research. There’s an idea we’ve never thought about before, but it makes some sense if we think about it a little.
The exciting thing about this model is the way it insists that learning has to be at least a little uncomfortable. Learning is inherently stressful, because it means a readjustment of our mental landscapes. The stretch zone is where we incorporate new information or a more difficult skill into our repertory.
Outside the stretch zone is the panic zone. This is the place we reach when we’re confronted with something we’re not ready to learn, that conflicts so badly with our basic beliefs that we can’t accept it or that is so beyond our current skill level it might be dangerous. People call it a panic zone because when brains enter this state, they retreat from the information or challenges that are being offered, instead of engaging with them.
Some of the signs of learning panic are obvious. They can include…wait for it…panic, avoidance of the subject, defensiveness or even aggression. Some of the signs are less obvious, and bear some watching for. One sign of mental panic is a dismissal of the subject. Dismissal means we might come to the hasty conclusion that whatever challenge is being offered is not worth our time, won’t ever be useful, or doesn’t have any intrinsic value. Another less obvious sign is boredom.
Boredom is a tricky state to contemplate when we’re learning something because for many researchers, it’s also a sign that you’ve stayed too long in your comfort zone. In this line of thinking, routines become boring not because they’re too challenging, but because they’re not challenging enough.
There are plenty of connections between boredom and panic, though. In Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey quotes William Ian Miller as saying that one key feature of boredom is disgust, or rather that boredom “is the name we give to a less intense form of disgust” with things we don’t want to do anymore (pull weeds from the yard, sit through a meeting, etc.).
Toohey distinguishes between different kinds of boredom: there’s simple boredom, the boredom we feel when we’re faced with routine, and there’s a more complex, existential boredom that philosophers, psychologists and writers have linked to depression and despair. In both cases, boredom is connected to a feeling of aversion, an aversion (this is my argument now, not Toohey’s) that has fear at its root.
It’s probably worth our time to take a second and think about why we might feel averse to whatever it is that bores us. For example, if there’s one subject I’m averse to, it’s math. Sweet lord, is it ever math. I understand that math is incredibly important to blah, blah, blah. I know there’s nothing wrong with the subject. So what’s my problem?
If I’m honestly critical, it might juuust be possible that I’m averse to math because I actually think that if I tried my hand at it, I might simply not be smart enough to get it. I don’t really like thinking about the limits of my capabilities and I for sure don’t like thinking about my intellectual failures, were they to exist, which they totally do not. Better to just not engage with math at all and stick to my strengths. I’ve learned nothing and I can’t do long division, but I am comforted.
What is it that makes us so averse to routine things like standing in line, highway drives and waiting for appointments? These are the times of the day that require us to focus our attention on just one thing, and instead of relaxing us, they bore us to tears. Is it because in those moments we sense the nature of existence? Is it about time? Do we realize the movement of time and despair? Are these also the moments where we confront our minds most directly, without distractions (unless you have a smartphone or something to save you), and do we not like what we see?
Toohey explains that boredom is associated with tasks that seem “valueless” (a sign of learning panic). To overcome the boredom associated with a task, Toohey argues, people tend to find or invent reasons to do it. He gives the example of housework. Boring, yes, but we might tell ourselves we’re doing housework for the family, for “some reasonable, communitarian end.” That is, we find connections between the thing that bores us and the things we value, and the boredom goes away.
For me, this indicates an anxiety that the things we do might not have meaning in and of themselves. If we were to invest ourselves in each task we do and be attentive to the intrinsic value of each mundane moment, we might learn quite a lot. The link between boredom and value also implies that we should be attentive to the times that our brains want to shut down so we don’t end up restricting our knowledge to the things that we already value, that we’re already familiar with and that are already comfortable.