It has been a singularly quiet day in St. Louis. No murders, so far. Not even a shooting. Hardly any mayhem at all, to speak of.
So I am eating popcorn and drinking a Coke.
I do not want the popcorn. I do not want the Coke.
But I am bored. I am bored because I am at work on this quiet Saturday a couple of weeks before this will be printed, covering the crime-and-police beat. But there has been no major crime worth covering, and I’m guessing the police are almost as bored as I am.
So for a lack of anything better to do, I am eating popcorn and drinking Coke. That is 515 calories I am consuming for no reason whatsoever.
I look over to the editor. He is eating a bag of Doritos. Nacho cheese flavor.
Why do we do this? Why do we eat when we are bored?
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I put the question to my desktop Google machine, which spat out an interesting and somewhat alarming study about the subject. In 2014, four Dutch researchers devised a way to see whether people ate out of boredom, and whether they did so to feel good or just to escape the doldrums.
The researchers took 30 volunteers and showed them an hour-long documentary about a Nobel prize winner. During the screening, the participants were given unlimited access to M&Ms, which was considered positive reinforcement. The researchers then took an 85-second clip from the film showing the man playing tennis and showed it to the same participants over and over for an hour, to see if the volunteers ate more when they were bored.
But here is where the study becomes alarming. The researchers then showed 30 different volunteers the same film and the same repeated clip, only this time the participants weren’t given the candies. This time, they were offered the chance to give themselves brief, painful electrical shocks.
This was considered negative reinforcement.
The first group ate more M&Ms when they watched the boring film than the more interesting one. And 28 of the 30 participants in the second group willingly gave themselves an electric shock to relieve the monotony of the repeated tennis-playing clip.
From these juxtaposed facts, the scientists concluded that “eating when bored is not driven by an increased desire for satisfying incentive stimulation, but mainly by the drive to escape monotony.”
I have a couple of conclusions of my own. First of all, what the heck is wrong with these researchers? What twisted mind would devise a fiendish plan to make people watch something so intensely boring that their subjects — who willingly agreed to participate, presumably without knowing what they were getting themselves into — would gladly shock themselves just to escape the boredom?
Also, I understand their thesis, at least intuitively. When you are bored, you do anything to escape the boredom: eat M&Ms, if they are there. If they are not there, a little self-administered electrocutaneous stimulus will have to do.
Meanwhile, the Google machine also produced a 2011 article in Psychology Today by Susan Carnell, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in eating behavior.
Carnell looked at the biology of boredom eating and speculated — admittedly without any particular evidence — that boredom eating is related to dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that makes us feel good, and it is Carnell’s contention that when our spirits are down our dopamine neurons are unstimulated.
“When we boredom-eat, what we’re really doing is trying to wake them up so we can feel excited again,” she writes.
That may be. But the Coke and the popcorn didn’t help. If this day gets any worse, I’m going to start looking for a couple of frayed wires and a plug.