High school drop-out rates are high in the United States and likely due to classroom boredom. Close to 80 percent of students say that they are bored in class due to the feeling that the material taught is neither reliant or taught in an engaging way.
One formal definition of boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”1 The researchers describe a mismatch between an individual’s needed arousal and the availability of external stimulation. In a classroom overburdened by excessive curriculum, this mismatch is problematic as students’ varied range of background knowledge and mastery cannot be engaged by uniform instruction.
The chronic stress of sustained or frequent boredom correlates with neurophysiologic changes that impact cognition, memory, social and emotional behavior — changes that affect school success. Over time, high stress increases the risk for other medical conditions including heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Functional neuroimaging scans of the brain “in action” show how stressors influence which parts of the brain process incoming information and which regions direct behavioral responses. The stressed brain resides in a behavior-reactive state that has impaired learning and reasoning, instead of in a reflective state. Stressors that shift the brain into the reactive mode put the lower, emotional brain in charge and reduce input to and output from the higher cognitive executive function networks in the reflective prefrontal cortex. This shifts response control to the reactive lower, emotional brain.
Yale researcher Amy Arnsten and colleagues described the neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control as highly vulnerable to even mild stress. They reported that when these executive function circuits are blocked, “primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in.”2 Additional neurochemical changes in norepinephrine levels and cortisol during stress can rapidly switch off the firing of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that forms long-term memory and directs executive functions.
Sustained or frequent boredom in humans is associated with increased levels of cortisol. Short bursts of cortisol are important stress responders in mammals to activate the fight-and-flight system. However, if cortisol is chronically elevated by sustained stressors as seen in sustained or frequent boredom, there are measurable consequences in cellular brain changes.
Chronic stress can alter the connections among neurons that allow us to communicate — the basis of memory storage and retrieval — and control emotional responses. John Morrison and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have shown in animal research how chronic stress increases the number of dendrite connections in the lower emotional centers of the brain while shriveling dendrite connections in the prefrontal cortex. They reported that the prefrontal cortex dendrites can regrow if the stress disappears, but this ability to rebound may be limited if the stress is especially severe or sustained.3
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