Boredom is the Bane of Spaceflight, says Maggie Koerth-Baker

July 20, 2013

I was amazed to see this article in the New York Times Magazine and also this addendum on Boing Boing, because it’s something I’ve been writing about for a long time. In fact, my whole novel pivots around the problem of boredom on a long spaceflight.

Asphalt with pine needles, Kinuta Park - June 7, 2013

Asphalt with pine needles, Kinuta Park – June 7, 2013 (Enlarge)

She’s talking about the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project, funded in part by NASA, where six people are experiencing isolation in a white geodesic dome on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The point is to learn about human factors on a long space mission. Say, eight months one-way to Mars. The whole mission could last over five years. Yes, that could certainly be hard on humans.

What about going to a nearby star? In my novel, the trip took over a century. Talk about boredom. But it wasn’t human boredom that caused the biggest problem. See, if humans get bored pretty quick, just imagine how much faster a sentient computer could get bored.

In fact, that could be yet another reason why it’s so hard to build a sentient super-computer – because every time we come close, the computer dies of boredom! Catastrophic machine boredom at 200 petaFLOPS. Can you imagine it? Well, that’s what science fiction is for.

We all know what boredom is, right? Maggie Koerth-Baker talks about a lack of mental stimulation, and then she refers to James Danckert’s research on what the brain is doing when we ourselves aren’t doing much of anything. Jason Kring says boredom is a kind of stress. Yes, you can be stressed with too much work or not enough.

But then it again boils down to lack of stimulus. Koerth-Baker writes, “If your brain does not receive sufficient stimulus, it might find something else to do – it daydreams, it wanders, it thinks about itself. If this goes on too long, it can affect your mind’s normal functioning. Chronic boredom correlates with depression and attention deficits.”

Yes indeed. If that boredom goes on too long, it could turn into a whole 400-page novel. Imagine all the psychedelic hallucinations and desperate scrambles to find some philosophical solace before falling into a fatal coma.

In my own investigations of boredom, I’ve come to believe that it’s much more than lack of stimulus. You can have all the stimulus in the world and still be bored. Actually, there are at least three kinds of boredom. So we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

Ah! One commenter on the NYT site wrote, “Can’t the astronauts just carry tons of books with them to read during their trip? There is no way you can possibly get bored when lots of interesting books are lying (or floating) around.” That’s a happy thought for us literary types :^)