Boredom and Intrinsic Reward in Education

Wikipedia says… (which is the same thing as saying “our collective intuition says…”) education is “the process of facilitating learning.” It can occur in formal or informal settings, but it would be something formative, something that helps shape “knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits” (to list the list that was listed by, again, Wikipedia).

Interestingly, gaining access to the truth does not appear to be part of this list, unless we believe that any acquisition of knowledge depends on the truth. (But that will be a question for epistemology – or for a different day.) In any case, it is certainly true that a lot of learning focuses on cultural or religious propositions that may play fast and loose with the truth, and yet invite an analysis in terms of truth procedures (as when judges check whether people’s actions comply with the rules, no matter how crazy the rules).

For now, I will just think of learning as a formative process that tends to benefit the learner – it gives more knowledge, better skills, better adaptation to the situation (culture, religion, etc.). In fact, I would like to particularly focus on learning as a formative cognitive process – an intellectual activity, a stimulation and development of the mind in full flight, in active cognition, thinking thoughts, absorbing and inducing and deducing information – some cognitive development that generally works to the advantage of the learner.

Then, as a start for today’s topic of “Boredom and Intrinsic Reward in Education,” I offer two quotes that often play in the back of my mind, when I think about learning.

The first is by Francis Bacon, not the 20th-century painter, but the 17th-century philosopher – one of the cornerstone figures for empiricism, or the branch of philosophy that brought the paradigm of scientific investigation to the foreground in efforts of learning – the branch of philosophy that tells you to go and found out, if you want to know the truth. Get data. Do experiments.

Bacon said “Knowledge is power.”

The second quote is from the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire – the famous symbolist poet who wrote Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”).

Baudelaire described all kinds of monsters, and then said,

“There is one even uglier, meaner, filthier! […] C’est l’Ennui! It’s Boredom!”

Let’s think about these two quotes a little bit. Knowledge is power, in Bacon’s view. This puts full weight on science, on gaining the truth. If you know how something works, you can use it, you can change the situation to your advantage. It gives you power. This view really does depend on the truth, it is saying the truth always wins.

(Incidentally, in these bizarre times, I sometimes worry we are living through a particularly backward age, with many people in many countries bowing in submission to irrational movements and their dictators – we can point to Turkey, Egypt, China, Russia, probably even Japan and also the Philippines, and certainly most conspicuously, the U. S. of A., where the current President of that once-great nation continues to pervert Bacon’s dictum on a daily basis, making it into the exact opposite, “Power is knowledge,” or “I am the boss, and therefore things are as I say they are,” so that, because the Don is in power, he can say anything, he can just lie and lie and keep lying, and make everyone bow and accept the lies as truths. Learning in the present-day White House is a matter of adapting to the lies; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for instance, seems to be a particularly good learner in this sense.)

Anyway, I still think our old Bacon is right, and this backward Trump age is wrong. It is a phase that we are going to have to live through, a state of affairs that we must criticize, and resist.

Yes, I think Bacon is right. Knowledge is power. It is a dual-use kind of power. Knowledge, or some kinds of knowledge, can be used for good purposes, or for bad. Knowledge about viruses, for instance, or about what happens when atoms split. Some kinds of knowledge can be used to design weapons of mass destruction. Or for saving lives. We must stay awake and think about how to use knowledge in a fair and morally justified way, while criticizing and resisting any misusage. But yes, knowledge really does give us some kind of power.

For me, being a cognitive scientist, this also implies that getting new information must be intrinsically rewarding. The new information gives us pleasure. It is something we want. Archimedes, running naked down the streets, has a big smile on his face when he shouts, Εύρηκα! “I got it!”

We are naturally curious creatures who want new information, because new information gives us knowledge, and knowledge gives us power. It is because of this power that we thrive. It gives us our edge, even in terms of Darwinian processes. We have evolved as information-hungry creatures, naturally inclined to seek knowledge, and thereby gain power.

The natural inclination and the intrinsic rewards go together. They make us crave new information for its own sake. Learning for the sake of learning, because it is fun… Like playing, like art for the sake of art. We play, and we love to experiment because knowledge is power. It is like an addiction. We just need to know, turning page after page, we can’t put the book down. In the middle of Japan versus Belgium I can’t stop watching the game even if my bladder is telling me I need to go to the toilet right now.

However, there is a huge problem with this view of learning and power and intrinsic rewards. This is where Baudelaire comes in, with that meanest, filthiest, ugliest monster called Boredom! If knowledge is power, and information is intrinsically rewarding, then why are we so often and so easily bored? We may be information-hungry, but it only works partially – for certain things, at certain times. We are definitely not keen to learn everything all the time. In fact, we may be extremely selective about what we wish to learn, or what kinds of information we are hungry for. So, how does boredom work? And, as a corollary, what kinds of learning are intrinsically rewarding?

As it turns out, we have a very limited appetite for learning. I think it may be useful to compare our appetite for learning with the more literal appetite for food. In the psychology and neuroscience of food intake, we can see how the appetite is influenced by physiological and cultural factors, with internal mechanisms that signal satiation (“glucostats” or little detectors in our brain that tell us when we have had enough). Perhaps satiation is like boredom. It has a strong personality. It is very idiosyncratic. Satiation comes slow for some foods we love (me: Hakata ramen), and fast for other foods we hate (me: natto; I am always in an extreme state of satiation when it comes to natto). And we have the famous 別腹, the “betsu-bara,” a little extra stomach, for when we are really full, but suddenly set wide eyes for dessert.

How can we manage and facilitate our appetite for learning? It will have something to do with finding the foods we like (the fields of learning we like), and with developing an acquired taste for foods (or fields that seem difficult at first, but become a delight later, after training, when our palate has become more sophisticated).

My perspective on boredom and learning will revolve around monitoring and controlling the appetite for information extraction. I think we have “infostats” or little detectors in our brain that tell us when we have acquired enough information. Perhaps I should call them “boredom-stats.” These boredom-stats start screaming for an escape when the learning just doesn’t work, because the topic doesn’t touch us personally, or the information is too hard to grasp, or too repetitive.

I think there really is a role for education here. To be able to manage the boredom-stats. To facilitate the emergence of intrinsic rewards while learning. To find the fun, or the motivating challenge, in learning. Not by catering to existing pleasures (“fun for the sake of fun”), but by cultivating new pleasures that build on that triangle of knowledge, power, and intrinsic rewards to expand our reach. To learn.

Let’s explore what that role for education might look like.