How does our brain know when an activity is fun or boring?


How does our brain know when an activity is fun or boring?

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In general, it is related to how the activity may or may not trigger the release of “good” neurotransmitters in your brain. And conversely, an activity that generates little or no positive neurotransmitters will be considered boring. One standard example is with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel “good.” Any activity that generates it will often be considered fun. Knowing this, media producers are often honed in on creating little rewarding moments which trigger dopamine hits, thus telling our brain that the activity is fun. But not all brains are the same. Some people consume the same media and not get the same dopamine release and will thus find it boring. Adrenaline often has similar effects, thus why people often find sports, thrilling rides, or scary movies fun.

One theory I’ve heard is that what’s interesting/fun/engaging is what produces an optimal amount of “cognitive stress”.

The play instinct drives a brain to feed itself experience in order to grow its skill. What is boring is that which isn’t providing enough new information to be useful, and what is overwhelming is that which provides too much new information and it can’t be processed.

When something is fun it’s because it’s right inside that window of the perfect level of stimulation and complexity for us to grow.

To give an example I like to play Halo ranked games, because the ranking system always pits me against people who are right at my skill level. Those games right at my skill level are super engaging because I have a chance of winning but it’s not easy and it takes everything I’ve got.

And when I play ranked games, my skill improved rapidly. When I go back to unranked games I can see how much my skill has changed because I do so much better.

Those ranked games are both optimal learning experiences, and maximum fun.

I don’t understand the physiology behind it, but game design has answer to this.

What divides a fun activity from a boring activity is choice. More choice an activity involves the more fun it is. The more unpredictable those choices are the more fun it is. And the more understandable the result is after you made a choice, the more fun it is.

Now this “more” is capped by the cognitive capacity the person doing the activity. It tends to have cliff effect. Improvements in choice only increase fun when you are still able to comprehend the choices.

This is why as we get older we like activities with more choices. A toy train was thrilling when we where three because what we could do with it was butting up against our limits of comprehension and the results still held a lot of unpredictability to us. But a chess set was kind of boring to us as a three year old because we could not comprehend the rules of the game.


If I had to hazard a guess, fun in humans was the result of evolution rewarding an expanding cognitive capacity. People who were more attentive to making predictions and studying the results got more mileage from their capacity compared to people who were indifferent or bored by making predictions or learning from them.

And as side note, there appears to be a second kind of “fun” that arises from use of ones body in extreme ways. This is common among all animals. It is why dancing and racing are fun. This arises from the need for animals to practice.