Tom Hodgkinson: The best thing to do after learning new information is to take a nap

 

Share
Related Topics

Dr Johnson's favourite book was Robert Burton's bestselling 17th-century self-help guide The Anatomy of Melancholy. This exhaustive manual on madness and depression, first published in 1621, was so popular that, it was said, its publisher "got an estate by it". Johnson said it was the only book which would get him out of bed early.

Its popularity suggests that there may have been an epidemic of misery in the early 17th century. Certainly it was a difficult time in British history: the previous 100 years or so since the Reformation had seen a destruction of the welfare and education systems which had previously been operated by the Church. The growing Puritan tendency in England had seen the old customs of merry-making and collective festivity under attack, and their new emphasis on the individual rather than the community might also explain why so many people were depressed.

Contemplation and reflection – or, in other words, doing nothing – also came under fire. The Protestant writer Richard Baxter promoted the ethic of hard work: "Be diligent in your callings," he wrote, "and spend no time in idleness, and perform your labours with holy minds."

Burton's cures for melancholy included "mirth and merry company". One excellent remedy, he says, was practised by the ancient Greek grammarian Atheneus, and went as follows: the doctor laid the patient "on a down bed, crowned him with a garland of sweet-smelling flowers, in a fair-perfumed closet delicately set out, and after a portion or two of good drink, which he administered, he brought in a beautiful young wench that could play upon a lute, sing and dance".

If only such imaginative prescriptions were offered by the NHS. Instead, our system is more likely to offer pills of some sort. Now, these less sensual cures can work, it is true: a friend recently told me that she reckoned her GP saved her life by giving her anti-psychotics. But she believes there was also a placebo at work: she liked and trusted her doctor.

One GP I met recently reckons that patients have been wrongly encouraged to seek pills for every species of low-grade misery. Sometimes, she says, sadness should simply be suffered. It may have something to teach us. Mental pain may be telling us to change something fundamental in our lives. This is the conclusion of the psychologist James Davies in Cracked, his excellent new attack on psychiatry. Suffering is part of being human, he says; we should resist the Californian attempt to destroy pain. That way lies the madness of the society painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where passion is eliminated in favour of a bland anaesthesia.

Robert Burton was careful not to recommend idleness as a cure for melancholy. Idleness would produce solitary brooding, which could make your depression worse. His famous injunction to the melancholic of temperament was: "Be not solitary; be not idle." However, Dr Johnson adapted this formula to read: "When solitary, be not idle; when idle, be not solitary." There was nothing wrong with doing nothing, Johnson thought, as long as it was done in company.

A terrific book has just landed on my desk which backs these old authorities. Auto-Pilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing by American scientist Andrew Smart argues that the brain needs idleness. The author uses the latest findings in neuroscience to argue that doing nothing leads to happiness. "Recent research is revealing that some forms of self-knowledge may only appear to us in idle states," writes Smart. In our frantic chase for gain, we suppress "our brain's natural ability to make meaning out of experience". Idleness is especially important after taking in new facts or skills. "If you relax for a while, the hippocampus more or less writes these memories to your neocortex, which houses your long-term memories... So the best thing to do after learning new information is to take a nap, or at least be idle." Be happy, be clever, be idle.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

£45,000 - £55,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified accountant...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
Anthony Burgess, the author of 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Earthly Powers,' died 17 years ago  

If Anthony Burgess doesn’t merit a blue plaque, then few do

John Walsh
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor