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

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

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The truth about kids on holiday

Rosie Millard
 

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home