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

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories