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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform