The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Psychology of Rest

by Dr. George Wilson
Volume 12, 1900, pgs. 574-585

You must have often observed, for example, that conversation is facilitated by music; not because people are afraid of the sound of their voices, for they do their best to drown the melody, but because the music affords enough distraction to let loose the tongue which an excess of effort had paralysed. Women who sit on the doorstep to knit and chat, talk more easily because they are knitting; and, in the smoking-room, men's ideas are more fertile and their words more ready as they pull at their pipes and watch the curling cones of smoke.

At 11.30 a.m., Dr. Helen Webb read a paper by Dr. George Wilson (who was unable to be present), on The Psychology of Rest.

An enquiry into the psychology of rest is properly a general statement; no aspect of mind can be considered apart; an account of restful states must, to some extent, be an account of the mind in a state of rest. The term itself, Rest, acquires its content for us chiefly by contrast with activity, over-activity and fatigue; and, to expound it, we must conceive of it as relating to all possible efforts such as may occasion exhaustion or be the outcome and alternative of rest.

But while rest can only be described fully, and still imperfectly, as a state of the whole mind, we need not be deterred from a partial and fragmentary enquiry if we make no claim to explain what we discover. An analysis or dissection of a part of an animal--even of all its parts--does not give an account of the animal; nor can we understand or explain the parts save as aspects and organs of the whole creature. Yet it is good to examine the parts. Similarly, though an account of any aspect or part of the mind gives no idea of what a mind is, and although we cannot understand it without considering the whole, yet is the piecemeal enquiry suggestive. That must be my apology for the method of this paper, or perhaps I should say for its want of method. It is impossible to discuss the whole of our question; let us not be too proud to consider parts of it. And I would add, we need not be deterred from practical efforts as the results of our enquiry only because we have not completed it, provided again that we do not pretend to a constitution for the whole mind's government, but attempt only a modest experiment. Partial experiments are as useful as partial enquiry, and are neither anomalous nor dangerous. Human life, I might argue again, is still only in the stage of experiment; as its conditions change, each generation must find out how best to adapt the mind to them. Even to-day we are to so great an extent the victims of illusion concerning our minds, that experiment is not only justified but urgently demanded; for it is not to be expected that the empirical method will be successful in life: we shall acquire skill in proportion as we learn what the nature of life's material is, and have an understanding which justifies our methods. Human life in general may not be so bad as to justify pessimism, but most human lives in particular are not successful. No one whom we know can be said to manage his mind to the greatest advantage; and of many it would appear to be true that they could hardly mismanage it more than they do. For instance, it has been an end in view of all great religious teachers to inculcate quietness in effort, to extol the life that unites great achievement with deep rest. Yet our most useful men and women are nearly always tired and fretful: the others do not distinguish between restfulness and indolence.

The illusion to which I have referred as hampering psychological enquiry--though daily discoveries lessen its evil--inclines one to doubt if there is a psychology of rest at all. The illusion is the inveterate and essential, and almost incurable error which our nerves impose upon us--that we are they, that they are we. When our nerves are over-worked, we feel tired; when they are restored, we are refreshed. Mental pain and mental weariness are almost contradictions in terms; we cannot conceive of a meaning for a tired spirit; an ego with a toothache, an abscess in the soul, are as intelligible as the mind's need for rest. The spirit is always willing, it is only the flesh that is weak. The illusion that persuades us to the contrary must be appreciated before we can understand the elements of restfulness. How it comes about, and why it is, we shall not know until the illusion ceases; but we must bear it in mind and allow for it, that we are constantly deluded by our nerves. I give you only one consideration to remind you and prepare you for the universal fallacy, and that is a physiological one, namely, that no nerves of touch or of pain have ever been traced as coming from the nerve-centres which represent the mind. The organ of character is a big thing--about as big as one's head, for the spinal cord is part of it--but you cannot become aware of any single inch of it. Let a needle prick any point of the whole skin's surface, or the lightest feather skim it, and, if you are attending, you will know exactly where that point is. But the deep structures, including the brain, are not provided with the means for that kind of information. You may have a piece of bone as big as a walnut pressing on the organ of the mind, or a sudden outburst of blood my lacerate a cubic inch of it, yet you will not be able to say whether this thing is on the left side or the right, the back or the front. There is no means of locating cerebral processes. That, I think, is why we conceive of our nerves as ourselves, and of ourselves as apart from our nerves. When you feel tired, it may be a comparatively small bundle of nerves in some remote corner of your brain which is exhausted, it may be a general condition, it may be imagination. We distinguish different kinds of tiredness, but the one thing we do not think of and tell is that it is here or there. Personality has no location, and general and unlocated feelings are ascribed to the personality.

If tiredness is all a matter of nerves--and it assuredly is--then one wonders if there can be a psychology of fatigue or a psychology of rest. Would a physiology not be more appropriate? The answer is of course that you must have both. The physiology of rest always is that a certain proportion of nerves are being supplied with energy enough and not too much to provide for their work. Were we to examine the nerves we should be able to say which of them were resting, which of them active, which of them fatigued. But there is no corresponding psychology; there is no sensation of the whereabouts of rest; and that negative fact--the absence of location--is the first point of our enquiry.

The extreme of rest, in body and mind, is probably in sleep, and I would draw your attention to some facts in this connection, a few of which relate to the invasion of consciousness, which is known as hypnotism. And first, let us consider some of the occasions of these states. The primary condition of sleep is, in my opinion, simply habit--the unconscious physical habit technically known as automatism. The brain ceases from special activities after an approximately constant daily output because, from infancy, it has been taught to do so. Purely for the purposes of rest, then, regularity, routine, fixed habits are desirable. Autobiography, I understand, is bad form in a lecturer, but I give you my experience for what it is worth. Instructed, many years ago, by a teacher for whom I had and still have the greatest respect, that to be bound by habit was a weakness, I set out to avoid it. After many years of very successful effort to avoid even an approximate resemblance of one day to another, I give it as my humble opinion that the absence of all routine--the modelling of each day and each night afresh--is more exhausting than the results warrant. I am still convinced that most minds are too habituative; but the opposite extreme is certainly fatiguing. It is an advantage that the mental life should have a fixed skeleton upon which its mobile organs are supported. Why that is so we shall presently enquire.

In some cases, when sleep is coy, a monotonous exercise, such as counting sheep through a gate, is efficacious. The process is comparable to the inducement of the hypnotic state by fixed staring and similar devices. By an effort of will, the attention is shut off from all save one motive; and that concentration is essential because it induces rapid, local fatigue; then, if the experiment succeeds, the function upon which the attention has centred becomes too weak to engage it, there is no foothold for it elsewhere, and self-consciousness ceases. (Note in passing, that concentration is fatiguing, and that for continued activity, an alternation of the attention, which we shall presently consider, is necessary.) Here then we have possibly a suggestion of a practical expedient. I am of the old-fashioned school who believe that mesmeric experiments are undesirable; that we do not understand ourselves enough, and cannot sufficiently trust our neighbours to justify indiscriminate trancing. But I am convinced--and every authority on the subject, so far as I know, agrees--that we do not make nearly enough use of the expedient. Every parent, in my opinion, ought to be able to induce drowsiness in the child by some simple device such as hypnotists often use. If you doubt their efficacy, try, the first time you require a good rest, to confine your attention wholly to the minute observation of the form and colour of the trailing smoke and flickering flames of a cheerful fire, the while your limbs and body are in an attitude of repose.

Another, and very important condition of sleep is pure suggestion. A man will sleep who believes that he will. And so we find hypnotists induce the trance by pure persuasion. Imagination can accomplish almost anything once you relinquish criticism and resign yourself to credulity. The chief lesson in this connection is, I think, a warning. It is hard to say which is the greater fool--the hysteric who imagines her fatigue or the braggart who refuses to admit it. The credulous habit of mind, which is the condition of both forms of aberration, begets more unrest than rest. A short while ago hypochondria was the prevailing vice which an exaggerated self-consciousness and an undisciplined imagination occasioned in the weakling. We have revolted from that, and a danger has arisen in the direction of a credulous assurance and wanton optimism. Pain has no significance, the new fanatic preaches; fatigue is merely the arrogance of an over-fed and spoiled nervous system which threatens to usurp the soul. The spirit thrives on neglect of these neuralgias, and insomnias and anorexias. As I say, it is hard to determine whether this new insanity of mysticism is a greater or less evil than the hysteria over which it claims to rise triumphant. There is another form of restfulness allied to that which is based on credulity and false assurance, and which is perhaps less dangerous to the individual, but which is none the less misleading and silly. I treat of it here because it occurs in credulous persons who suffer from an excess of sensuous or aesthetic imagination, that is to say, sentimentalism. The two most common types are the religiose and the would-be artistic; I do not of course imply any slur either upon religion or art: I speak of a habit of mind which prostitutes those to self-feeling--which makes use of a sensuous content as a resort from the burdens and annoyances of life. By that means, without any doubt, one may escape considerable fatigue; but such restfulness is spurious. To retire, on the approach of difficulty, into a bath of feeling, an intoxicating languor which is empty of practical content and of rational activity, is not rest, but indolence, not restoration, but dissipation; and the incapacity which characterizes the reaction from it is the proof of its mirage. Any man may persuade himself into this dream state, and walk about in ecstacy--may even get through his modicum of work and appear quiet and always composed, as if free from mortal weaknesses--a reluctant visitor from another sphere; but true rest is not somnambulism. All this kind of mental states implies credulity, an undisciplined imagination and ignorance; and power does not come by ignorance, even when it is only assumed or pretended. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that expert hypnotists are nowadays comparatively truthful: that humbug has been found unnecessary; and that their patients, fully instructed in the facts of the process, are no longer the conscious allies or the credulous dupes of persuasive story-tellers.

Another condition of sleep, and of states induced by hypnotism, is an attitude of muscular repose. I have said nearly all that I have to say meanwhile on this subject in two much-maligned pamphlets--The Gymnastic of Rest and Relaxation and Recreation. Some who will have nothing but the highest and best refuse to recognise spiritual effects which come through the medium of muscle fibres, and other people, the vast and haphazard majority, are not interested in a systematic control of the attention. But I venture to prophesy that a later generation will see explicit training of the young in posing, in ordering the attitude and movements so as to achieve the greatest saving of energy. Contractures are poses of fatigue; tired muscles suffer cramps and spasms; and these have their mental reflexes: flexed joints, the bent back, stooping shoulders, clenched fingers, the wrinkled face, are the gymnastic of depression and of a careworn mind. Extension is the pose of rest and of latent energy: straightened limbs, the supine back, extended shoulders, expanded fingers, and the smooth face, are the gymnastic of happiness and of a mind that is free from care. The best symbol, I believe, of the kind of mental reflex which pose effects, is the relief which follows upon a relinquishing of our gaze upon near objects and an assumption of the pose of the eye for far vision. But that is a mere symbol. Just as the attitude of sleep predisposes to sleep, so the attitudes of restfulness predispose to recuperation and a revival of energy.

There still remains the question, what actually happens in the brain when we go to sleep? On that point it is difficult to be explicit without becoming too technical; and we must be brief. But I think that the gist of the process may be clearly hinted. The actual fact of the psychological moment seems to be that attention ceases--we become unaware. To understand the process we must conceive of attention to a motif as the fact in consciousness which coincides with an activity of considerable force in corresponding nerve-structures. When, for instance, light waves sufficiently stimulate appropriate nerve-mechanisms, you are aware of a given colour, and attend to it or notice it. In wakefulness, one mechanism after another is so stimulated, and the attention coincidently follows onwards. It would seem then that sleep would be induced, if by some mechanism, the nerves were all simultaneously closed against stimulation, and some authorities have held by such a theory. The physiological difficulties in the way have always seemed to me to amount to an impossibility. (Amongst other objections, it would appear to be a probable consequence of such a process that the energies necessary to vital functions would be dangerously shut off.) Recent observations uphold the view which is exactly contrary. In wakefulness, as I said, nervous activity at a given moment predominates in one function; sleep does not come by shutting that off and keeping all the others closed, but by an almost simultaneous opening of all the taps. The physiology of falling asleep seems to be an automatic activity of a mild kind in all the brain and a consequent diffusion of stimuli. Consciousness, which a moment before attached to something in particular, now moves to everything in general, which means nothing in particular. The process is one which I described some years ago, in one of these popular lectures, as a squandering of the attention. And I introduce this point here in order to observe that, in wakeful life, when the mind is greatly occupied, one may, by voluntary effort, squander the attention--that is, momentarily relinquish the mental grasp of anything and everything, and think of nothing. Such an act rests the mind--gives it an instant's breath, so to speak.

Passing now from the conditions which occasion sleepiness, let us consider very briefly the psychology of sleep. As a rule the state is described as unconsciousness, but that is wholly inadequate and even inaccurate. That self-consciousness abates and usually disappears is true; even in dreams and nightmares, in which one is playing a part, the self if usually projected. The common experience of dreamers is that they were outside of themselves: saw themselves, or heard themselves, or, in some vague sense, knew that they were there without being there. At other times, and even in extravagant dreams, the feeling of self is quite normal, though it may be perplexing. But the chief fact of sleep is forgetfulness and discontinuity. What we do when awake is not continued as such in our sleep, though it may survive in fragments; and what we do in sleep is not continued as such in wakeful life. The personality is laid aside when we put on the nightcap and resumed, so we think, next morning. But is it the same personality? Surely not; character changes while we sleep, which is a strangely interesting fact and one not sufficiently appreciated by the divines.

I mention them in particular because, as a rule, in health at all events, sleep induces the virtues. We go to bed intoxicated (not necessarily with wine), and awake sober; or angry, and awake good-natured; or ungrateful, and awake in thankfulness; or in doubt or vacillating, and awake enlightened and determined. Such facts are, to my mind, immensely interesting. We are accustomed to believe that developments of the kind which have been recorded, for example, by Tartini, by Voltaire, Coleridge, Louis Stevenson, and a host of others--a musical composition, a philosophical thesis, a poem, the plot of a story, completed during sleep--are exceptional. If you consider the matter, I think you will find that that kind of thing is almost universal; but of course these hypnotic achievements do not in my case, or in yours, if I may say so, attain the dignity which characterises the products of a sleeping genius. Yet we never awake as we went to sleep; though the facts of our life may be the same, our view of them has altered; and the specially interesting quality of the product is that it is usually integrative, that we have developed during our sleep. The psychology of the state then is the psychology not of unconsciousness but of sub-consciousness. Here again we are back to the illusion which mixes us up with our nerves. Is it that the spirit, having been on holiday, returns with an energy more sufficient to cope with unruly nerves? Or is it that the nerves, having had a rest from the meddlesome spirit, have had time to settle down and do some independent work? However that may be, the fact to which I wish to draw attention is that, during sleep, progress is made without effort, without fatigue, nay, indeed, with positive rest and refreshing.


Here then we have a lucid illustration of the fact that activities which are subconscious, which do not imply the continuous activity of personality, are more restful than processes which absorb our attention. Professor Thomson made this point when he remarked that anything which had simply to be got through each day--as, for example, the getting from house to classroom, the office or the school--ceases to be laborious if we do it so often in the same way as to allow it to become automatic. Activity is easy in proportion as it is subconscious--that is, absent-minded. Here we revert to the subject of habit and automatism; for, in order that anything may become subconscious and require no attention, it must be done regularly and habitually. Half of the things that people do--far more than half in some cases--are of this nature. Dressing and undressing, feeding and drinking, standing and walking, require no conscious effort. But far more delicate and complex activities may become subconscious or nearly so. Conversation, letter-writing, buying and selling, banking, reading, playing music, acting, even preaching, are, with experts, very largely automatic: the man is quite aware of what he is doing, knows what he wishes done, and how, but can be partially attending to something else during the operation. For this word, automatism, at least as applied to the operations of the mind, is a relative term. In strict physiological language, an automatic activity is one which is beneath our self-control, as, for instance, the activities of the heart or of the digestive organs. In the sphere of mind, however, processes, though they become to a large extent subconscious, do not elude the influence of the personality, or need not. The best example I know is in public speaking. A great speaker, such as Gladstone, obviously develops a gift for divided attention, so that, for example, while his facial expression and gesture and the inflection of the voice express what his words convey, his mind is linking the particular idea of the moment to his general argument; and, again, as his sentence is tailing off, though the last words of it are spoken importantly, he has reached forward to the next phrase and is ready with a new paragraph. You can see this kind of attention very obviously in speakers who are clever in the use of notes. I take it, then, that it should be an aim of education and an end in mental development to achieve such skill as enables one to perform routine tasks automatically, and casual things with the minimum of attention that is compatible with exactness.

In light of recent knowledge, our views upon the value of concentration require some revision. Perhaps we might with advantage substitute the idea of persistence or perseverance for that of concentration; that is, insist only on continuing at a task until sufficient progress has been made with it without demanding that, during the operation, the attention shall be wholly given to it. That some degree of concentration is necessary to the attainment of skill may be the case; but at least in operations for which the requisite skill has been acquired, the attention should be relaxed, and that for two reasons. In the first place, concentration is fatiguing. It is not easy to say why, but close attention to an activity does imply increased strain; the more limited the form of activity and the more confined the attention, the more quickly does exhaustion ensue. It is in the nature of nerves and muscles to act rhythmically; destruction normally alternates with construction, exercise with rest; and that is true, in cerebral mechanisms, not only in a grand cycle--the diurnal and nocturnal, for example--but in one which is very minute and of short duration. In mental processes, although there need not be cessation of activity, there should be waves of effort alternating with moments of relaxation; but concentration accelerates mental activity and to force the attention is to hasten the fatigue. And, in the second place, concentration or over-attention spoils skill; these things are not best done which we try hardest to do; success is not in proportion to effort in acts which we have mastered. You must have often observed, for example, that conversation is facilitated by music; not because people are afraid of the sound of their voices, for they do their best to drown the melody, but because the music affords enough distraction to let loose the tongue which an excess of effort had paralysed. Women who sit on the doorstep to knit and chat, talk more easily because they are knitting; and, in the smoking-room, men's ideas are more fertile and their words more ready as they pull at their pipes and watch the curling cones of smoke.

My last point, then, is that division of the attention is conducive to rest. I have said that more than once before, and shall only illustrate it very briefly.

Dr. Paton has given us a definition of rest. It is, as he says, not merely inactivity: it is not cessation from motion: it is a process. Rest is preparation for motion; is, in fact, recuperation. Physiologically speaking, rest is the act of gathering energy, and energy is the power of doing work. To translate the definition into terms of psychology, I think we might say that rest is the conscious evolution of power. We are restful when we are evolving power, when we are conscious that we are gaining ground; to be conscious of a loss of power is to be in unrest.

In the activities of daily life, in private effort, in public duty, the most useful men and women are, as I have said, very often tired or restless. They are conscious that their activities are taking out of them more than they can spare. And that is a striking commentary upon the teaching which they commonly accept, for the great masters, I repeat again, have inculcated a life which unites great achievement with deep restfulness. Let us, in conclusion, cite a few examples to the contrary--exceptions to the rule of tiredness.

There are men who have many and varied interests--interests which do not clash and which are subservient to one supreme purpose--success in commerce perhaps, or the evolution of the home. The mind of such a man moves rhythmically; his head is full to overflowing; every act of the day appeals to him not by itself but as suggestive of something else. That man is evolving power; the flitting of his attention is his strength.

Another man, of an old and simple faith, turns his mind, every moment of the busy day, towards his conception of the Divine character and intention. He believes that God is with him; the experience of every moment strengthens the belief and enlarges it; while all the time his business mind is active, yet his business seems secondary to the general conception, and sometimes even apart from it. But here again, in this resort to a back-ground of idea, is a sense of power and a habitual restfulness.

Again, there is a large number in these times whose minds, cast in a more critical mould, find but little interest in the conception of Divine attributes. The unchanging nature of God, His eternity, His ubiquity, His omnipotence, His universal love, are conceptions too great to be potent, too unthinkable to be interesting. Such men it seems sometimes substitute a conception of the Divine end and purpose for the idea of God's character and person. The conception of the world as being guided towards a goal, of their country as having a dignified part to play in the grand procession, or themselves as inheriting a duty to forward it, is at once an inspiration and a rest when the day's work or the night's reflection threaten to harass them. This kind of development in the religious consciousness--and no psychology of rest can approach the subject without a study of the religious consciousness--this new departure is, to my mind, of great importance and very interesting. Psychology is simply an account of the feelings and ideas and impulses of men's minds; it is not an exact science, because the mind of man is changing every year; it is not an abstruse science, because the materials for it lie always ready to our hand. But we often miss its broad facts, its general evolution, and concern ourselves too much with minute analysis and refined comparisons. And I leave as my last contribution to this subject--if it may be called a contribution--the surmise that the religious consciousness of our time has changed and is changing towards a greater unity, towards a great relevance of general conceptions to practical activities. Theology forms but a small part of it; the religious men of our generation, whether they accept or ignore, doubt or deny, the beliefs which our fathers held about God, find power in a general conception in which personal duty and the facts of the home are consciously related to a wider, more public circle of activities, and that again embraced in a national progress which in its turn is conceived as part of a universal destiny. The alternation of ideas which contrasted worldly with spiritual progress has given place to a conception which unifies them; and the movement of idea from the part to the whole, from the whole to the part, still brings power, and is the greatest source of a deeper restfulness in increased achievement.

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At 3 p.m., a most interesting lecture was given to children, by Mr. Rowbotham, illustrated by blackboard drawings of the various insects they could keep. The lecture was well attended and greatly appreciated by the audience.

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At 4.30 p.m., there was a Council Meeting at the Office, 26, Victoria Street, S.W. (to adopt Annual Report, elect Hon. Officers, etc.)

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, May 2009