Sunday, 5 February 2017

Depression and letting the sleeping dogs of learning lie

I think it might just be an age thing. I am going through a phase of only sleeping for a few hours every night. Thanks to my Fitbit, I can be very precise as to when I have slept or been awake. Currently I am enjoying around 5 hours sleep a night. Whilst I can feel tired at different times of the day, I am not actually feeling any less energetic or less interested in the world than before. I have a normal appetite and a positive outlook on the world. I am not knowingly worried about anything in particular. My BDI score is below 17 – and so I don’t think I am depressed. In case you are wondering, sleep disorders are strongly correlated with depression.

There is, however, a body of research that suggests that sadness can incline people towards sleeping more. Earnest Hemmingway, the Nobel Prize winning author once said ‘I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake’. Hemmingway experienced periods of clinical depression throughout his life. He was said to enjoy the escape that sleep provided for him. However, many studies have shown that for the majority of people living with depression, sleep is often a very disturbed experience. Indeed many such people report disorders of sleep as being a major feature of their depression. 

Hemmingway ended his life by suicide, using his favourite shotgun to do so. He was not the first person in his family to die by suicide. His Father, sister and brother all did, and almost 35 years after Hemmingway’s death, his granddaughter Margaux Hemmingway also took her own life. At first I was surprised at finding out that 5 people across 4 generations chose death by suicide. However, Alice Gregory, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose research into sleep quality, anxiety and depression draws on major twin-studies, noted there is a relationship between genetics, depression and sleep problems. Other research has shown that between 15% - 20% of people diagnosed with a sleep problem will develop clinical depression.

Now as I discovered last week, there is another way to think about all of this. CS Lewis, who unlike Hemmingway, wasn’t a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize winning author, but was a jolly good writer nevertheless. I bet you have read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He wrote a letter that unpacked what he felt was the concept of joy. The letter was sent in 1945 to a certain ‘Mrs Ellis’ and it was discovered in the pages of a second hand book many years later. In it Lewis described joy as: ‘real joy… jumps under ones ribs and tickles down one’s back, and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’nights’.

I like the idea of something jumping under ones ribs. I only discovered the CS Lewis connection as I was sending out a ‘good morning’ Twitter message to other folk in the #earlyrisersclub last week and out of curiosity had looked the word up. Interestingly, (well for those who like Pub Quiz’s anyway) the word ‘joy’ appears 145 times in the Bible – 88 times in the Old Testament and 57 times in the New Testament. Joy as a concept can of course be described in lots of ways. I like the notion that joy is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope. It might also be something or someone that provides a source of happiness.

Of course it could just be an age thing, but I can readily identify with this notion of what joy might be and/or involve. Last Friday I took a day return trip to Dundee to take part in a professorial selection process. For me the day was the perfect illustration of this idea of joy. The main part of the journey was with Virgin Rail – so no real internet connection and difficult to stay in touch with work, which for a day felt OK. The sun shone from Preston to Dundee, allowing me to enjoy the countryside and sit and reflect. The candidates were well prepared, experienced and it was very interesting to listen to them tell their personal and professional narratives. I remembered with fondness my own journey to becoming a professor and the many people who helped me along the way. There were some special people among those that helped. The last 10 years have seen me in a position to help others achieve their ambitions, and this has allowed me to meet many people who fill me with great confidence and hope for the future. 

The 'future' was also a feature in my reading of CS Lewis. Reports of his death were overshadowed at the time by the assassination of JF Kennedy, as was the death of the writer Huxley. Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis all died within 55 minutes of each other. Huxley was the author of the famous book Brave New World, which amongst other things featured hypnopædia or ‘sleep learning’. Huxley’s book was published in 1932, and the notion of learning while you sleep was, until 2014, largely discredited. Then in 2014, 2 Swiss researchers, Thomas Schreiner and Bjorn Rasch, published their research showing that actually it was possible to learn while you sleep. However, and for what it is worth, my advice is it’s probably healthier to let the sleeping dogs of learning lie and simply enjoy uninterrupted sleep for as long as you can.