Homework causes brain disease

According to a recent article in New Scientist magazine, people are getting increasingly worried about their sleep – and the sleep of their children.

Much of this worry is, inevitably, fuelled by the press which publishes regular articles about an epidemic of lax bedtimes, the watching of too much TV, and the playing of computer games all night.

So sleep-deprived children get too tired to perform at school.  Shock horror.

Indeed, recently a survey of 200 families found that there was an “epidemic” of sleeplessness, both among both children and adults.  Children, according to the newspapers, are being turned into zombies, and the already zombified parents don’t know how to cope.  Civilisation is ending.

Rather interestingly the survey was organised by Travelodge – the company that advertises itself as the “retailer of sleep”, although I am sure they didn’t fix the results.

However, none of this is new, for this epidemic has been with us for a while.  In fact it appears we have been living with this epidemic for over 100 years.

There is a difference, however, because back in the 19th century the reason for the sleep problem was… “too much homework”.

In 1884 the British Medical Journal reported findings from James Critchton-Browne (an “influential psychiatrist” of the day) who addressed the House of Commons noting that homework was causing “diseases of the brain”, “derangement of health”, and even “death”. 

Homework, the venerable psychiatrist argued, was causing all this because it engendered nervous excitement at night, which then stopped the children getting to sleep, and which then caused the brain to go pop (although not literally).

However, a study in 1908 of the number of hours that children slept each night did not back up the “low sleep” findings of the medical men, for it turned out that the number of hours that children slept was about eight hours a night for a 13 year old.  Which, as it happens, is the same result as found in recent surveys. 

So, what’s all the fuss about? 

Well, of course, in part it is about selling newspapers and promoting a hotel chain. And yet, and yet, there is something else here as well. 

For all of us, at some time or another, find that we don’t sleep too well.  We might fly into some sort of panic at that point, but the fact is, the figures produced by psychologists are averages – and few of us actually sleep to the average.  Some nights we sleep more, some nights less.  And some nights we don’t sleep very well at all.

The question therefore is: what should we be doing when we can’t sleep?

In essence there are five options:

  1. just lie there thinking, with the thinking mixed up with some tossing and turning
  2. get up and walk around a bit (not too good an idea if this is liable to set off the burglar alarm or arouse other people in the house)
  3. go and watch TV (which can work since most TV programmes shown after midnight are so utterly dire they are enough to put anyone to sleep)
  4. deliberately wake up someone else in the house so you can talk to them (dangerous in some households)
  5. read a book.

In fact the only one of these options that most people suggest works most of the time is reading a book.   That is, a book, as in a physical entity.  A solid thing you have to hold in your hand.

As a result of this I think we can clearly say that even if physical books have no use at all other than getting people back to sleep, they are still a jolly good thing.

Interestingly enough, quite a few of our customers store books among their other papers.  Books they particularly value, books they want to keep forever, books they want to have handed over to their children upon their death, or books that they know one day they absolutely will read again.

Mind you, it would be rather amusing to have that “homework causes brain disease” story doing the rounds one more time.  I wonder if the press would be interested?

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