Toward a Semiotics of Rest at The Hub at Wellcome Collection

Josh Berson
Josh Berson

There’s nothing I want but money in time

Million dollar bills in a tick tick tick tick tick

There’s nothing as fun as coming untied
And running with the kids in the park park park park park

It’s not about just being out with all our people
’Cause we can get in trouble just by going free flow
(Yelich-O’Connor and Little 2012b)

The English word rest carries an unusual dual sense. On the one hand, rest is the complement of activity: a cessation of goal-directed movement, a period of repose or recovery, tissue repair, the deliberate reduction of arousal, alertness, and vigilance. On the other hand, rest is that which is leftover, unallocated, unaccounted for, unplanned, uncategorized. Sometimes these two senses work together: what many people today imagine when they fantasize about rest is a block of time that is free not of activity but of activity scheduled in advance or imposed from without—time that is unprogrammed, time, as Lorde sings on “Million Dollar Bills,” to come untied, to go free flow. But often the two senses stand in tension: rest is not so much the complement to activity as the negative space between stretches of activity, time that is unproductive, evidence of a failure of planning. Million dollar bills being lost in the tick tick tick tick tick.

We—not just English-speakers, just about anyone who inhabits the world we’ve created over the past twenty-five years, in which we are subject to zeitgeber, social synchronizers, autonomic arousal cues, more or less continuously throughout the twenty-four-hour day (Berson 2014)—have a problem with rest. Anxieties about technological pressures to social acceleration are nothing new (Koselleck 2008). What has changed in the past generation is our attitude. “[T]he Victorians,” writes historian of science and contemplative computing activist Alex Pang, “created and lived in a world that felt much like ours—hyperconnected, fast-paced, globalizing, furiously reinventing itself—and maintained lives of admirable productivity and accomplishment. Yet the choices they made about leisure and vacations were dramatically different from ours,” choices that included, for many of that era who were privileged to leave the kind of trace that admits of casual inspection, annual six-to-eight-week retreats to hill stations (Pang 2013). Naturally these choices were conditioned by social location—class, of course, and occupation, and where you stood on the colonized–colonizer axis—but today we are all having to learn, as Lorde sings elsewhere on The Love Club, “not to want the quiet of a room with no one around to find me out” (Yellich-O’Connor and Little 2012a)—not to want silence, solitude, downtime, rest.

Three examples of our newfound suspicion of rest: first, finance, which shows us that rest’s entanglement with utility maximization, with the crude axiomatization of preference ranking, runs deeper than simply a widely felt pressure to be constantly productive. It is finance that offers the most crystalline expression of our ambivalence toward rest, promising its young recruits liberation from the precarity that lies just beneath the scramble to be productive, if only they will first work themselves to death for two years. In one widely reported case last August, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern with Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, was found dead in the shower of his student apartment, having suffered an epileptic fit after working three nights in a row without rest (Day 2013). Five months later, Bank of America issued new guidance to its analysts and associates: take four weekend days off per month (Swarns 2014). The life of a junior analyst, journalist Kevin Roose says, “destroys your ability to think in creative ways” (Klein 2014; Roose 2014).

If finance offers one landmark for appreciating how uneasy we’ve become thinking of rest as a complement to, as opposed to simply the absence of, labor, neuroscience, that other reliable mirror of our shared anxieties, offers another. The key conceptual breakthrough in brain imaging of the past ten years has been the turn to the functional anatomy of the resting state, the oscillating patterns of simultaneous neural activation observed in the brain when research participants are not engaged in the kinds of cognitive tasks we typically associate with brain imaging experiments (watching movies, tracking objects on a screen, etc). Originally the resting state was simply all the activity that had to be zeroed out to see what was distinctive about the patterns of activation specific to different tasks—it was the baseline activation, the nondiagnostic, the noise, the rest. Now it is understood to have significance for attention and executive function. But what exactly the resting state (or, alternately, default mode) is remains unclear. Is it a state of neutral attentiveness, executive control in the absence of any particular saliency cues? Is it the brain activity associated with “doing nothing”? With daydreaming? With the effort not to daydream, to “relax, hold still, focus on the +,” per the instructions to participants that flash on the overhead screen as you lie in the magnet bore? (Andrews-Hanna et al. 2014; Callard and Margulies 2011).

A third instance of our tortured relationship to rest: the growing interest (not least among bankers and brain scientists) in contemplative technique, heightened vigilance without heightened arousal, mindfulness. Consider a recent vignette from the emerging science of contemplative technique:

Recently, a psychologist named Amishi Jha traveled to Hawaii to train United States Marines to use the same technique [as those attributed to Siddhartha Gautama] for shorter sessions to achieve a much different purpose: mental resilience in a war zone.

“We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory — that is, the added ability to pay attention over time — stable,” said Jha, director of the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “If they practiced less than 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded in their functioning.”

Jha, whose program has received a $1.7 million, four-year grant from the Department of Defense, described her results at a bastion of scientific conservatism, the New York Academy of Sciences, during a meeting on “The Science of Mindfulness.” Yet mindfulness hasn’t long been part of serious scientific discourse. She first heard another scientist mention the word “meditation” during a lecture in 2005. “I thought, I can’t believe he just used that word in this audience, because it wasn’t something I had ever heard someone utter in a scientific context,” Jha said. (Hurley 2014)

It is time for a broad-ranging reconsideration of rest—of how we experience it, of how we use it as a medium of social signaling. For that is what rest has become, a medium of social signaling that also has profound material implications for our flourishing as bodies and communities.

Starting in October 2014, the first residency at the Hub at Wellcome Collection will create a space for exactly this sort of exploration of rest, encompassing its physiological and cultural dimensions in a unified program of research. The Hub is a new kind of research space, one that recognizes that the translational potential of biomedical research is best realized through participatory engagement with beneficiaries starting during data collection, that the critical contextualization of science is sterile when it does not assume responsibility for guiding science in practice—and that it is not enough simply to show that science is value-laden. You also need to make space for art, and the unique space of rest it opens up, at the heart of the research process.

With thirty-eight investigators from anthropology, geography, the sociology of science, journalism, literature, music composition, documentary cinema, and cognitive science sharing a single workspace for twenty-two months, and with panels of research participants giving their time, variously, to brain imaging, life history, and activity tracking studies, we are pushing the fusion of critical interpretive and positive analytic approaches to knowledge-making further than any large collaborative research project in the past—and giving other-than-investigator participants, the people who do most of the work of producing data, an unprecedented role in the design of the research process itself.

Naturally this makes for novel complications. Take activity tracking, the youngest method of data generation to be incorporated in to the Hub. We started with what seemed like an obvious question: Where, within the project’s focal geographic catchment (central London), and at what times of day, are people more and less active, more and less restful? Within computational social science, “reality mining” studies have focused on tracking the evolution of preexisting social networks over time and eliciting “eigenbehaviors”—vectors, pairing time-of-day with behavior traits such as location and copresence with other participants in the study, that account for as much of the day-to-day variance in behavior as possible. So maybe “8am at home with partner — 11am at work with coworkers — 7pm elsewhere with friends” would represent a coarse-grained eigenbehavior for “weekday” (e.g., Stopczynski et al. 2014).

Meanwhile, research in nutrition science and exercise physiology has focused on validating wearable accelerometers as proxies for more invasive measures of arousal and activity, allowing researchers, say, to track metabolic rate as participants move through an ordinary day. We were kind of astonished to find practically no literature combining location and activity tracking. What, we asked, if we could create heat maps of rest–activity rhythms in a major urban center, along with geographically coded rest:activity timelines?

Technically, this is relatively straightforward. Methodologically it is otherwise. Since rest and activity are not just physiological but semiotic phenomena, there is no way to introduce pervasive activity tracking into participants’ lives without changing, perhaps substantially, how they manage their rhythms of rest and activity. So activity tracking studies can never be simply descriptive studies—they are also, necessarily, studies of how activity tracking enters into individuals’ rhythms of rest and activity. Participants’ own aspirations get folded into the research process.

The Hub is the first iteration of a new initiative by the Wellcome Trust to change how research into human well-being is carried out. The disciplinary range among the principal investigators is a tribute to its ambition:

Felicity Callard is a geographer and historian of psychiatry and cognitive neuroscience. She is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University and Visiting Researcher at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry. She is currently conducting interdisciplinary research with neuroscientists and psychologists on the ‘resting state’ in cognitive neuroscience (where the brain and mind are not responding to an explicit task). Felicity is Chair of the Board of the Mental Disability Advocacy Center, an international human rights organisation that advances the rights of people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems.

Charles Fernyhough is a psychologist and writer. His recent academic work has focused on how humanities and scientific perspectives can be integrated in the study of human experience. He is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University, where he directs the interdisciplinary Hearing the Voice project (supported by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award). He is active in outreach and public engagement work, with regular contributions to mainstream media. His non-fiction books include The Baby in the Mirror (Granta, 2008) and Pieces of Light (Profile, 2012). He is the author of two novels: The Auctioneer (Fourth Estate, 1999) and A Box of Birds (Unbound, 2013).

Claudia Hammond is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and psychology lecturer. She is the presenter of All in the Mind and Mind Changers on BBC Radio 4 and Health Check on BBC World Service Radio and BBC World News TV, and will continue to broadcast during the residency. She is a columnist for and regularly appears on Impact on BBC World News to discuss research in psychology. Claudia is on the part-time faculty at Boston University’s London base. She is the author of Emotional Rollercoaster: A Journey through the Science of Feelings and Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, published by Canongate.

Daniel Margulies is a neuroscientist with interests in investigating how brain activity at rest can be used to understand its organisation. He leads the Max Planck Research Group for Neuroanatomy and Connectivity at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. His research also addresses challenges in the visualisation of complex network data, and he collaborates with social scientists and historians on questions of the emergence of contemporary controversies in neuroscience. He is co-founder of the Neuro Bureau, an organization dedicated to facilitating collaboration and open sharing of data and software across the neurosciences, arts, and related disciplines.

James Wilkes is a poet, writer and researcher, who has collaborated widely with scientists, artists and musicians to investigate topics such as brain imaging, speech, radio and landscape. His books include Weather A System (Penned in the Margins, 2009), Reviews (Veer, 2009) and A Fractured Landscape of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). His residency as a poet with the Speech Communication Lab at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience resulted in new poems and critical reflections, live and radio conversations between scientists, writers and artists, and a symposium at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. He is currently a Postdoctoral Lecturing Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

Andrews-Hanna, Jessica, Jonathan Smallwood, and R. Nathan Sprenger 2014 The default network and self-generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1316: 29–52.

Berson, Josh 2014 Forced desynchrony. Grain | Vapor | Ray, ed. Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Bernd Scherer, to appear. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Callard, Felicity, and Daniel Margulies 2011 Cognitive architecture: from biopolitics to noopolitics — architecture and mind in the age of communication and information, ed Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich, 324–345. Rotterdam: 010.

Day, Elizabeth 2013 Moritz Erhardt: the tragic death of a City intern. Observer, October 5.

Hurley, Dan 2014 Breathing in vs. spacing out. New York Times, January 14.

Klein, Ezra 2014 How Wall Street recruits so many insecure Ivy League grads. Vox, June 3.

Koselleck, Reinhart 2008 Is there an acceleration of history? High-speed society: social acceleration, power, and modernity, ed. Hartmut Rosa and William Scheuerman, 113–134, trans. James Ingram. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Pang, Alex 2013 Vacations and the Victorians: a kind of natural experiment. Contemplative Computing (blog), October 21.

Roose, Kevin 2014 Young money: inside the hidden world of Wall Street’s post-Crash recruits. New York: Grand Central.

Stopczynski, Arkadiusz, Vedran Sekara, Piotr Sapiezynski, Andrea Cuttone, Mette Madsen, Jakob Larsen, and Sune Lehmann 2014 Measuring large-scale social networks with high resolution.
PLOS ONE 9: e95978.

Swarns, Rachel 2014 Banks urge young analysts to do the unthinkable: take weekends off. New York Times, March 24.

Yelich-O’Connor, Ella [performing as Lorde], and Joel Little 2012a Bravado. The Love Club EP. Self-released on SoundCloud, subsequently re-released by Universal.

— 2012b Million Dollar Bills. The Love Club EP. Self-released on SoundCloud, subsequently re-released by Universal.

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