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Autopilot – Andrew Smart ***

This handy little book explains the importance of regularly taking time to do nothing in particular, to put work and study to one side, switch off, and allow our brains to function on autopilot. By doing this, author Andrew Smart explains, we’ll be smarter, more creative, and improve our mental health.
Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware just how crucial this downtime was for our brains. What we learn is that brain activity actually increases during periods of rest, and whereas in the past it was widely believed that brain activity during rest was just random ‘noise’, modern neuroscience has shown us just how purposeful it is. When we switch off, the brain’s ‘Resting State Network’ (RSN) comes into action, and our brains begin the process of organising information and making connections between disparate pieces of knowledge. RSN activity improves our memory, and the connections it creates make us more creative.
Whilst the science is interesting and explained well, my only problem with the book was when it moves on to discuss the negative impact of modern workplaces on the brain and the need for us to drastically change economic life. The argument is that ever-increasing ‘busyness’ at work and in our daily lives, and endless productivity fads, are preventing our brains from getting the rest we need and bad for us as human beings – the book argues we need to dramatically slow down. Whilst I actually don’t disagree with much of what the author says, I just found that these sections became overly polemical, and the tone a little too depressing (the last chapter of the book is entitled ‘Work is destroying the planet’). Personally, I would have preferred more of the science, with less time spent on the political arguments.
Overall, though, this remains well worth a read as an insight into how surprisingly active our brains are whilst we rest and how important the RSN is. Regardless of any wider changes to the workplace and society, it provides a useful reminder that, individually, we should always make time for doing very little.

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Review by Matt Chorley

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