For several weeks, I've been following instructions given to me by a nice man called Michael Breen. He has the calmest, most soothing voice I've ever heard. It's hard to imagine him getting anxious or edgy about anything; even if he found himself in an out-of-control jetliner hurtling towards the ground at 500mph, I don't think he'd panic. I think he'd turn to the passenger next to him and say, "Just relax every muscle in your body and let yourself drift, with comfort, into a state of complete ease." Then he'd reach for the in-flight magazine and leaf through it, pausing to read any article of interest.
Breen is one of the leading British lights of Neurolinguistic Programming, the controversial personal-development system that is sometimes accused of teaching followers evil subliminal techniques for manipulating other people into doing what you want them to do. I'd love to learn some evil subliminal techniques for manipulating others, but I encountered Breen in a different context: as the voice of Pzizz, a piece of software that I didn't at first believe when it promised to revolutionise the way I nap.
Mainly this is because I don't nap. Most British people don't, statistics suggest. Perhaps we see daytime sleeping as the prerogative of southern Europeans, the siesta being just another questionable phenomenon from the region of wine-drinking seven-year-olds. Proponents of napping - including Matthew Ashenden, the former Royal Marine who founded Pzizz - like to point out that Churchill did it, but self-help experts always rope in Churchill with scant regard for the difference between causation and correlation: you could just as easily argue that he defeated fascism because he smoked cigars.
Still, I began using Pzizz, sneaking off to nap in the middle of the workday, because it held out the hope of eliminating the mid-afternoon energy crash. Pzizz generates soundtracks for your naps, which you can play on your computer or iPod. All feature Breen's hypnotic voice, floating amid new age synths and the sounds of waves, but the software jumbles hundreds of sound elements so that a different nap is generated every time. The familiar voice lulls you into a state of relaxation, the theory goes, and the rest of the soundtrack stimulates your subconcious, and re-energises you, precisely because it's new and different, so that even if you sleep, your brain won't shut off. (Try a demo at pzizz.com)
This sounds plausible - and, as you can imagine, as a humanities graduate I know a thing or two about advanced neuroscience. On the other hand, it may be rubbish, so I will say only this: the first time I used a 20-minute Pzizz nap, I fell asleep, something I can never otherwise manage. On subsequent uses, though I didn't always lose consciousness, I did feel great. Maybe napping would have done this on its own. But engaging fruitfully with the field of self-help requires a certain loosening of one's scepticism. Of course, I'm relying on my computerised version of Breen not to tell me to rob jewellery stores or kill people, since I imagine he'd say it so calmly I'd probably just comply.