Inside The Mind of Ruby Wax
A unique show about a topic which affects us all in some way. Here is my take on Ruby Wax's stage version of her book Sane New World, about the workings of a brilliant machine (our brain) It's on until mid February 2016 at Arts Theatre London.
I've got three words for you after seeing Ruby Wax's stand up show about mental health - Insightful, empowering and inspiring.
As a prolific campaigner for mental health issues, (receiving an OBE for it no less) it is clear that this comedienne is anything but shy or ashamed when it comes to talking about the subject. In fact she has been shouting about it from the rooftops or indeed numerous venues across the land for a few years now. What makes what Ruby Wax has to say worth listening to, is the way she uses her own very personal struggle with depression and anxiety. Despite the very tongue in cheek take on how the illness affects her day to day life the frustration is still clear to see - which will be a comfort to many fellow sufferers. She peppers the show with anecdotes from her life, which she has a treasure trove of. The one woman show that she has tirelessly been taking around the country is based on her book of the same title: Sane New World.
Personally the show spoke to me on many levels and I am pretty sure there is something in it for everyone. It is basically a whistle stop tour of the workings of the human mind, backed by Ruby Wax’s commendable quest for knowledge which she gained by studying a postgraduate course in Neuroscience at UCL and another one in Cognitive based Mindfulness from Oxford University. If you read the book, which I was compelled to do after an hour and a half of her waxing lyrical about mental health just wasn’t enough, then you’ll find out she even completed 200 hours of work as a therapist before realising despite her best efforts, she wasn’t cut out for it. Good on her for trying, and in many ways it was probably for the best as her message is now going out to so many more people.
The fact that one in four people will suffer from mental health issues is one of the reasons why she believes people need to be educated about it. In fact she is calling for mental health to be treated the same way physical health is.
I think her show or her book is a great way to start for those who have either no experience of it or have friends and family members who are suffering from it. Further still, those who have a lived experience would do well understanding the science behind mental illness. And thank fully for us this complex and emotive subject about “grey matter” is made highly entertaining through what Ruby Wax does best, dry and coarse comedy.
Throughout the show she asks many questions, which she attempts to answer through her own experiences, observations and of course, science.
One question which will strike a chord with many today is why are we so busy? She says, “It’s like there’s a competition for busy. I've devoted my life to answering emails and I'm so devoted, I even respond to spam.” She admits she is also extremely good at keeping busy, one point in her career she would say YES to almost everything, including a radio advert in which she was the voice of constipation!
She believes this busyness of life is connected to the busy thoughts in our head, mostly negative and critical ones. But why can’t the thoughts be more complimentary she complains, why can’t they be more like “why am I so attractive?” The answer according to her is an accumulation of upbringing, past experiences plus modern living. We are constantly in a sense of heightened threat (a hangover from our days in the cave) and more recently due to the bombardment of bad news from all directions, including social media, which creates a sense of social anxiety to add to all the other pressures of life.
Ruby Wax has a real concern, that humans will soon evolve into computers, with silicon chips for skin and an apple instead of a heart!
From the show it is obvious that Ruby Wax believes knowing about neuroscience is very important and a must if we want to take back control of our own lives. During the show she breaks it down into neurons and how billions of these tiny specialised cells communicate with each other, relaying messages via electrical impulses and chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
She says, “all information processed by the brain is nothing more than electricity passing from neuron to neuron.”
The intention of this I suspect is to suggest that what goes on in our brains is a basic scientific process. But at the same time she also says the driving process for many of our actions is our thoughts.
She touches on the crucial role hormones play in the story of mental health here, as she delves into the various hormones which regulate our body.
She gives us a rundown of her favourites like serotonin - also known as the happy drug - which is given to those diagnosed with depression in the form of SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). And according to the NHS choices website, it is thought that SSRIs work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, having a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep.
Although as a disclaimer she does admit that her explanation about the function and effects of hormones on our body is a simplified one. Which ties in well with the fact that these drugs aren’t always a complete cure, and have their associated side effects on other parts of the mind and body.
As for Ruby Wax, she admits dopamine is her favourite of all the hormones, rather sarcastically I assume. She blames it for “motivating us to seek rewards,” making us strive to be the best, by buying the best, all the while aiming higher and higher. Unfortunately she says this leaves us feeling anything but high in the long run. The control lies in what how we respond to the thoughts which occur in our conscious mind, which might be produced by an external stimulus like a picture on Facebook for example, or a disagreement with a colleague, friend or family member. It is with this awareness we can undo or indeed reinforce particular thoughts and therefore actions, because it is the frequency of these actions which contribute to us forming habits, beliefs and ultimately our way of being.
She very much questions and denounces the idea of hardwiring, while championing a term which she along with other scientists believe moves the story along, and that idea is neuroplasticity.
During the show she takes the opportunity to inspire the audience to challenge their hardwiring by doing new things and appreciating novelty. For example walking a different way you are used to, changing friends or indeed making new ones, all with the aim of building and intensifying neuron connections and in turn changing perspectives and transforming experiences.
However with all the 100 billion neurons which make up our nervous system it is pretty clear we can't change everything or even be aware of all that is going on in our grey matter, but being aware of our most defining thoughts, actions and reactions can be a good place to start. And this is where her study of the two thousand year old ancient Buddhist practice which has well and truly entered the western psyche enters the picture.
Along with neuroplasticity Ruby Wax believes this ability to be self-aware and have the ability to self-regulate is very critical. She says "… we have reached a point in our development as a species where we can choose how our brains react to events so we're not held entirely captive by our old habits and biases, programming and mental bind spots." Although she touches on Mindfulness and meditation during the show, one-third of the book focusses on this practise and how it can be incorporated into daily life and become a way just being.
The show is a great advert for the book, which is one of the most entertaining pieces of science I have read in a long while. The stuff she reveals about the brain is truly mind-boggling and because it's interspersed with her fantastic and cutting wit it helps to cement the point she is trying to make.
The show is just an introduction but it should inspire you to want to find out more about this complex computer we carry with us.
I truly believe, and so does she, that being aware of how the brain functions we can make better use of it. Because unfortunately despite its complex engineering the part designed for us to survive in times where we had to constantly look out for danger is still very much alive. And while that immediate danger might not be present today, the antagonistic boss or colleague may just be round the corner.
The message I took away from this comedienne during the show and from, is that despite all the infinite amount of research and studies which have been done about the brain and the mind, we still don’t really know that much about the subject. However what we do know is that things aren’t always as they seem, the thoughts which swim in our heads aren’t always true and there are far too many perspectives to confidently say one person is right or the other wrong. So why sit and spend time “ruminating, regurgitating and worrying”, when there is an alternative.