Neo bookshelf – Sane New World by Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax’s Sane New World – a self-styled user’s guide to the mind – has been doing the rounds in the Neo office recently. It seems strange that a self-help [*shudders*] book so ostensibly about mental health would be openly passed around amongst colleagues but it’s testament perhaps to the wider societal change in our understanding of and attitude towards mental health that it has been.

Wax’s book – and the comedienne herself – makes an important contribution to the conversation about mental health. She brings not just her acerbic tongue but a Masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University. The result is a snortingly funny read that packs in the science about limbic brains and neurotransmitters with a generous dose of biting humour – a spoonful of acid certainly helps the cognitive science go down. Her accounts of her own dark nights of the soul, including an obsessive hunt for a particular type of striped cushion cover during one depressive episode, are both desperately funny and desperately sad. Depression is an illness that doesn’t discriminate against who it affects and the curious ways in which it can manifest itself.

If you’re already au fait with the basics of neurophysiology and mindfulness – Wax is a huge advocate of the benefits of this modern take on meditation –  this book perhaps won’t give you anything new. But as an introduction to the mind, what happens when it goes awry and what we can do to rein it back in, it’s excellent.

Your dinner party digest….

1)We don’t ‘see’ with our eyes, but with a part of the brain called the visual cortex. Our eyes merely pass information to the visual cortex, which then filters stuff out and adds stuff in based on experiences so far to date. What we see, then, is not reality but Reality the Movie – our edited, biased, director’s cut of the world.

2)Thought patterns are exactly that – synaptic tracks left in our brain from years of repeated ways of doing or thinking. But just as we can make tracks we can change them. A deliberate, concerted effort to think differently – the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – physically changes our brains. It’s this neuroplasticity that means we can actually teach an old dog (human)new tricks.

3)Human brains are so complex we’re one of the only animals that have to be born before our brains are fully formed – we would need a gestation period of 24 months to achieve that, which would be physically impossible or at least a bit uncomfortable.  This is why most newborn animals can get up and walk moments after birth while we just lie there mewing and looking a bit angry in photos.