Is your brain hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing pace with mod­ern life? Then stop treat­ing it like a ma­chine, says writer and comedian Ruby Wax

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - EDITOR'S LETTER - Edi­tor LINDA MA­HER Fash­ion edi­tor GRACE CAHILL Chief de­signer COLM COR­RI­GAN YOU is pub­lished by DMG Me­dia Ire­land Group edi­tor SE­BAS­TIAN HAMIL­TON Man­ag­ing direc­tor PAUL HEN­DER­SON YOU, Third Floor, Em­bassy House, Her­bert Park Lane, Balls­bridge, Dublin 4, s

on what to do when your brain is strug­gling to keep up with the pace of mod­ern life.

Iwas taught in school that as we evolve as a species we im­prove the whole time, each gen­er­a­tion de­vel­op­ing more ad­vanced fea­tures. I’ve found out this is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion. Evo­lu­tion doesn’t mean the species gets bet­ter, as in hap­pier; it just means we be­come bet­ter adapted to the en­vi­ron­ment, some­times at great cost. What works for us as far as sur­vival is con­cerned might also work against us. One ex­am­ple is walk­ing on all twos – great for hik­ing, but the down­side is we get back­ache. Had we re­mained in a crawl po­si­tion chi­ro­prac­tors would be out of busi­ness. An­other ex­am­ple is that women now have great dif­fi­culty giv­ing birth. (Oh, re­ally? I hadn’t no­ticed…) On all fours it was eas­ier to de­liver a baby but stand­ing up (be­cause our pelvis is too nar­row) means push­ing out a baby is more painful than pass­ing a beach ball.


Peo­ple now may be liv­ing longer than they did be­fore, but it’s not clear that peo­ple are liv­ing bet­ter. In the past, we lived for time off. Now, we live to get things done faster and more ef­fi­ciently. A few decades ago, we’d me­an­der over to an an­swer­ing or fax ma­chine and re­spond to the mes­sages in our own time, or not at all if we didn’t feel like it. Now, if you don’t re­ply to an email within four sec­onds of it ar­riv­ing, peo­ple think you’ve dropped them and will delete you from their con­tacts. This yanks our prim­i­tive fear-chain of be­ing dumped and made tri­be­less.

With money, you could spend only what you had in the bank; now, credit cards have flung the spend­ing flood­gates open wide. We used to shop un­til the stores shut, but these days they never close and, if they do, you can go on­line. You don’t

even have to leave home, you can shop in bed. Back in our pre­his­toric past, af­ter a hard day’s killing and root­ing around, we’d re­tire to the fire. This habit of sit­ting around the fire con­tin­ued un­til re­cently and was only re­placed in the 1950s, when we started watch­ing TV. You would still be to­gether, but talk­ing and re­flect­ing were out of the equa­tion. To­day, we’re not even sit­ting on the same sofa or star­ing at the same square of glass – we’re lost in our own pri­vate screens, un­aware that there’s even a fire to sit around.

We shouldn’t be too hard on our­selves be­cause, on an evo­lu­tion­ary timescale, we’re still in our in­fancy. Homo sapi­ens are still a work in progress and not as cut­ting edge as we like to think. We share 98% of our DNA with apes, and about 90% with mice. And it gets worse: we share 30% of our DNA with yeast. I heard that there’s a T-shirt with the slo­gan, ‘You share 25% of your DNA with ba­nanas. Get over your­self.’

We give our­selves such a hard time for things that are out of our con­trol. For me, this news was a rev­e­la­tion; the fact that I am not at fault but merely a player in the DNA legacy has done won­ders in help­ing me stop be­ing so self-crit­i­cal.

My ad­dic­tive drive to achieve, whether it’s get­ting some­one to like me at a party (who I’ll prob­a­bly never see again) to say­ing, ‘Of course, I can write a book in three months’ (and end­ing up in­sti­tu­tion­alised from the pres­sure). I now know that this drive isn’t some­thing I’m do­ing on pur­pose to tor­ture my­self; it’s the hu­man con­di­tion. It’s some­thing that’s been passed down by our Pa­le­olithic fore­bears for sur­vival’s sake – to keep us striv­ing for en­deav­ours and re­wards. Hur­rah! I don’t need to be ab­solved by shrinks, priests or rab­bis; hu­man his­tory is the cul­prit.


We think that our thoughts are who we are. In ac­tu­al­ity what you are is much big­ger than what you are think­ing. Thoughts make up only about 1% of what’s go­ing on in­side your brain. The other 99% of the men­tal ca­boo­dle – you haven’t got the band­width to ever know. Your brain is too busy to bother with thoughts be­cause it’s hav­ing to sort out 11 mil­lion bits of in­for­ma­tion per sec­ond. There are a few things we’re aware of: for ex­am­ple, we know when we have to go to the bath­room. I would say that’s not in­cred­i­bly earth-shat­ter­ing; squir­rels can do that.

So, our in­ter­nal thoughts are a small part of who we are but why are most of those thoughts so neg­a­tive? About four out of five thoughts will be fairly crit­i­cal, giv­ing us hideous in­ter­nal reviews. Much of our lan­guage is built around warn­ing us of dan­gers (which in the past re­ally ex­isted) and these mes­sages be­came in­ter­nalised. So, what started off as some­thing help­ful like, ‘Oh my God, I’m go­ing to be caught in an­other ice age with­out gloves,’ has be­come, ‘Oh my God, I’m go­ing to lose my job/girl­friend/looks/money/ ➤


life’. Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Rick Han­son says, ‘The brain is Vel­cro for neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences and Te­flon for pos­i­tive ones.’ I don’t know about you, but for me, the re­al­i­sa­tion that neg­a­tive thoughts are just an­other by-prod­uct of our evo­lu­tion­ary sur­vival kit makes me jump with joy that I’m not alone.

When I was in my 20s, I got into the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and felt that out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing stab of joy in my heart. I told every­one I had got in, although many didn’t be­lieve me: I was a ter­ri­ble ac­tress. For the RSC au­di­tion, I did one of the great au­di­tions of all time, pre­sent­ing a mono­logue from Antigone with full saliva-spit­ting and deep, sob­bing verve. Maybe the peo­ple au­di­tion­ing me thought that this was nor­mal be­hav­iour for the Greeks. I saw Trevor Nunn (at the time the artis­tic direc­tor of the RSC) out of the cor­ner of my eye. He had been eat­ing an ice-cream cone when I be­gan and, when I’d fin­ished, his tongue was still out but the ice cream was down his front. Any­way, I got in and was of­fered the role of a wench in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I was ec­static.

I re­mem­ber the feel­ing, but what I re­mem­ber even more was be­ing on stage with re­mark­able ac­tors such as Alan Rick­man, Zoë Wana­maker, Jonathan Pryce, Richard Grif­fiths and oth­ers who be­came fa­mous.

All of them could do English ac­cents, mainly be­cause they were English. Mine was very Dick Van Dyke, and I re­call the looks I got from my fel­low ac­tors when I de­liv­ered my lines; they ac­tu­ally winced. I even had a rolled-up note thrown at me dur­ing my per­for­mance from one of them that read, ‘You can’t act. Get an­other job’. To this day, the mem­ory of that rolled-up note is much more poignant than the let­ter of­fer­ing me a place and con­grat­u­lat­ing me on hav­ing got into the RSC.

Suc­cess should be mea­sured not by our cog­ni­tive ac­com­plish­ments but by the level of our emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. That’s what gives us the abil­ity to be aware, to self-reg­u­late, to con­trol our im­pulses and em­pathise with oth­ers. This abil­ity in­volves de­vel­op­ing a stronger pre­frontal cor­tex, which, for­tu­nately, you can grow like a house­plant with mind­ful­ness. It can even help us be bet­ter par­ents be­cause if you are not aware of your think­ing, feel­ing and be­hav­ing habits, you’ll pass your crap on to your child. One of my daugh­ters is an ac­tress. Each time she comes back from an au­di­tion, a pa­thetic fee­ble voice squeaks out of me: ‘Did they like you? Did they laugh? Did you feel like you did enough?’ This is said as one long des­per­ate sen­tence. My daugh­ter, mean­while, had a good time and thinks if she’s not right for a part, so be it. I am 100 years older than her and have not got this into my head. Each time my daugh­ter au­di­tions, I feel the spear of agony pierce my heart from the mem­ory of my name not be­ing called when I au­di­tioned for The Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art.

Now, be­cause of mind­ful­ness, I’ve learnt to (some­times) hold my tongue and even re­move my­self from the premises when she comes home be­cause I still can’t stop my face look­ing puck­ered and des­per­ate. I can’t get it into my head that with all that re­jec­tion, I still did all right – more than all right. But we mostly re­mem­ber the neg­a­tive things be­cause the lance is much sharper when it’s cruel than when it’s a nice lance.


Be­cause most of us are un­aware of who or what we are, we don’t know why we do the things we do. We re­act to things that are buried deep in our mem­o­ries – events we can’t even re­mem­ber and yet they still drive our ac­tions.

A while ago, while brows­ing in Sel­fridges, I was sud­denly caught in a full-frontal panic at­tack and had to flee from the shop and hy­per­ven­ti­late into a bag. On re­flec­tion, I re­mem­bered that when I was a child I was bit­ten by a dal­ma­tian and that’s why I got hys­ter­i­cal: I was try­ing on spotty leg­gings. Aha, I thought, I’ve fig­ured out my fear, so I went back into the shop and shouted, ‘Wrap up those dal­ma­tian pants. I’m not afraid any more.’

When you get a scary vibe like this, it means you’re pumped to the max, ready to scratch some­one’s eyes out or scram. If you stay in that state the first thing to go down will be your mem­ory, then your im­mune, di­ges­tive and re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems. If we can’t think straight or be ra­tio­nal we feel threat­ened, even if there is noth­ing nearby that can harm us. We start to blame other peo­ple for our up­set­ting emo­tions and our think­ing be­comes nar­row and rigid. I hope that, in the near fu­ture, there might be a but­ton on the com­puter that takes you off­line and makes all the de­ci­sions for you, such as de­cid­ing which events, par­ties and meet­ings you re­ally need to go to; which friends are worth see­ing and which are drain­ing you; and tells you hon­estly what your ‘look’ should be, tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion your age, weight and per­son­al­ity.

This means you’ll have time to have a life and de­clut­ter your brain. You can take it easy and it will do all the work.

That’s what I’m look­ing for­ward to. Oth­er­wise, we’ll con­tinue to be slaves to the digital age. But even if nearly ev­ery part of life be­comes ro­botic, we’ll still have our minds, which, hopefully, we’ll be able to con­sciously up­grade, mak­ing us more hu­man and less ma­chine.

You only need a mind to prac­tise mind­ful­ness skills, which are a way of ex­er­cis­ing your abil­ity to pay at­ten­tion: when you can bring fo­cus to some­thing, the crit­i­cal thoughts qui­eten down.

As far as sci­en­tific re­search goes, mind­ful­ness is the It-girl giv­ing us the abil­ity to be­come ‘more hu­man’ by help­ing us lower our stress, in­crease the abil­ity to pay at­ten­tion and be­come more present.

I prac­tise mind­ful­ness al­most ev­ery day and, to be hon­est, I come up with ev­ery ex­cuse in the world not to do it. But be­cause of mind­ful­ness I’m hap­pier, calmer (ex­cept when I’m handed a park­ing ticket; then I’ll go for the jugu­lar), more able to fo­cus my mind – and this is a big bonus – I can sense a de­pres­sion com­ing be­fore it hits. This doesn’t mean I dodge it but that I’m ready for it. When I sense the tiny far-off foot­steps of de­spair, I bat­ten down the hatches, swiftly un­plug from the out­side world, both on­screen and in per­son, which al­lows me to cold-turkey my ad­dic­tions to email­ing, need­ing to be liked by every­one and wor­ry­ing about what’s go­ing to nix me next – Trump or too much salt?

Mind­ful­ness isn’t for every­one but it has helped me cope with ‘the whips and ar­rows of out­ra­geous for­tunes’ [sic], from anx­i­ety to de­pres­sion. It isn’t a spa treat­ment, like bathing in a warm, sa­cred urn of Nepalese yak oil, it’s hard­core – an Iron­man triathlon for the brain. It takes stamina and com­mit­ment to strengthen those brain mus­cles to help you rope in that wild mind; oth­er­wise it will run you ragged. But with con­sis­tent prac­tise, for even a few min­utes a day, you can turn that neg­a­tive Vel­cro into pos­i­tive Te­flon.

This is an edited ex­tract from How To Be Hu­man: The Man­ual by Ruby Wax with a Neu­ro­sci­en­tist & a Monk, which will be pub­lished by Pen­guin Life on Jan­uary 25, price €14.99.


Ted Baker. RING, James Ganh


Ruby on the panel of ITV’s Loose Women last year, and speak­ing at a fes­ti­val in 2016

Ruby with hus­band Ed Bye

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.