Ruby Wax (Kellogg, 2012) is not, as she repeatedly points out, your typical Oxonian. She’s a brash comedienne whose style is smart, shot from the hip, and, as we now know, courageous. Suffering from depression for years, she only gradually came to terms with it as an adult. A Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy at Oxford, from which she graduated earlier this year, has also resulted in this book.
Wait a minute, you murmur: Ruby Wax, Oxford, neuroscience, books? In fairness, this text reads a bit like Wax performs: fast, spontaneous, anecdotal, off-the-cuff, opinionated. It is not, in fact, her natural platform of communication. For that – and as a foretaste of the book – go and watch her 8 minute TED talk.
The book’s greatest strength is that it kindles starburst enthusiasm for some of the most amazing findings of recent neuroscience. Amazing, for Wax, does not just mean academic discovery but self-transformation. It can cure or ameliorate clinical depression when applied as mindfulness – the ‘one in four’ of us who have suffered from depression, as she puts it. It can keep the ‘four in four of us’ connected to a sort of sanity that the twenty-first century threatens to rip to shreds, or the habit of e-mailing ‘til death us do part,’ as Wax puts it.
Less immediately obvious in this longer treatment, compared to the TED talk, are the implications of Wax’s critique of our era, which are occasionally overshadowed by her painfully honest — and plain painful — autobiography. First, Wax makes a very well-timed, fundamental point: that physical ailments get sympathy in society, but mental ones are stigmatized. The roots of this are ancient, and based on ignorance. This may change now that we know why and where the brain is malfunctioning, thanks to advances in neuroscience. It certainly needs to change.
Elsewhere, she mounts a continuous attack on the human consequences of technology – Twitter, Facebook, email and the rest. In the book this implicit critique is cast widely, as general combination of a misalignment of the primitive, survival bits of our brains with the abundance of modern civilization and capitalism. In other words, enough is never enough: we are poisoned by consumption, of which social media is a novel component. How many followers do I have today? More is good; fewer is bad; self-worth rises or falls accordingly. These are false gods indeed.
There’s an amusing ‘Hierarchy of Western Wants (According to Me)’ that Wax produces on page 20. Line one reads: ‘Food and/or water.’ Line two: ‘Mattress.’ Line three: ‘Roof’. Line thirteen: ‘Private jet with Jacuzzi.’
Some of these asides are more suggestive than Wax realizes. A celebrated history of western thought, produced by a famous American historian called Franklin le van Baumer, organised the past thus: 18th Century/The Enlightenment; 19th Century/The Age of Becoming; 20th Century/The Age of Anxiety. Wax is one voice among several, notwithstanding the financial crisis, that wants to characterize the western twenty-first century as the Age of Abundance, with all the problems attendant on that state.
Mindfulness, which is suddenly ragingly fashionable, and recently constituted the cover story of Oxford Today (Trinity, 2012), will be looked back on by cultural historians as one way that a particular section of society tried to close the over-stimulated, over-abundance loop by returning to a notion of Being (as opposed to ‘Becoming’) more often associated in the history of western thought with the Medieval period. The difference this time around is that Being is shorn of any God, irrespective of tradition or culture — instead informed by brain scans. Indeed, Wax is very clear about her aversion to meditation, fat Buddhas and joss sticks, never mind Judeo-Christian accounts of God.
All told, some of the humour misses its mark and not all of it works in print. But — without wanting to spoil too many surprises — amidst the chatter there are some jewels:
- “Taking an anti-depressant is like burning down the whole forest because one tree is diseased.” (p. 60)
- “Some day we will laugh our heads off when we remember that a doctor didn’t look inside your brain before he wrote you out a prescription.” (p. 81)
She manages to weave a story which allows her to criticise Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (preferring instead Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), explain her thoughts on physical exercise (not, apparently, her forte) and even muse on the spirit of the Blitz (one of the traits of her British in-laws).
In a strange way, then, we end up with an unforced nostalgia for a simpler past, which has received its recent hearing in those — by now tired — mugs and posters reproducing the Ministry of Defence propaganda of World War Two: Keep Calm and Carry On.
This book is definitely worth a shot. In fact, the best strategy might be to read it alongside Mark Williams’, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Williams is a professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford and a leading light in this field. Afterall, Oxford has become a world centre of mindfulness — and its academics now even have a dedicated centre.