Book Review: Sane New World: Taming the Mind, Ruby Wax, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

I remember Ruby Wax from her TV interviews in the 1990s with various celebrities. The Madonna interview was like watching a ship go down. The one with Pamela Anderson doing pelvic floor exercises in her Baywatch swimsuit was not much better. Ruby Wax is a bit like Marmite, you either love her or hate her. I find her funny, but she has a habit of what I would call “over acting” and this book is not really that different in style.

There are outrageous, not entirely politically correct, aspects to the book which I suspect could offend but I found oddly refreshing. I am not sure if this makes the book feel dated or if society has just moved on at pace and suddenly everyone is more conscious of doing and saying the inappropriate thing, and not wanting to be seen to be behaving in a way that could create controversy. I enjoyed the neuroscientific explanation of diversity, and while the idea that we are all racists and bigots because of how our brains associate characteristics is disturbing, it is probably a more realistic way of accepting that we are partly a product of our experiences.

I like Ruby’s ability to own her ugly, or as she would describe it, bringing her darkness out into the light. We live in an age where everyone strives to present their most perfect face to the world but very few people consider how to be their best self. I know that for me, I struggle with my thoughts about judgement, what other people think of me. The reality is I don’t worry about it enough to stop being open and honest about where I am in any given moment, and what thoughts and feelings I am experiencing. Perhaps judgement says more about the person judging, than the person being judged. I like that Ruby acknowledges she can come across as harsh, while pointing out she becomes more evolved later.

I enjoyed the anecdotes a lot but some of the other writing felt over explained, or “padded” with some of the neuroscientific points laboured. This could be because she was trying to ensure a broad audience understood the theory behind her work, but I felt she went too far with the exposition and could have been more concise. I found my mind wandering at points, but Ruby called the reader out on that, cannily providing for that possibility in her book.

I find mindfulness a practical way of managing anxiety and more useful in my view than Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is useful for unpicking negative thoughts and behaviours but doesn’t help a person understand why those thoughts and behaviours exist in the first place. The techniques described in the latter part of the book are useful reminders of what to try when an unhelpful pattern needs to be broken to allow healing to take place, or someone who is stuck to move forward.

The parts of the book where Ruby chronicles her journey to study Psychotherapy are interesting, particularly when she discusses the people on the course and her supervision. It gives a lot of insight into what it feels like to be in that group setting, with the dynamics involved, and the intricacies and complexities of that. I liked the honesty when Ruby details why she was unable to continue after her 200 hours of practicing to do the full 400, and that being ok. It is what it is.

I found the exploration of the different lobes and cortexes of the brain more useful than the history and theory of neuroscience itself. I liked the explanation of how babies are born “undercooked” and finished off in the external world. The parts of the book that focused on neurotransmitters were interesting but not particularly revolutionary. I think that most people now understand that curing depression is not as simple as giving people a dose of serotonin, and that doing that, can be very dangerous. I liked the exploration of memory, and that it sits in multiple parts of the brain.

One of my favourite parts of the book, and in some ways, it was comforting, was the acknowledgement that the brain is drawn to bad news. The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive information. It is a way of self-preservation because this information is stored in an easily accessible place to be recalled when needed. It is a simple point to make but so easy to lose sight of when trying to tackle the way we, as humans, react to some of our experiences.

A key strength of the book for me comes in the way it signposts into many different areas that can then be explored in more depth, should the interest be there. For example, I really enjoyed Ruby’s brief exploration of key figures/theories, such as Freud, and I felt this could have been a bit longer. It was very dumbed down, which was a shame as the descriptions were sufficiently entertaining that they could easily have stood to be a little longer. The histories of techniques, such as mindfulness, are brief but detailed enough to make the book an accessible reference point for further reading.

I am undecided on how I see the book fitting in with Counselling. When you consider that the point of mindfulness is not to empty the mind but to notice what is happening, I wonder if there is an element of reducing the power of any intrusive thought patterns or feelings by effectively demystifying them. I see it as neutralising problematic thinking by noting what is happening, accepting it, and moving on but that would not necessarily work for everybody. I always felt that Counselling would enable the individual to sit with those feelings for longer, in a less cerebral way. They both have their place and their benefits, but I wonder if mindfulness helps to manage only the effect, while Counselling explores both the cause and the effect.

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