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Surprising Science

How Ruby Wax Took the Academic Approach to Combating Depression

During a recent bout with depression, comedian Ruby Wax took time off from her career to pursue a Master's degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University.

Author and comedian Ruby Wax is highlighted in today’s featured Big Think interview. The entertaining mental health advocate talks topics such as neuroplasticity, her own bout with depression, and the ways in which you can employ humor to soften the blows of mental illness:

Near the outset of her interview, Wax discusses her 2010 stand-up special Losing It, which she took to mental institutions in order to help spark conversation about mental illness. Losing It later went on the road to theaters where Wax was blown away by the audience response. After-show talkbacks often consisted of tell-all confessions from audience members who had never publicly discussed their depression. Wax’s tour eventually evolved into a therapy campaign as she invited doctors and experts to come in and help walk-ins off the street. The reason Wax was able to pull this off is, in her own words, because she is “part of the tribe.” Ruby Wax is no stranger to depression.

“Let me just say people think that depression is about having a bad hair day or your cat left town. It isn’t sad. Nothing to do with sadness. It’s like your old personality slowly leaves town and you’re left with a block of cement which is you. I mean it’s like being in hibernation but you can’t wake up… you get these abusive voices like – but not one voice but a hundred thousand voices. Like if the devil had Tourette’s that’s what it would sound like. So I was sick. I never told anybody. I got a few phone calls from a few friends saying perk up. Yeah, perk up because I never thought of that.

Wax went through a particularly rough bout several years ago that led her to pursue an academic solution. She explains in the interview that depression is a sickness of the brain. When your lungs, liver, kidneys, etc. get sick, people express sympathy. When you brain gets sick, they tell you to perk up. Wax knew that there had to be a better way to fight the illness. The holder of a B.A. in Psychology from Berkeley, she knew that knowledge would be her solution:

“So I thought let’s learn about the brain. So I gave up my career. Kissed that one bye bye and decided I would do research as to how this baby works because we know so much about technology but we know nothing about the mind. You know, it’s running us. We’re not running it.”

Wax enrolled in a Master’s program at Oxford University to study mindfulness based cognitive therapy. She graduated with “the bat wings and the Hogwarts hat” in September 2013. She cites her study of neuroplasticity as a major positive impact on her life. Just as she had surmised, the key to combating depression is in studying to modify your brain:

“Basically we used to think we were at the mercy of our genes but, you know, like how you come into the world is how you go out. And look, the length of your leg and the color of your eyes, those you inherit, there’s no question… But the genes that develop your brain, they keep changing because they’re dependent on experience. So it’s like they hand you a blueprint and a deck of cards but how you play them is up to you.”

You are the architect of your own brain, says Wax. You have the ability to rewire yourself just by changing the way you think, by practicing mindfulness. And she would know. She’s got the Hogwarts hat to prove it.

Check out her new book, Sane New World, for more of Wax’s comedic approach to therapy.


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