Author Ruby Wax on neuroplasticity: "You're the architect of your own brain"
Ruby Wax gave up a career in comedy to study the brain. In this video, she explains the therapeutic qualities of neuroplasticity.
Ruby Wax is an American born, naturalized British comedian and author. She is a classically trained actress, well-known interviewer, and renowned mental health advocate. In battling her own depression, Wax put her career on hold to research the workings of the mind. She earned a master's degree in mindfulness based cognitive therapy from Oxford University in 2013 and has since authored a book, Sane New World.
Ruby Wax: About eight years ago in the U.K. I was outed by a mental health charity because they asked me if they could take a photo of me to raise money in one of their little, you know, pamphlets. And I said yeah and I thought it was going to be a tiny fingernail clipping of a picture but they were huge posters all over the U.K. – gigantic. And I looked like a Lithuanian peasant and it said on it – I don’t know who wrote this – one in four people have mental illness, one if five people have dandruff. I have both. I mean, you know, mortified. So I thought you know what I’m going to do. I’m going to write a show and I’m going to make that look like it’s my publicity poster.
So I did write a show and I did it in mental institutions for the first two years. And I think they liked it. Well I couldn’t tell because they weren’t always facing me. And then I made a joke. I said the bipolars used to say I laughed, I cry. And really if you can make a psychotic laugh you’re halfway to Broadway. What happened was then we would have – I would do my show. Then we’d have a little bit of a lunch break and we used to steal food from the anorexics because they didn’t mind. And then we’d come back. We’d have a discussion, fabulous discussions – I won’t even go into their questions.
Oh, P.S., I wasn’t talking down to them because they knew I was of the tribe, okay. So you know how people go, “How’d you do that?” I was one of them. So then the show took off and I did it in all theaters. In Australia, in Capetown, in London. Everywhere I did the show and the audience would ask me the same questions and it became a kind of – even for a thousand people one guy would stand up and he’d say, you know a real butch guy – I’ve been on antidepressants for 20 years. I’ve never told my wife and she was sitting next to him. And it was like the Muppets in there like people would be beside themselves, you know, where do I go? How do I get help? And sometimes it was heavy, you know. One woman said I have cancer and depression and I said, “Well, which is worse?” And she said well with the cancer all I wanted to do was live and with the depression I just wanted to die. Other people were quite funny. So this became a walk in center. And on my days off I would use it as a walk in center and I’d bring in doctors and neuroscientists and invite people off the street and have a whole army of therapists so they could get help, bully for me. You know we needed a kind of AA, have it so organized. And this is like, you know, how did they get it together? They’re drunks.
So I made this a walk in center. And then what happened was I had a depression. It doesn’t define my life. Seven years ago I had a really bad one. I ended up on kind of a chair for a few months. Let me just say people think I’m just going sideways. 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. And so I ended up in a chair. To take a shower was unimaginable. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my friends because, you know, what comes with this disease is a real sense of shame because everybody thinks well look at you, you know, you have everything. You’re not in a township. You’re not being carpet-bombed. So I always say 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.
So then I was really interested in how the brain works because I thought well, every other organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except your brain. 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. So I decided okay, let’s do research and find out how I can maybe control my chemicals, you know, how I could cool the engine. So I researched it and mindfulness based cognitive therapy had the best results. Otherwise I would have gone in a workshop for how to hug your inner elf, you know, I’m not into the fluffy stuff. So because of the empirical evidence I studied. So I found the founder, one of the founders. He was a professor at Oxford so I, you know, I have the drive of a Rottweiler so I drove to Oxford. It was at the time I was sick. I think I smashed into some trees. And when I got to him I was crazy and I said to him just tell me in a nutshell what happens in the brain when you do this mindfulness because, you know, I don’t want to wave crystals.
He said you’d have to get into Oxford and get your Masters if you want to know about the brain. So I did and I graduated in September and I got the batwings and, you know, the Hogwarts hat. And so it made my life so much easier because of this thing called neuroplasticity which I don’t understand why it’s not shouted from rooftops that you could change the wiring in your brain by changing how you think. 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. Because I’ll never forgive my parents for giving me the legs of a Dachshund because I wanted to go down that catwalk and now I’ve come to terms it ain’t going to happen. 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. So, you know, I can’t understand why other people don’t notice information. I mean it’s 2014. 2014 – I have a girlfriend who sent me this – educated – sent me to somebody to tell me about my past life. I don’t know if you know this but I was a window cleaner in 1742. Everybody else, Nefertiti – I’m a window cleaner. I’m thinking it’s 2014. This stuff is available. Where’s the public on this one?
Like ask me about my star sign. What the hell are you talking about. They know – you can look in a brain with a brain scanner and see those neurons wire and unwire. And that corresponds to how you think. And every time they wire together you’re laying down memory. But the good news is you can unwire them and create new habits and give yourself a more flexible or happier life, whatever that means. I mean you’re the architect of your own brain. It’s known as neuroplasticity which was so hopeful to me. So I always say Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang that song I Am What I Am. You’re not. You have many possibilities. So she’s going to have to change those lyrics because what rhymes with neuroplasticity?
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Ruby Wax put her comedy career on hold a few years ago in order to research mental illness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford. It's there that she first encountered neuroplasticity: the ability to rewire your brain just by changing the way you think. Wax, who sports a Master's in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now travels the world promoting mental health awareness and stigmatization. Her new book is titled "Sane New World."
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