Ruby Wax: Technology might be the way that we heal ourselves
Her latest book, How to Be Human, published in January 2018, was written with the help of a monk and a neuroscientist. The book asks the thorny question: in a world that is increasingly online and beholden to technology, what is it that makes us truly human?
Ruby recently shared some insights from How to Be Human with Nesta and discussed what the future might hold in terms of the relationship between wellness and technology. She will be exploring these topics further at FutureFest 2018, on 6-7 July at London’s Tobacco Dock. Get your early bird tickets here.
What was the motivation for writing How to Be Human? How does it build on A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, and Sane New World?
The motivation was that I met with a monk and a neuroscientist, who I loved. The meeting of those two people was a match made in heaven. You could observe where they agreed and how each influenced the other, and they’re both incredibly funny so they played brilliant mental ping-pong.
The kind of questions we explored were: What are our thoughts? Why are they so negative? Where are emotions stored in the body? How do you pick who you’re in a relationship with? How do you deal with your kids? Why are kids brains so different? What does the future hold? What’s addiction? What’s compassion? Then I spin it into comedy, otherwise it would be intolerable.
It was interesting to read about how we’re almost programmed to think negatively.
That’s the whole point of the book, that you feel “it’s not your fault.” That’s the mantra. We are a package of what evolution did so that we can survive. Emotionally, we just never kept up with it. We also expanded too quickly from the tribe, so we never learned to cooperate.
What is it about our culture right now and our relationship with technology that is creating such an appetite for this kind of work from people?
That’s an interesting one because a lot of people blame technology and say that’s why our brains are fried. As humans, we know how to push the blame and we need enemies. We need to blame someone else to justify our emotions. But what did technology ever do? Technology isn’t why our brains are fried. Part of the book deals with the nature of the addiction.
If you put anything in front of us and give it to us in unlimited amounts, we’ll consume it. We were built for limited quantities and we don’t know what to do with excess. So we get addicted to technology
But of course, some technology and social media is literally designed to make us addicted, right down to the hidden algorithms.
Yes, they understand how to manipulate us, they did since the 50s. They know how to tickle that craving. Those hidden persuaders are there and that’s what's dangerous. It’s not our fault and we’re not aware of our unconscious reactions. But again, if you learn your brain and you learn technology, you’ll understand where the subtle advertising comes in.
How might we develop a healthier relationship between humans and technology in future?
I’m meeting someone from Google who is involved with using technology to understand our minds. As individuals, we can use technology to understand ourselves. Then we can do certain exercises – and I’m not talking fluffy - and we can learn to self-regulate our brains.
Our mind has limited capacity for technology. Don’t blame the technology – figure out your relationship with it and pass that knowledge on to your children
Just use it for what you need it for, outsmart it, don’t give too many details and if you need to talk to your Grandmother in Czechoslovakia, just do that and then get off. Use technology, don’t let it use you. We can handle our own addictions.
You’ve spoken about the experience of information overload; how can we cope better when confronted with a 24-hour news cycle which creates anxiety and fear?
Turn off the TV. Don’t read the news all the time. Get the basic information, but don’t keep reading about how many people died and the expression on their faces. We’re addicted to worry, it’s a familiar sensation.
In How to Be Human, you explore the health benefits of mindfulness, with insights from the monk Thubten. What do you think the impact on society would be if more people were to adopt these approaches and how have they helped you personally?
If people understood how their minds worked and that we’re part savage and part genius, they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to tuck it under the napkin. It’s easy to blame the enemy. But the enemy lives in us and we must turn towards it and forgive it. The practice of mindfulness involves looking towards yourself, understanding yourself and then trying to give yourself a little bit of compassion. Just a little bit so you don’t take it out on the next person.
Learn to listen to your thoughts without getting out the whip: that’s the whole exercise
Many people have commented on how beneficial they find hearing the stories of those who have suffered from mental health issues. Yet so many people still feel uncomfortable speaking openly. How easy do you find it to speak out about your own personal struggles and what kind of response have you received?
Well, I was doing a show about it, so it was much easier for me. And I attracted an audience that were interested in that topic. There are people who feel stressed or frazzled and there are people who are suffering from mental illness. Part of the cure is talking out loud. When we’re brave enough to be honest, that’s the food. I want to separate depression or bipolar from just healthy living.
But even those of us who are frazzled need to find a place to be honest without feeling self-indulgent.
Why are you excited about speaking at FutureFest?
Because I love technology and I think it might be the way that we can heal ourselves. I don’t know how yet, but I know it intuitively. It’s going to work in our favour if we concentrate on channelling it to help us really reflect.
Don’t miss Ruby Wax at FutureFest 2018. This year’s line-up also features Paul Mason, Michael Ignatieff, Akala, Imogen Heap, Nick Clegg and many more.