Sane New World – by Ruby Wax

Sane New World - by Ruby Wax
Sane New World – by Ruby Wax

ISBN: 039917060X READ: November 2016

An insider’s look at how a “crazy” mind works compared to a “normal” one and how everyone can have experiences from both sides of the spectrum. There are quite a few tidbits of good information on mindfulness and meditation scattered throughout, although sometimes it is hard to get to it through all of the fluffy personal experience stories. I enjoyed the scientific sections on neuroplasticity, and how we can physically alter our brains with a few techniques described within. I’d recommend this to a beginner at practicing mindfulness and wants an easy, somewhat humorous read on the benefits of it.


The gold at the end of the rainbow is that you can change your mind and how you think. This is called neuroplasticity. Your genes, hormones, regions in the brain, and early learning do not necessarily determine your fate.

You can change but only if you make the effort not to do the same old ting, the same old way, day in and day out.

We can, with certain practices such as mindfulness, actually have some control over the chemicals in our brains that drive us to stress, to anxiety, and even to happiness.

Busyness is a method we have devised in order to distract ourselves from the bigger, deeper questions; we have an obsession to keep busy. There is no time to rest and no time to think about what we really should be doing in our limited time on Earth.

Gandhi said, “There is more to life than speed.” Unfortunately he didn’t tell us what, he just left us hanging while he pranced around in his diaper.

How you want your bathroom to look is the gateway to the unconscious. A bathroom is a place where there is no room in there for narcissism. It’s where you really see yourself for what you are and get a whiff of reality. On the toilet no one is a star.

Uncertainty is our biggest fear so we keep up the idea that our vision of the world is reality. We use our minds to construct a picture of the world, judging it, making sure it fits with our past image of things and then anticipating how our past behaviour might affect the future. We never see the world as it really is but only how we choose to see it.

Self-regulation means we can actually rewire our own brains by moving activity from one region to another, switching on diverse hormones that can stimulate us or calm us down.

The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive. We are drawn to bad news. When something is flagged as a negative experience, the hippo-campus (responsible for consolidating memory) makes sure its stored in an easy to reach place for future reference.

Science tells us that the reason we “want” is that we are driven by a chemical in our brains called dopamine, and when we get something we want, we reward ourselves with a hit of it, which creates a buzz, a kick, a thrill. It’s like cocaine.

The Brain

The ancient brain, developed about four hundred million years ago, is called the brainstem; it is the “duh” part of the brain. It prompts us to mate, kill, and eat, which is perfect if you’re living in a field or working at Goldman Sachs.

250 millions years ago the limbic system came online. Thats where we, unlike reptiles, were motivated to bond with and nurture our offspring, rather than eat them.

five hundred thousand years ago we grew a superior brain, the prefontal cortex; the executive brain. The provided us with the tools for self-control, consciousness, awareness, language, and self-regulation. Also for rational, strategic and logical thought; math; and morality.

It isn’t the stress that makes you sick or even your risk of being sick. Stress increases your risk of getting diseases that make you sick.

Inadvertently stress will destroy you both mentally and physically unless you change the way you think about it and relate to it. With mindfulness, you learn to regulate these chemicals intentionally increasing the ones that promote health and happiness and decreasing the ones that don’t.

Parts of the Brain

Neurons can link up with tns of thousands to a hundred thousand neighbors and make connections. The parts that join up are branches or dendrites (whihc recieve incoming information) and axons (which send signals)

Neurons don’t actually touch each other; between each of them is a tiny gap called a synapse, across which chemicals are passed (called neurotransmitters). When neurons become excited through enough stimulation (because of a thought or experience), an electrical wavelet fires down the length of the cell to activate or inhibit the neurotransmitters. At the side of each gap are little receptors, like flowers opening to pass the chemicals across the synaptic cleft and lodge in the next neuron. Once they cross over they crate an electrical zap that sends an electrical message to the next neuron. This is how neurons communicated with each other through electrical and chemical impulses.

Learning is about new neurons connecting togther; memory is made possibke by those changes happening over and over again to embed the new pattern.

Four Lobes:
1. Occipital Lobe
– Responisble for most of our visual processing.
– Contrary to popular belief, its not your actual eyeball that sees the world; you have a whole production company in the back of your head beavering away, producing a movie, creating the illusion that what you see is real. It’s a film called Reality rather than actual reality.

2. Temporal Lobe
– Located around he ears, gives you suround sound (auditory perception) and provides you with your ability to comprehend language and meaning. They carry out emptional priocessing (in the amygdala), and is the home of specialized “explicit memory” centers such as the hippocampus.
– Emotional memories stick the longest.

3. Parietal Lobe
– Integrates sensory and visual information, so you can navigate with a sort of internal compass to tell you where you are in space and give you a sense of being in your body.

4. Frontal Lobe
– The largest of the brain’s structures. It is what makes (most of) us civilized and creates our personalities; it is the big boy of mental ability. This is the seat of our emotions and allows us to understand how someone else is thinking and feeling.
– Decision making
– Problem solving
– Judgement
– emotional impulse control or self regulation.

Right and Left Brain:

The two hemispheres are connected by a bridge made of a densely packed band of nerve fibres shunting information back and forth, facilitating a continuous dialogue between the two halves; if this didn’t exist your left side wouldn’t know what your right side was doing

Right Side:
Not great at grammar or vocabulary but fantastic at picking up intonation and accent
Skilled at putting pieces together (great at puzzles)
The home of autobiographical memory – the story of you
Picks up metaphors and jokes.
All the information from the right is then sent to Lefty for interpretation.

Left Side:
Able to plan
Accurate and able to think literally and retrieve facts
In charge of vocabulary
It’s the area responsible for those internal voices (boo hiss)
The narrator of your on-going personal life story
The region where list-making lurks (boo hiss).


My Favourite Parts of the Limbic System:

Involved with the translation of conscious experience into bodily processes; you think, then you move. It’s also involved with the part where behaviour influences hormones. Here are a few of the processes controlled by the hypothalamus:
Body temperature
Blood pressure

Sends a wake-up call to the brain stem (the ‘duh’ part of the brain) sending signals to all major organs and
muscle groups; like a call centre that redirects incoming traffic to the appropriate area and if need be gets
you ready to rumble or run. All sensory information (except smell) is passed and processed through the
thalamus. It’s thought to be involved in consciousness because if you lose power there, you’ll find
yourself in a coma.

Shaped like a seahorse, it works like a search engine to locate and retrieve other memories quickly and smoothly like a great secretary who knows where all your life is filed away.

The emergency alarm of the brain sending responses to various parts of the body from emotionally relevant information. It coordinates physiological responses to get you ready to fight or run and makes sure you remember it.

Prefrontal Cortex
The ‘higher part’ of the brain. Helps with assessing and choosing the correct social behavior

The ‘small brain’ at the tail end of the big brain leading to the spine; in charge of balance, posture and coordination.

Basal Ganglia
An area involved in motivation, motor selection and action. It controls everything from big muscle movements to the flicker of the eyes caused by surprise, novelty, cravings or drive. It uses our memories and translates them into motivation and then action. If it were to be removed, you’d be more like a doormat.


The feel-good chemical, it increases energy levels and regulates sleep and digestion. Most antidepressants aim at increasing its effects. You really want this chemical or life just isn’t worth living.

As I’ve said, motivates you to seek rewards. Cocaine does the same thing but it’s more expensive. It switches on (the basal ganglia lets you know you’re running low) when you anticipate getting what you want, which is why the chase tastes better than the kill; it lights up under the scanner when we know we’re just about to get our object of desire. Experiments on rats have shown that they’ll give up food, sex and rock and roll just to get a hit of dopamine. That’s how good it feels and rats are no fools. Those driven, ambitious, A-type personalities are high on (among other things) their own dopamine, so they keep it on a constant drip always seeking situations that jack it up a notch.

Reduces pain and stress and creates a sense of ‘whoopy’ by suppressing shame, vigilance and selfcriticism so now you can dance on table tops in your underwear with a flower in your nose.

When this switches on you’ll feel all cosy and milky like the perfect mommy. Very important to have while raising children; without it you’ll want to flush them away when they make noise. If you reach out and touch someone, your oxytocin is lactating. Those with a lot of oxytocin could be described as cuddly, wanting to take care and metaphorically breastfeed everyone. In the queue of life they’re always at the back taking care of others.

Supports pair bonding, attachment and monogamy. It decreases aggressiveness in males and turns them into caretaking and intimacy-seeking creatures who write Valentine’s Day cards and stay faithful.

Those who habitually fill up with testosterone literally have no brain. It’s a no-brainer; a lot of sex but no brain.

It is your friend and foe; it can get you going, put a tiger in your tank or debilitate you.


Neuroscientists are unable to identify where memory is located in the brain; it seems it’s everywhere.

The brain changes continuously by every sight, sound, taste, touch, thought and feeling. Experience and learning remodel new circuits (neurogenesis)

Much of what you see out there is manufactured by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie; only a very small part of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world, the rest comes from internal memory stores and other processes


When you stand back and just watch your thoughts and feelings, you find yourself less scattered, more anchored, and clearer thinking.

Fear is in fact never as bad as the fear of fear.

By sharpening your focus on what’s happening right now, you start to notice that thoughts aren’t facts; they’re constantly changing patterns. They come and go, transform, disperse , and dissolve.

The idea is to related to thoughts as merely brain events, rather than absolute truths.

So much of pain is reacting to it, wanting it to go away, hating it and cursing yourself for having it, but if you explore the bare sensations by going right into it you’ll notice that the sensations lose their solidity

When you focus in, very gently, on the exact location of where you feel anger, fear, stress or heartbreak, you’ll notice those sensations lose their intensity; they’re always coming and going, getting deeper and lighter.

You could use the acronym R.A.I.N. when you’re dealing with your emotions.

Identifying an emotion means you’re regulating it; you’re using your prefrontal cortex to calm the inflamed limbic system.

Whatever the feeling is, it is just a feeling, you don’t have to act on it. Let it pass through because in the next second it changes anyway. Dump the shame and blame.

the focus of attention into wherever the emotional pain is in your body. As soon as you tune into body sensation, the story ends. Go inside: is your chest tightening? Your stomach churning? Your jaw clenched like The Alien? If you register nothing , that’s fine too.

This means stepping away from the emotions and giving them space so you get that ‘this too shall pass’ vibe. With this distancing, you’re developing self-regulation.


When your mind wanders, which all minds do, you NOTICE where your mind has gone and then, without and criticism, take or escort your focus back to one of the senses.

If you pay close attention to when you’re immediately experiencing, you’re right there in the present; the mind-wandering mode switches off.

By noticing without reprimanding yourself and having a safe base, you’ll see thoughts and feelings as mental phenomena that aren’t threatening.

Exercise – Breathing
Follow your breath, it’s best to stay with one area either through your nose, throat, chest or abdomen so your mind stays focused. Notice how your breath changes with each inhale and exhale – whether its light, heavy, short, or long, just noticing that it’s always changing and dissolving.

Exercise – Experiencing Thinking Itself
Just as with sounds, notice your thoughts as events in the mind simply as noise rather than trying to follow the meaning. Some people imagine their thoughts are like clouds in the sky; some are heavy, some light, some threatening but they all keep moving and changing. You can choose whether to jump on one of them but it would be like jumping on a cloud, they aren’t solid structures so you’ll fall through.

Being Mindful with Stress
Notice when you feel the beginning of stress, closely explore where it is in your body; the size, the edges, the sensations. Notice how your breathing and your posture change. Notice if your mind starts to kick in with suggestions to get coffee, cigarettes, or tranquilizers. You don’t have to suppress the thoughts or the feelings of fear, anger or hurt but recognize that they are the dandruff of a flakey mind.

Each time we face our feelings head-on rather than run, we’re building muscle just like any athlete practicing his skills.

The main thing that calms your mind is compassion for yourself.

A number of studies have found mindfulness results in increased blood flow to the insula and an increased volume and density of gray matter.
Strengthening your insula enhances introspection, which is the key to mindfulness.

Harvard research suggest that we spend nearly 50% of our day mind-wandering, typically lost in negative thoughts about what might happen or has already happened to us.

Stanford research has found that mindfulness can help with social anxiety by reducing reactivity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that is typically overactive in those with anxiety problems.

Because we have consciousness, we suffer about the fact that we suffer, and this second arrow of suffering is constructed in our brains. But if our brain can create this pain, it can also create happiness.

We’re living in a society that encourages multitasking; all interruptions by phones, texts, emails, or other “luminous rectangles” are welcome and, whats more, make us feel warm and wanted.
“I’m busy, therefore I am.” (A slight twist on the Descartes line.) Brain research shows that rather than being a great accomplishment of humankind to be able to juggle everything, it may actually scramble your brain.

You need focused attention to grow neural connections in the hippocampus; thats how learning happens. Focused attention building up gray matter in the brain, which increases the ability to remember, attend, inhibit, and execute actions, no matter what age you are.

Remember: Novelty grows neurons

Labelling identifies and defuses the hot emotions and negative thoughts. If thoughts and feelings have labels, they are no longer some solid part of your but transient items that come and go. It’s as if you were saying, “Oh, that’s anxiety” (out there) rather than “I am anxious” (in me).

Its our ability to regulate our attention, reduce our reactive nature, and cultivate positive emotions that points the way to health and happiness.


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