The Enigma of Insight

What's the best route to understanding ourselves? We asked six brilliant minds.


says Lemn Sissay

Poetry is the voice at the back of the mind. There is no better way to understand yourself. I started writing poems as a fifteen year old, locked away in care. I discovered that my imagination was a vast landscape and if I explored and dug, I could find incredible things. It was life-affirming to come face to face with my uniqueness in this way, and discover my power to be creative. Now, I wake up every morning and write a short poem. It’s as if I am sitting on a branch with an endless sea of creativity beneath me, dipping my feet in it and just doing a bit of fishing. And at some point, there’s a beautiful and profound moment when something that came from me, starts to lead me. I get a rush. You can't get that full experience simply by reading poetry. It’s like a car. You have to get in it and drive and then it takes you somewhere extraordinary.

Lemn Sissay is a poet, playwright, broadcaster and Chancellor at the University of Manchester. We are proud to have published two poems by Lemn as part of our Words To Hang On To product range. Follow him @lemnsissay


says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Everything we do, think, feel, perceive and remember is the result of the activity of and communication between the 86 billion neurons in our brains. In the past decade or so, mainly due to advances in brain imaging technology such as magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have started to look inside the living human brain, and are beginning to understand more about the complex links between neural activity and behaviour. We know more about what happens in the brain when we are making decisions, empathising, feeling angry, planning and so on. Most of the workings of the brain occur outside our awareness, and what we are aware of is a constructed reality; an illusion. Understanding the psychological and neural basis of these processes will shed light on the complexity of the human mind.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. Follow her @sjblakemore


says Ruby Wax

Comedy measures the depth and astuteness of your mind; it's a kind of barometer of insight. Sometimes we laugh because of some physical mishap (we all love an accident waiting to happen). The best comedy is when we inadvertently find ourselves laughing because we’ve suddenly had an insight into some universal truth that’s so buried in our unconscious that we can only express our appreciation by that strange seal-like barking noise and clapping of the hands.

Ruby Wax is a comedian, actress, mental health campaigner and certified practitioner of mindfulness based cognitive therapy. Follow her @RubyWax


says Jules Evans

Seneca wrote: 'I owe philosophy my life, and that is the least of the debts I owe her'. I feel the same way - I owe philosophy my life. I was able to recover from depression and anxiety thanks to cognitive therapy, which I then discovered was directly inspired by Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. I realised that ancient schools of philosophy like Stoicism, Buddhism, Platonism and Taoism are in many ways far in advance of contemporary psychology in their insights into consciousness and the emotions and how to transform them. Unlike psychology, ancient philosophies include ethics and metaphysics and attempt to offer a comprehensive 'philosophy of life'. And the classics of Plato, Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism are also beautifully written - unlike 90% of psychology books.

Jules Evans is a writer, broadcaster and Policy Director for the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University. Follow him @julesevans77


says Matt Haig

Reading fiction gives you the space often lacking elsewhere to focus on the human mind, exploring both the light and dark places it can reach. Novels are empathy engines, reminding us over and over, that people - and ourselves - are always more than we seem. Fiction helps us truly know ourselves and understand each other. In short, it humanises us.

Matt Haig is a writer, and author of many books including The Humans and Reasons To Stay Alive. Follow him @matthaig1


says Justin Wise

So much of who we are is invisible, hidden in the vast background of our minds, the familiar habits of our bodies, and the culture in which we swim. It’s as if the conscious mind, which we usually think of as ‘I’, is one tiny part of a deep and mysterious ocean that is more truly who we are. Because of this, insight can be difficult for us to come to alone. And so when we’re in difficulty we can benefit enormously from having a coach alongside us - another human being with the language, courage, and kindness to show us who we are, bring what’s hidden into the light, and help us work with what we find about ourselves in fresh and life-giving ways.

Justin Wise is a certified Integral Development Coach and the co-founder of thirdspace coaching. Follow him @justinadamwise