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Comedian Robin Ince reveals how writing a book about the mind sent him into therapy

Cambridge Literary Festival 2018 - Robin Ince
Cambridge Literary Festival 2018 - Robin Ince

Comedian Robin Ince presents Radio 4 science show the Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox. He's bringing his new book about what makes us human to the Cambridge Literary Festival and reveals to Alex Spencer what he learnt about the comedian's psyche, why he's fascinated by his own brain and his secret wish to take LSD

Robin Ince’s first memory of his mum is of her sitting unconscious in the driver’s seat of the family car moments after a devastating crash.

He was not quite three years old and was in the back seat, searching in the footwell for his toy gun when an oncoming car smashed into them.

In the moments afterwards he remembers his sister crying and the fact their shoes had flown off due to the force of the impact and that his mum was completely motionless.

“I remember saying: ‘Why’s Mummy’s eyes closed?” says Robin.

After the accident his mother was in a coma and when she woke up she didn’t remember her children for a while.

“After writing the book I understood more the battle my mother had to go through having suffering such bad injuries to return to some semblance of normality. If my dad hadn’t insisted that the ambulance went to a major hospital, not the local one, most medical people say she would have died.”

For years, Robin didn’t think the trauma had affected him, but writing his new book about what makes us human led him into the path of mental health professionals. And they saw things a little differently.

The book, which he is bringing to the Cambridge Literary Festival, is called I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human. After mining his eccentricities for three decades to create gags and thanks to the insight he has gained from presenting BBC Radio 4 Science show The Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox, he felt well placed to write a book on the human condition.

In it, he explores questions such as how to deal with grief, where does anxiety come from, what is the key to creativity, the influence of childhood experiences and whether there is a real you. He uses personal insights from his own life as well as interviews with other comedians and comment from neuroscientists, psychologists and doctors.

“After writing the book and and then handing it over to people within the mental health profession I’ve learned I don’t have to be embarrassed and say: ‘Oh, it was just a car crash and my mum was just in a coma for a while and then things all changed afterwards and she was quite badly affected. I read that chapter out at a gig the other day and thought yeah I didn’t need to apologise. It was quite a major thing.

““We see some of the truly awful things that happen to human beings and we think our own trauma isn’t enough to waste someone’s time. That’s quite an English attitude.

“I interviewed so many therapists for the book who at the end of it said, ‘I presume you are in therapy’ and eventually I thought they seemed to be giving me a hint so I finished the book and went straight into therapy.”

The reason he wrote the book, says Robin, was to counteract the cliche about depressed comedians who had a difficult start in life, especially in the wake of the death of Robin Williams.

“I looked at the newspapers the next day and I felt that everything had just been turned into this simplistic story about tears of a clown and another comedian dies because isn’t that their destiny?”

But he adds that comedians do have to delve into the dark corners of their mind to come up with their material.

“If you want to create any form of art as an amateur or a professional that means there is something about the world that you want to demonstrate how you see it and some people don’t want to do that. Some people are quite happy accepting the world as it is.

“What I hoped to show is that underneath it all we are all absurd. I love it when someone comes up to me and says i have been having a weird week watching you helped. It’s that bit of contact where someone says I was beginning to think i was the only one.”

As a science show co-presenter he was able to draw on contacts from his work on The Infinite Monkey Cage to take part in experiments in MRI scanners whilst researching the book. I have done a couple of MRI scans and the first time I was just fascinated to look at my brain afterwards . Apparently i have quite a big occipital lobe. I stress albert einstein had quite a small brain but I definitely think he had the edge on me.”

But there is one experiment he is still hoping to be invited to try.

“I have to admit David Nutt’s experiments into the effects of LSD are fascinating. he used to be the government advisor for drugs and is doing some very interesting work in terms of MRI studies of the brain with people who are given controlled amounts of LSD. I would love to get involved with something like that - I’m just intrigued.”

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