The acclaimed neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart is author of best-selling self-help title The Source, a book that has its foundations firmly placed in the realm of cognitive science rather than more esoteric or pseudo-spiritual environs. Among its pages, the former psychiatrist outlines the deeply ingrained pre-programming that underpins so much of our behavioural patterns, and maps out various strategies designed to disrupt and radically transform the way in which our minds work, in order that we may be able evolve into our best selves, and attract positivity into our lives. Here, the highly respected thinker and public speaker reflects upon the psychological fallout of the global pandemic, discusses the phenomenon of collective dreaming and tells us why the path to happiness lies in breaking free of the mental prison of capitalism.
When the realities of the pandemic and lockdown hit, what was your response?
Well, I was a psychiatrist before I became a neuroscientist, and very early on in the pandemic I realised that the requirement of mental health expertise was going to be massive, so I kind of pivoted what I was doing away from the neuroscience, and more to the psychiatry and psychology. I just felt like I wanted to help as much as I could, and as we went through all these things, I was using my own experience to test against what clients and other people were experiencing. For example, I was having vivid anxiety dreams, which I never have, and a journalist I know called me up and said, ‘oh, everybody's having very similar anxiety dreams.’ I did some research, and the last time there was a worldwide phenomenon of collective dreaming was during WWII. There’s just this incredible way our brain processes emotion, and it was amazing to me that somebody, somewhere, tucked away in a corner of the world whose life is so different to mine would be having the same emotional process in response to the isolation, fear, and uncertainty. That idea of how connected we are is very primal, and we're not really aware of it very much. I found that shared response to collective trauma so interesting in terms of the body and mind connection – strangely on the anniversary of the first lockdown, the dreams were reported again.
How do you think the pandemic rewired people?
I think there are several different issues that could be real problems – one, of course, was being completely alone. I had a client that hadn't seen another person for five months and just worked from home the whole time, whereas normally, of course, you are likely to meet up to eight people per day that you shake hands with or kiss or hug. At the other extreme were the people who had to work from home and homeschool, which would have been incredibly stressful. There was a lot of speculation about which age groups were affected the most, and I'm concerned mostly now about the children that didn't socialise, and even more than that, children who became malnourished because school provided the main meal that they would receive. That's a real worry. You can't predict how that's going to manifest in 20 years, but I do think there will be a generational impact.
What were the biggest psychological issues the pandemic brought to the fore?
Because of the confinement probably the biggest psychological thing that came up was boundary transgression. When I look at people's patterns, or their ghosts as I call them, then I look at things like boundaries, values, secrets, or roles that you played as a child – that narrative thing of being told ‘you're just like your uncle’, or some such, which becomes so ingrained in our perception of ourselves that it causes us to receive the world or behave in certain ways that are automatic. The pandemic really shone a light on boundary issues, and the way brains have been hardwired, which explains the extreme compliance, the secret parties, whether people wanted to be vaccinated or not – it is all to do with that sense of I’ have to do what somebody else is telling me’. Fundamentally, we were all aware that there was a virus that was a potential threat to our lives, aware that we had to be locked up, aware that we couldn't interact with other people, but whether we complied or not was largely due to our automatic programming, Most people wouldn't have made the conscious connection between that and how they respond when they have a firm boundary laid on them, unless they had done a lot of therapy or psychological work.
Do you think that the increased amount of time spent on devices would also have had a negative impact?
Being in isolation and being either on zoom or your smartphone, or laptop all the time will have had an effect, for sure. We know that ever since we've had smartphones the memory and concentration sense of our brains has changed. I know, personally, from doing my digital detoxes – which I do sometimes for four weeks – that my sense of time and space completely changes when I'm not using a smartphone. I feel I have so much more time and mental space, and the ability to be way more creative than I can be when I am constantly being distracted. I'm a scientist, but I start writing poetry, and stuff like that, at the end of a few weeks of a digital detox. And, despite the pluses, there is a detrimental effect on meaningful connection via the smartphone – you only have to look at dating apps to see that.The stories that I've heard, and the research that I've done, show that there are definitely a lot more bad experiences from these apps than good – I don't think we've yet really understood the price that we pay for them with our self-esteem. In a modern world where logic and consumerism are valued above emotion and intuition, it’s important to do regular digital detoxes to hone intuition.
Issues of self-esteem also seem inextricably linked to capitalism and the celebration of a certain kind of lifestyle across social media…
I think social media can be wonderful for connection, but in those terms, yes, I think you have to remove yourself from that mental prison of capitalism – you know, we do need a certain amount of money to be secure and stable, but to be happy, you only need a little bit more than what you need to live your lifestyle. Once you go above that, you actually tend to become unhappier, but, of course, we’ve all brought into the idea that the more you have, the better. I think it takes age and wisdom and the willingness to evolve psychologically or spiritually to say, actually, I'm not going to play that game.
How does one make that kind of evolutionary step?
I always say awareness is half the battle. There is lots of evidence that mindfulness and meditation help with awareness, but you'd have to really be invested in practicing meditation, and that kind of dedication can be too much too, too soon, for some people. The four-step process that's outlined in my book The Source is simply raise awareness, focus attention, deliberate practice and accountability. The first part is realising that you do snap sometimes, and that you no longer want to do that. The next stage is noticing when you do it, and then the further stage is realising you are going to do it before you do it, and eventually stopping yourself automatically. It’s a process, like any other. I can see how much I improve if I practice tennis every month, and how the muscle memory comes back, so why can't it be the same with happiness?
The Source is available from all good bookstores