Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we have Dr. Amen, who is the author of the book, A Magnificent Mind at Any Age. He is a board certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. He helped pioneer the use of the Brain Spect imaging and psychiatry. He’s an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher. Dr. Amen has 25 years of clinical experience and he is the CEO and Medical Director of Amen Clinics. One is in California, Tacoma, Washington, there’s another one in Virginia. Amen clinics have the world’s largest database of brain scans; over 40,000. Any kind of brain that people have, they have a scan of it.
Dr. Amen is the author of over 30 professional papers and 22 books, including the New York Times Bestseller, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. He also has a PBS special, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and another PBS special based on his book, Magnificent Mind at Any Age. Hello Dr. Amen and welcome to the show.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Relly Nadler: We wanted to get an opportunity to pick your brain and get a sneak preview of your ideas and strategies from your book. Looking at your recent blog, I just want to read this and then we’ll zero in on some of the questions. Brains run the world. They run the stock market and the local market. They run huge corporations and the mom & pop shop down the street. Brains run churches, banks, hotels, tennis clubs, dry cleaners, professional basketball teams, internet dating services and universities. Brains run marriages, choirs, home owners associations, and terrorists groups. Your brain runs you and is significantly involved in running your family. Even though the brain is involved in everything we do at work and at home, we rarely think about or honor the brain. There’s no formal education about the brain in MBA programs, no brain training at church, no brain exercise in customer service or management programs and no real practical education about the brain in school.
The lack of brain education is a huge mistake because success in all we do starts with a healthy brain. I wanted to read that, Dr. Amen, because it’s a great summary about what we are going to talk about and your work, and maybe you can first tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became so interested in the brain and how the mind works.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I’m a psychiatrist and have been one for a long time. Most of my training did not involve the brain. As I would do my day-to-day job, I’m thinking, I’m missing something that is really important because people would often have an erratic response to treatment. When I had the opportunity about 18 years ago now, to start looking at people’s brains a whole new world of opportunity to help people opened up.
I actually wrote a program to increase individual success in people’s lives many years ago, called How to Get of Your Own Way. The program worked for some people, but for other people it didn’t work and I wondered why. Was it not a good program? When I started looking at the brain the idea just really hit me very strong; is that when your brain works right, you can then program it properly and when your brain has trouble, you are going to have trouble in your life and it’s going to be harder for you learn. I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades working on optimizing people’s brains. When I change your brain in a positive way, I change your life for the better.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: When I’m thinking about what most listeners would like to know about the brain, I can’t help but ask the question; how would you explain the differentiation between the brain and the mind?
Dr. Daniel Amen: I would not say that they are different. They are completely intertwined. Take Alzheimer’s disease for example. No questions that that is a brain disorder. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, people clearly lose their minds. They lose language, they lose their ability to go from place to place. They lose their memory; they might not even recognize people that they love.
Or someone with a head injury. We know that 15% of soldiers coming back from Iraq will have brain damage. They come back with hotter tempers, with low frustration tolerance, more substance abuse, and they are different than before. It’s clear to me after looking at nearly 50,000 imaging studies that the mind and the brain are completely intertwined and we really cannot separate them.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: When I’m thinking about this differentiation that is so clear, the way you just described it, even though it is one acting on the other. In an organization where we have a leader who has been incredibly stressed, especially given the current market conditions, can you talk a little bit about how the brain might be impacted such that their mind might not be functioning optimally?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, when we have high levels of stress it disrupts everything. People don’t sleep as well, their brains are being bathed in stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol, we know, decreases memory and your ability to think clearly and rationally.
We all need some stress. People who don’t respond to properly to stress have more anti-social tendencies. I often say, we all need some anxiety, life with no anxiety blows people off and they get into troubles like driving at 125 miles an hour down the freeway in the rain. People who have low levels of anxiety will often do that. But obviously, too much anxiety will completely disrupt things.
One of the things that feeds that is a lack of emotional skill on how to deal with the threats that come our way. In Magnificent Mind at Any Age, I talk about increasing emotional skill to optimize brain function.
Dr. Relly Nadler: That goes very well with a lot of what we are talking about in the show; emotional intelligence, with some of the questions we have for about managing impulse control.
There may not be a specific loss of IQ number that you talk about Daniel, but what do you see when there is so much stress in the organizational world, and the financial? What does happen to the brain as far as decision making and everything else?
Dr. Daniel Amen: It clearly impairs it. We know that high cortisol levels actually kill cells the hippocampus which is one of the major memory centers in the brain. It also decreases function in the prefrontal cortex. It’s the most human, thoughtful, part of the brain.
One of the problems that happens with high stress levels are really bad behaviors secondary to the stress. Okay, how do I manage the stress. I start taking sleeping pills, which begin to shut down brain function. I drink more. I stop exercising. I’m eating more as a way to manage the stress. All of those things actually increase the likelihood that stress is going to continue for you.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: One of the things that you talked a little bit about during the break was something called ANTS. Can we have a little bit of an expanded discussion while we are on the air about what ANTS are and how you came up with that philosophy?
Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, one of the things that I see that really ruins people’s lives, is the negative thinking patterns that they get into. Being a psychiatrist for a long time, I’d often do something cognitive therapy with my patients, which is I talk to them about their thought process. One day I went home and I had an ant invasion in my kitchen. They were just like everywhere, coming out of the light sockets, and drawers. It was a long day at work, and I went, this is exactly what happens inside my patient’s heads. If they are filled with these ANTS – Automatic Negative Thoughts.
The thoughts that come into your mind automatically and ruin your day. So what I really needed to teach them about, was developing an internal ANTeater to get rid of the thoughts. Because, even in a time of crises and uncertainty, it is our thoughts more than anything else that make us suffer. When our thoughts become distorted, when we make them out to be worse than they are, it drives panic.
Every single one of my panic disorder patients, that I can think of, were masterful at what I call fortune telling ANTS. These are ANTS where you predict the things that are going to turn out badly, even though you don’t have that evidence. Then you make it worse still. So developing the cognitive skill, and I believe we should have been taught this information in third grade. Then reinforced it throughout our educational career, but there is really nowhere in our educational system that we teach internal logic, or how to kill the ANTS that ruin our lives and our relationships, and how we operate at work.
So the CEO is thinking, you know, no one in my organization care about the company. Well that is obviously not true unless they really hired a lot of bad people. But just that thought; if you never question the thought, you believe it 100% and then you act as if your erroneous thought was true, which just causes a whole set of negative cascading events.
This is an incredible interview with Dr. Amen. You can listen to the entire podcast above!