All in Your Head: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Amen


BW: There’s a real connection between the two, neurology and psychology, and the gap seems to be getting smaller.

DA: Well, that’s just going to happen. I just happen to have the blessing and the curse of figuring it out sooner than my colleagues. I think in the future, there’s going to be more of a melding. We’re going to be looking at genes of people — but genes don’t really tell you what happened to them along the way. So we’re going to be looking at imaging as well, which tells you if they’ve been exposed to toxins, or if they’ve had a head injury, or if their brain works too hard or not enough.

BW: What would you say one of your success stories was as a physician or a psychiatrist?

DA: Some time ago, I received a phone call from my sister asking for help, because my 9-year-old nephew had attacked a little girl on the baseball field for no particular reason, out of the blue. I was horrified because Andrew was my godson and we were very close. So I asked what else was going on. My sister had gone into his room and there were pictures he had drawn of Andrew hanging himself from a tree, and of shooting other children. He was Columbine or Aurora waiting to happen. I said I wanted to see him the next day.

In reality, 999 psychiatrists out of 1,000 would not have looked at his brain, but because of my background, that was the first thing I did. Andrew was actually missing a part of his brain called the left temporal lobe, which, when damaged, is where violent impulses come from. He had a cyst the size of a golf ball there, and when we drained it, his behavior went completely back to normal.

Now, 20 years later, he’s employed, he owns his own home, he has a beautiful girlfriend. His life is good. If I hadn’t helped him, he would have either been dead or killed someone. If you don’t look, you don’t know, and we have to stop lying to ourselves, thinking that we can make diagnoses based on a cluster of symptoms. Psychiatrists are really the only practitioners who never look at the organ they treat, and because of that, they hurt people.

BW: How can careers shape the brain?

DA: You know, that’s funny. I’ve seen a lot of CEO brains, and they all look awful — because of the chronic stress they’re under. And a lot of them have ADHD, because they can’t work for other people. When you have ADHD, you have less function in your frontal lobes, and it makes you excitement-seeking, conflict-driven, and more prone to take risks. If you’re in a toxic job, the chronic stress will damage your brain.

Ultimately, your success at work depends on the physical functioning of your brain. I was just talking to one of my doctors whose assistant is always late, and I said she might have sleepy frontal lobes — low activity in that part of the brain — you might want to get them treated if you really like her.

BW: How do you see the future of neuroscience?

DA: When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, space was the new frontier. I think in the next 50 years, the new frontier is going to be the space between your ears. I think so many discoveries are about to be made about why we are the way we are, and more importantly, how we could be better and use our brains more efficiently.

I think ultimately we’re going to find out that things like prejudice, racism, and hatred are actually brain functions that get locked into our genes, and we will learn new ways to overcome this epigenetic fear, to constantly make ourselves better.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue.

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