This book is a New York Times Bestseller.
As a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern one of the things I do is to use talk therapies to help people dealing with emotional and mental problems such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, substance abuse problems, etc. Mental Health Counselors treat these problems with many therapies that involve changes in thinking and behavior that can not necessarily be ‘seen’. What is fascinating in regards to this book is that Dr. Amen, a clinical neuroscientist and psychiatrist, gives an explanation of these problems as ‘brain disorders’ that can actually be scientifically detected with imaging tools. His work gives a window into the metaphysical reality that is the age old mind-brain problem philosophers and scientists have wondered over for centuries. Dr. Amen writes, “I always believed there was a strong connection between spiritual health and mental health (Amen, 4).”
I work from a spiritual, rational, and physical perspective that is holistic and based in a philosophy that includes all three metaphysical (aspects of being) and epistemological (aspects of knowing) planes. We cannot discount the importance of the spiritual and intuitions of the heart where we talk about and experience such things as trust, faith, hope, and love. I draw my philosophical understanding from my studies of intellectual history. I particularly draw from one of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal, who gave me a good argument for a spiritual, rational, and physical perspective for my practice that includes a strong theological and scientific base.
Long before we could detect the smallest particles of matter in the atom the Greek philosopher Leucippus hypothesized of its existence around 450 B.C. Not long after, his follower, Democritus coined the term ‘atom’ from the Greek ἄτομος (atomos, “indivisible”) from (a-, “not”) and τέμνω (temnō, “I cut”), which means uncuttable, or indivisible, something that cannot be divided further. Some of the greatest discoveries have originated from the intuitions of man’s heart, only later to be empirically ‘detected’ and rationally understood (if not perfectly), if not seen and touched. Mental health has been a soft science with classified categories of clusters of symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders yet without necessarily an empirical way to detect and diagnose. Many of the symptoms described in diagnoses are based on behavior and reports.
Dr. Amen here explains how science can empirically detect and measure activities in the mind-brain connection. This book has a lot of information regarding mental health problems drawn from Brain SPECT imaging, an empirical tool that Dr. Amen uses to detect ‘brain disorders’, or diagnosed mental health problems that meet DSM criteria. These are Nuclear medicine studies that measure blood flow and activity levels in the brain (Amen, 5). Dr. Amen also discusses use of PET (positron emission tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CAT (computerized axial tomography), and EEG (electroencephalograms). Seeing that many mental health problems can be empirically detected in brain function using these tools can be helpful in dispelling stigma and false guilt when there is a medical problem and brain disorder. Without some evidence of the medical issue, people may think that it is ‘all in their head’ and they just need to get it together, or that they are just a ‘bad person’.
What the information in this book adds to my practice is a holistic perspective that includes making referrals and recommending information on medication, nutrition, exercise, social interactions, behavior changes, along with the talk therapies and other treatments I offer as a mental health counselor. Dr. Amen states he is one of very few psychiatrists that offer these types of brain scans and consultation on mental health problems. They are also rather expensive. He states the purpose of the book is not for everyone to go out and get their brains scanned but to explain a wide variety of human behaviors in terms of the images that SPECT provides and show they can be treated on a medical model as well as the traditional psychological and social models (Amen, 15).
Dr. Amen by no means argues that talk therapy is not effective for treating these empirically detected ‘brain disorders’. His point is not that physical things can only be treated physically but to show a fascinating explanation of thought and behavior using the brain images. For example, his research shows that depression is associated with limbic system (an area of the brain) over-activity and that bonding can decrease this over-activity (Amen, 41). One example of this is that orgasm is like a mini-seizure in the limbic system and lessens deep limbic activity (Amen, 41). He found that when a patient who was depressed had a scan before and after having passionate sex with his wife his brain scan showed his limbic activity was significantly decreased (Amen, 41). He then goes on to explain how casual sex does not work and is so damaging for many females because they have a larger limbic system than males that bonds more deaply, crashing harder when a bond is broken. He also writes that healthy bonding between mothers and children, between family, friends, and even pets affects the limbic system positively.
Dr. Amen has an entire chapter on enhancing positive thought patterns. Dr. Amen’s prescription to heal these limbic problems includes, “… accurate thinking, the proper management of memories, the connection between pleasant smells and moods, and building positive bonds with oneself and others (p. 55).” It is common knowledge that research shows Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (a talk therapy) to be highly effective in dealing with depression, but it is effective in dealing with a wide range of psychological problems (Corey, 288, Beck, 2). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy deals with changing distorted thinking and core beliefs about the self and the world such as that one is unlovable or helpless. Bonding also happens in talk therapy between a client and therapist and can enhance relationships and bonding with others.
Understanding there may be a physical problem with the brain is therapeutic and can help us to find more ways to improve our mental health. This book is a great read and a good reference for any specific illness or mental health problem. I also would highly recommend This is Your Brain on Joy by Dr. Earl Henslin with a forward by Dr. Amen. As well as good information and explanation of the parts of the brain (he uses a cartoon) and how they are related to different patterns of thought and behavior, there are a lot of good tips for helping with specific problems including many different treatments, what foods to eat, vitamins, aromatherapy, and cinematherapy.
Amen, Daniel G., M.D. (1998). Change Your Brain Change Your Life. New York: Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Beck, Judith S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
Corey, Gerald. (2005). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, Seventh Edition. Belmont: Thomson Brooks/Cole.