Dr. Daniel Amen: Alzheimer’s, Brain Food & SPECT Scans – #227
By: Dave Asprey
Why you should listen –
Dr. Amen comes on Bulletproof Radio today to discuss healing toxic brains, Alzheimer’s and dementia, and how SPECT scans can upgrade your life. Enjoy the show!
Dr. Daniel Amen is a physician, double board certified psychiatrist, nine-time New York Times bestselling author, Founder and CEO of Amen Clinics. He has written, produced and hosted 9 popular shows about the brain that have aired over 70,000 times across North America and have raised more than $52 million dollars for public television. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Time, Huffington Post, ABC World News, 20/20, BBC, London Telegraph, Parade Magazine, Washington Post, LA Times, Men’s Health, Bottom Line, and Cosmopolitan.
What You Will Hear
- 0:15 – Cool Fact of the Day!
- 0:41 – Welcome Dr. Amen
- 2:44 – Dave Asprey’s toxic brain
- 6:10 – How Spect scans works
- 10:34 – Keeping the brain healthy
- 16:18 – Normal is not good
- 27:24 – Dr. Amen’s WIG
- 35:29 – Vengeful brains
- 41:23 – Balanced brain
- 49:47 – Understanding your brain
- 55:13 – Top three recommendations for kicking more ass and being Bulletproof!
Questions for the podcast?
Leave your questions and responses in the comments section below. If you want your question to be featured on the next Q&A episode, submit it in the Podcast Question form! You can also ask your questions and engage with other listeners through The Bulletproof Forum, Twitter, and Facebook!
Dave: Hi, everyone. It’s Dave Asprey with Bulletproof Radio. Today’s cool fact of the day is that if you’re someone who has a really great sense of direction even in places where you’ve only been once before, your brain maybe a little bit different. It turns out that different nerve cells in your hippocampus are activated in different locations so your brain is basically drawing maps of where you are through your nerve cells.
Those grid cells function as your brain’s GPS. They’re impacted when someone has a stroke or develops Alzheimer’s. Today’s guest, it’s a great honor to have him on, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in using brain imaging to everyday clinical practice, 9 times New York Times bestselling author, founder and CEO of Amen Clinics and someone who actually is responsible for me being a biohacker today. I’m talking about Dr. Amen. Dr. Amen, welcome to the show.
Dr. Amen: Thanks, Dave. It’s so nice to be with you.
Dave: Dr. Amen, the reason that I say that you’re responsible for me being a biohacker today is that more than a dozen years ago, I read your very first New York Times best seller and I said this is interesting. I went out and I found someone who trained with your for many years. I ordered a SPECT scan which is the type of brain imaging that you’ve used, thousands and thousands of times to get a better understanding of what’s going on in the brain.
What I found was my brain was in bad shape but it meant that there was something that I could work on. Without having the idea that says look, I can change the metabolism also change the function of my brain. I would have just felt like it’s just because I’m weak or because I’m not trying hard enough and it would have kept doing what didn’t work. Having a picture of my brain really did change my brain and ultimately changed my life so first, thank you.
Dr. Amen: You are welcome.
Dave: You’ve also been a speaker at the Bulletproof Conference and you’re featured in Moldy, the documentary that’s coming out on June 4th which is really exciting because you talked about the effects specifically of toxins on the brain and I did had a chance to do a follow up brain scan with you just last week. It was down in your offices.
I was really pleased that my brain scan looks very different now than where it did before. When I had my first scan down, I didn’t know it but I was living at a house that had substantial amounts of environmental toxic molds, very likely stachybotrys which is one of the worst ones. Are you okay with mentioning what my brain looked like? I’m okay if you say that it looked beyond a description that it looked like someone who’d been using some sort of drugs or something. Do you remember what you were saying there?
Dr. Amen: I do. It looked toxic. I mean, it’s the first thing I saw that your brain had really low activity compared to a healthy brain in a pattern that we often see either in drug addicts or people who are exposed to environmental toxins or people who have an infection. I mean there was clearly something not right with your brain.
The scans always teach us to ask better questions which is why does it look like that. If you’re telling us you’re not doing drugs and your wife backs that up because sometimes drug addicts lie, then we’ve really have to go after and find out why does it look like that.
Dave: I was blown away because no one has ever said you had the brain of a heavy drug user even though I wasn’t using any drugs at the time. With the thought of using drugs all the time is important because I could barely keep going. When I had that scan done though, I was getting my MBA at Wharton while working full-time at a startup that ended up selling for a value of around $600 million.
I was successful in my career barely, absolutely not successful in my relationships and successful in school barely. When I saw that picture at the time, it was like, “Great. At least I can work on something. Now, I know that I have hope.” To hear a dozen years later, your take on that is like, “You look like you’re a heavy duty drug user.”
My whole life I thought it’s just because I’m weak. It’s because I’m not trying hard enough. I was putting all this effort that was to fight against the toxin that I didn’t see that was in the walls of my house basically. How common is that? How often do you see some sort of toxicity? I’m not talking drug users but people who are poisoned to buy something in their environment that affects their brain. Is it common or uncommon in your practice?
Dr. Amen: It’s very common especially for people who are not getting better. It’s why I got hooked on imaging because I mean you could come and you could say, “I’m having trouble with my focus and my mood is not good.” Most psychiatrist would do a checklist with you and go, “You have depression, you have ADD, it’s your character and give you psychotherapy or medication,” all of which could hurt you if they don’t really understand the cause.
Without looking, we don’t know. By looking it causes us to try and find out why. I mean, you had to ask yourself why does this psychiatrist know anything about mold. They didn’t teach me one thing in medical school or during my psychiatric residency but as soon as I started seeing toxic brains in people who I believe were not using drugs, I’m like well, why is that?
Actually, it was a woman in Northern California who came in and just the nicest woman. She had a toxic brain. That’s when we discovered she had mold in her house. When she moved down and we rehabilitated her brain, she just felt so much better.
Dave: You’ve been doing this now since 1989. That’s roughly pushing on almost 20 years now of doing brain imaging and running across this. How does the brain imaging that you use, work? Someone who hasn’t read any of your 9 New York Times bestsellers and your latest book about ADD, can you walk us through how SPECTs works and then how you’d apply that to say, “Hey, here’s how you can work better.”
Dr. Amen: I went to a lecture on brain SPECT imaging in 1991. It just radically changed everything I did. SPECT is a nuclear medicine study. It looks at blood flow and activity. It looks at how your brain works. It’s different than a CT scan or an MRI, those are anatomy studies, they show what the brain actually, physically looks like. SPECT looks at function.
If you just think about a car engine. If you pop the hood, an MRI or a CT will show you, well, this is what the engine actually looks like. SPECT is like turning it on and seeing how it actually works. It basically tells us 3 things about the brain, healthy activity. Good activity too little or too much. Then my job becomes understanding why it is the way it is and then balancing it.
If it’s too low, in your case, then we got to go, well, why is it too low trauma, toxins and infections. Now, let’s rehabilitate it and if you think about how do you … I like orchids. I have them in my office. If the orchid was damaged either by toxins in the soil or storm, what do you do? Well, the first thing you do is you stop the toxins. You get rid of the toxins and then you give it the highest quality nutrients, air, water, possible so that it can heal.
You have to put the brain in a healing environment, but without looking, quite frankly, you don’t know. You don’t know is it a toxin, is it a head injury, does their brain work too hard or not hard enough. We’ve now done 110,000 scans on people from 111 countries. I love it because I like getting my patients better fast, a big criticism of me when I was a child psychiatry fellow.
My supervisor loved me but he said, “Dr. Amen’s biggest problem is he wants people to get better fast.” I’m just not that patient because I know if I was suffering I wouldn’t want to be 3 years on a psychiatrist couch. I would like go so let’s find it and fix it. I have this bias fraction but if I don’t look then I’m flying blind.
I like to say a picture is worth a thousand words but a map is worth a thousand pictures. That’s what we do with SPECT. We map your brain and a map tells you where you are. When you first came to us, it’s like your brain is not in a good place. It gives you the pathway to teach you where you want to go. What I’m so excited about your map is it was really trouble when we started but now it’s much better. I’m just so excited about that.
Dave: I was too. I didn’t plan on talking to you specifically about my brain map there and in fact I’ll take a screenshot of it. I think I have to get the digital version from you or some of that but I’ll actually post my before and after on the blog so people can see what a radical transformation, getting rid of toxins from your environment and from your food.
Eating enough fat for your brain and all those things where you and I are I think pretty aligned. I’m sure there’s some differences in small nuance things. Directionally, we’re both like could you get the good stuff in? Are you in a position to talk about that news? You gave me a case of something special at your office. Can we talk about those yet, those coconut things?
Dr. Amen: Of course.
Dave: Let’s use those as examples because you have these amazing chocolate coconut things that are … I actually ate almost the whole case. My kids got only 1. This is just a great example of how you formulate this amazing … I don’t know if you call it a treat or a bar. It’s almost all fat. Why do you make something like that that’s almost all fat? What’s it called? It’s a really cool name but I’m thinking like Brain on …
Dr. Amen: Joy.
Dave: Brain on Joy.
Dr. Amen: We have just the chocolate one called Brain and Love. Why is this psychiatrist making chocolate bars? It’s a symbol of abundance that getting well is never about deprivation. You got to shift your mind. It’s abundance of the right things that serve your health that can also taste amazing. The whole low fat craze, that was a mistake.
60% of the solid weight of your brain is fat. Low cholesterol levels have actually been associated with homicide, suicide and depression. That cholesterol is not the problem, that it’s sugar. It’s high inflammatory diets and knowing what I know about your work, I mean we’re very aligned and basically like with the orchid, you want to stop poisoning it and only give it nutrients that serve its health.
I really think of high healthy fat. Not all fat is good, high healthy fat, low-glycemic, high fiber carbs. Carbs are not the enemy, it’s bad carbs that are the enemy. Colorful foods, not Skittles but foods with many different colors because they have huge antioxidant support and protein at each field because protein helps stabilize blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar goes low, blood flow to the brain goes low and then you have more, make more bad decisions.
Dave: Did you just say that having blood sugar in the brain is good for you?
Dr. Amen: Having high blood sugar levels is associated with brain atrophy. We want to stabilize your blood sugar. When blood sugar levels go to low, blood flow to the brain goes low and then people make bad decisions. If you have problems with addiction, and you don’t want to relapse you have to eat healthy food often enough so that you don’t get hungry. That is associated with relapse.
Dave: There’s this whole trend where we demonize something. Sugar is bad and generally eating sugar is not a good choice but that doesn’t mean that having some blood sugar in your body is a bad thing. You die without it and just like you said, you make worse decisions when you don’t have enough brain fuel.
This has been a large part of the more recent toxin that’s been around. Where does willpower come from? If you have no energy in the brain, whether from sugar or from fat, you don’t like what happens. If you had a kale salad with fat free dressing, for lunch, you simply don’t have enough sugar or calories to fuel your brain and it’s no wonder you’re going to be a little bit cranky.
Do you actually see them on brain scans or someone is really hungry? Does their brain look different if they’ve been fasting for a few days or they’re just calorically deprived or too low in blood sugar?
Dr. Amen: There’s actually an interest in people who are around the net and actually in some very popular books talking about how important fasting is. I’m not a fan. I’m a fan of routine, of doing really great things for your brain because when you fast and your blood sugar goes low, people are just more likely to make bad decisions.
Sugar on the other hand, are high sugar diets because you know when they took the fat out of the food, they replaced it with sugar. Diabetes has skyrocketed. One of the big things we’ve learned is that even high normal blood sugar levels. Blood sugar is normal between 65 and 100. They found that people are up closer to 100, had brain atrophy.
It accelerates brain aging. I like your blood sugar around 85. I think that’s healthy for you. One of the things we should talk about is if you really want to keep your brain and healthy as you age. You should never have normal labs. You should have optimal labs. See, neither you or I or most of the people watching have ever wanted to be normal or in the middle of our classes or the bottom of our classes.
I’m always thinking about what’s the optimal range of vitamin D, blood sugar, cholesterol, C-reactive protein. I don’t want you normal because quite frankly normal is sick. If you live to 85 or beyond, 50% of people will have Alzheimer’s disease. That’s normal and I want no part of that.
Dave: We’re going to call that out in quotes on the screen when you say that because normal is not good. The whole point of Bulletproof Radio, we have more than 200 episodes. I like to interview people who are experts and not being normal and people who are all about super human performance.
Now, I want to ask you. I came in because I basically hit the wall. My brain won’t work anymore. I can feel something is wrong but have you ever had someone like an Olympic athlete, a top, someone who’s a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or someone come in who’s doing pretty well.
I like my life. I’m abundant, I’m high performance, I’m helping lots of people, I’m strong, I’m well. Would you scan a brain of someone who’s already a super high performer? What do you often find? Is there something to find or are they just perfect brains and that’s why they’re performing well?
Dr. Amen: Well, I have a whole group of incredibly beautiful brains. It generally goes with their life that the exercise but not too much which is really interesting things. My extreme athletes usually do not have healthy brains. They eat well. They’re not smoking, they don’t really think about alcohol as a health food. Maybe they have anywhere from 2 to 4 glasses a week but not 2 to 4 glasses a day. Their habits generally reflect the health of their brain. Aging is more about actions than chronological years when it comes to the brain.
Dave: When someone with one of these beautiful brains comes to you. They have beautiful brain and beautiful life, are there tweaks that they can do to get even more brain performance or are they already so absurdly high that really it’s like there’s not much to be done here.
Dr. Amen: Well, no. There’s always tweaks. We can always do better. I actually have a program called The Brain Warrior’s Way. The reason for the title is because I’ve just come to deeply believe we’re in a war for the help of our brain. Nearly everywhere we go, someone is trying to shove bad food down our throat, a toxic thought in our head, hook us to a gadget that will distract us from being in full relationships.
If you have the mindset of a warrior which means … It doesn’t mean you’re fighting. Most successful warriors never fight. It’s because they plan, they’re aware, they know who is friend and who is foe. It takes that mindset. Most of us can be into that. My favorite example of an incredibly beautiful brain, happens to be my mother’s.
In 1991, I started scanning people. I got so excited about the technology. I scanned everybody I knew, a friend who had temper problems. I scanned a cousin who had suicidal thoughts. An aunt who had a panic disorder and then after I’ve done, I don’t know, maybe 100 scans or so, they scanned my mother and she just had a drop-dead, perfect brain.
It was irritating quite frankly. I had scan myself and it wasn’t nearly as good. I looked at her when I showed her perfect brain and I said you ruined my life. She got this pouty look on her face and she said, “Why, what did I do?” I said, “You have a very unusual, healthy brain.” I thought all women because she’s my model for women.
I thought all women would be like you. My wife at the time wasn’t and the women I dated weren’t and I’m just like what’s the matter with me? It wasn’t me, it’s I had the fortune and the misfortune of being raised by a woman who had beautiful brain but the most consistently reliable, predictable, loving, flexible person on the planet who was just incredibly supportive.
I’m thinking everybody is supposed to be like her when she was an outlier, not the norm. After I got divorced 2 years later I started scanning the people I would date, looking for that most perfect brain and thankfully I found Tana, yet my wife who does a lot of work with me who had a brain that was beautiful.
Dave: If you saw 2 different people’s brains, can you predict whether they get along?
Dr. Amen: Yes.
Dave: That is fascinating. Ever thought of doing the brain dating service?
Dr. Amen: Well, actually it’s funny because we did a study called the Couples from Hell study which is we scanned 500 couples who failed marital therapy but still wanted to be together. It’s like oh my goodness. After the first one, I thought of doing Brainmatch.com as a way to see this person’s more likely to go with that person. That’s actually very important. If you date my daughter for more than 4 months, you get scanned. I want to know the health of your brain. It’s not to discriminate against people but if you’re drinking too much, I want to know that.
Dave: You just made your daughter’s dating life absolute hell.
Dr. Amen: No, both of them are married.
Dave: There you go.
Dr. Amen: I have 4 grandchildren. Both of their husbands are into brain and health. In fact my son-in-law Jessie wrote a book, Change your Brain, Change your Life for under 25. He wrote the high school version of my big book. He opens it with this scene in my office where he says even though I’m a foot taller than Dr. Amen, I never felt smaller. He talks about the experience with the scan and it was powerful. When you see your brain, you start to care about it and that is really the beginning of wisdom.
Dave: I got a profound sense of control when I first saw my brain. Before I had a SPECT scan, through your clinic, I started looking at my brain with an EEG machine. I’ve had my own EEG, a primitive one at home since about 1997. I was always interested in ways of using that to perform better and just to be more self-ware but that didn’t have the same level of awareness tied to it especially with the type of feedback I was doing compared to actually seeing the image like what’s it doing, what’s it not doing.
To me, knowing that when I was trying to focus and pay attention that in my first scan there was essentially no metabolic activity in prefrontal cortex, the most recently prefrontal part of the brain that makes you human. I’d sit there on test and just fail. The more I try to concentrate, the less metabolic activity I had. To see that as it’s a hardware problem.
If your car, if the engine is making noises, you don’t think you’re a bad person but if your brain is failing the way a car engine does, you actually do think that it’s because you’re stupid or because you’re weak. Seeing the brain just laid out in full color like that is transformative just having that one time of seeing it and then to be able to apply that to a relationship I think is profoundly interesting. In fact I’m sending my wife down to get scanned as well so we can compare our brains. We’ll see what you think.
Dr. Amen: One of the biggest … It would be fun to look at you guys as a couple because you balance your brain. You care more about her brain and hopefully you’ll care about each other’s brain and then people get along better. One of the most important things I learned early on is if your brain deactivates, when you try to concentrate, what that means and that’s what happened with you, the harder you try, the worse it gets.
It didn’t happen with you but it happens with a lot of people. They get demoralized. Then they give up because they try and it doesn’t work, they try and it doesn’t work, they try and it doesn’t work and then they say the heck with it and they stop trying. Other people when that happens is they do nutty things to turn it back on whether it’s jumping out of planes or speeding and cars or doing high risk behaviors.
A lot of entrepreneurs have that issue. It can be helpful but it can also be hurtful because they may take risks that are not necessarily great for them. Balancing your brain just becomes critical to business success, relationship success and managing your own health. People don’t know but people have untreated ADD so ADD goes with this deactivation pattern in the front part of the brain.
Triple the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a higher risk of obesity, a higher risk on drug and alcohol abuse, a higher risk of financial ruin job failure and so on. Balancing your brain especially in that most human thoughtful part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex becomes essential to having the most effective life. As you and I talked about it, you can take someone who’s just incredibly bright and just give them 5% better activity. I mean that can literally mean not only millions of dollars but dramatically more good you can be in the world.
Dave: That’s one of the reasons that I’m grateful that I get a chance to work with high performing entrepreneurs with Bulletproof stuff. I don’t do a lot of personal 101 coaching. When I do is use someone who’s going to absolutely kickass and actually tell them, “Go see Dr. Amen. Get a brain scan. We’ll tell them pay attention to your brain.
Do these things that increase resilience because if you’re one of those people who’s out there to change the world for the better, just 2 more octane in your gas, in your car. If you go from 89 to 91, and you’re going up the hill, you can feel the difference. It’s just a little thing but it’s when you’re a high performer, you’re so many standard deviations away from normal that adding just 1% more when you’re already running at 99%, puts you at in a whole another standard deviation away from everyone else.
It lets you have so much leverage on your day and your relationships. It’s changed my ability dramatically. You see it in the stuff that I write and the stuff that I do. I’m really profoundly grateful that you’ve fought the fight for SPECT. What I ask you specifically about, when you first start doing this people said the scan doesn’t matter.
Now, you’ve got 100 plus, thousand scans. You’ve been called the popular psychiatrist in America by the Washington Post. You held the line and I think you’ve basically legitimized the SPECT scan as this amazing tool when whereas you first started it, I think it was a little bit fringy. What made you stick to your guns the way you have. I’d say you won at this point but what gave you that motivation, that drive. How did you do that?
Dr. Amen: It was hard. I mean, it still sometimes it’s hard. Our big goal so our WIG, our wildly important goal is to change how psychiatric medicine is practiced by 2024. We have no doubt. The fight is not over. Just this week, I’m pretty excited. We got a paper accepted for publication on over 20,000 subjects where we can separate people who’ve been emotionally traumatized, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD from people who had traumatic brain injuries.
It’s a huge distinction because the treatments are very different. If you think of the 500,000 soldiers who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them had emotional trauma, many of them had physical trauma. If you don’t get the diagnosis right, you’ll actually hurt them.
Initially I was just so excited. When I graduated from medical school, I wasn’t really thinking about the brain. I wanted to be really good psychiatrist because I fell in love with psychiatry and a writer. I wanted to teach people about what other people were finding out because that’s one of my gifts is to make complicated things simple.
In 1991, when I started ordering scans, I had 10 cases in a row where the scans changed what I did with my patients 8 times out of 10. I’m like how do I know unless I look. That was this idea I had in my head. How do I know if I don’t look? Is the brain toxic, is it traumatic? No end of grief from my colleagues. Psychiatrists don’t do that. It’s not the standard of care. I got investigated by the California board. At the end, they went he’s looking, he’s not doing anything wrong. I mean it was not a fun year.
Dave: Just a little comment there. Almost every California base doctor that I know and respect has been investigated by the California Medical Board. It’s a badge of honor from where I sit. Same thing, if you ever going to listen on Quackwatch, I want to talk to you because you’re probably good. There’s some things they just don’t know.
Dr. Amen: They want to have me too.
Dave: Did they? They got sued. They’ve been discredited so much now, it’s funny.
Dr. Amen: I mean, the passion story came in 1995. I got a call late one night. I mean, I’m in a war with my colleagues. I’m being called a charlatan, a snake oil salesman. I don’t like it because I went in to medical school to help people and now I’m being diminished and belittled. I didn’t like it. I stopped talking about my work for about a year.
Then my sister-in-law, Sherry called me at 10:00 one night and told me my 9 year old nephew, Andrew attacked a little girl on the baseball field for no reason out of the blue. He’s my godson and I’m horrified by this and I’m like, “What else is going on with him?” She said, “Danny, he’s different. He’s mean. He doesn’t smile anymore.” I went in to his room today and found 2 pictures that he had drawn.
One of them he was hanging from a tree, so he was killing himself. The other picture he was shooting other children. If you think about it in his head, he’s really Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook waiting to happen. I’ve already scanned hundreds of people at that point. I went, “Cherry, you have to bring him to my office tomorrow.”
They drove 8 hours to come see me. When I sat with Andrew I said, “Sweetheart, what’s the matter?” He said, “Uncle Danny, I don’t know. I’m mad all the time.” I said, “Is anybody hurting you?” He said, “No. I said, “Is anybody teasing you?” he said, “No.” I said, “Is anybody touching you on places they shouldn’t be touching you?” He said, “No.”
My first thought was to scan him. My next thought was you want to scan everybody. Maybe it’s a psychological problem but then logic took over my brain. 9 year olds don’t randomly attack other people for no reason. When I scanned him, what I found is he had a cyst the size of a golf ball occupying his left temporal lobe.
He was actually missing the space in his scan where his left temporal lobe should be. It’s the first time I’d seen it. I’ve seen it 43 times since. The left temporal lobe is an area of the brain involved in violence. When I got somebody to take it out, I had a hard time finding someone to drain it, his behavior completely went back to normal.
Dave: Where do you think he would be today if you hadn’t had done that?
Dr. Amen: He’d be dead or he’d be in jail. He’d hurt somebody. I know what he would have been because the neurosurgeon that drained it said. I had multiple neurologists said that they wouldn’t do anything with it. They didn’t think it was involved in his behavior. I was furious.
Dr. Lazarus at UCLA when he operated on him, he said, “Oh my god, I’m so glad you send him to me because the cyst had simply put so much pressure on his brain, it actually thinned the bone over his left temporal lobe. If he would’ve been hit in the head with a basketball, it would’ve killed him instantly. Either way, he would’ve been dead in 6 months.”
That was my passion moment because after that quite frankly, I don’t care of you think I’m a charlatan, I’m not. I think if you don’t look at the brain of your patients, I mean what is that? There is no other medical specialty that doesn’t look at the organ, it treats. It’s wrong and it hurts people. Sometimes when I tell Andrew a story, I’ll just start crying because I think of all the people in jail, who’ve done really bad things, who have bad brains and were judging them is bad when they could be balanced.
How many people do you think are in jail because they’ve been exposed to mold and now they don’t have the mental reserve, the brain reserve to make good decisions and then we punish them. Sending people to jail, I mean let’s be clear about this. It’s not rehabilitation, it’s vengeance. I mean, if you’re okay with vengeance, then you’re okay with it.
Quite frankly, almost everybody who goes to jail, goes home. Don’t you want rehabilitate them so that they can take care of their families, have meaningful jobs and pay taxes. I actually think it’s the most conservative approach to people who do bad things. Some people go that’s such a liberal idea and I’m like I want people to pay taxes so we can afford our lives.
Dave: I’ve thought this for a long time. I fundamentally believe that when people are actually in charge of their own biology that were wired to do nice things, to be kind to other people. There are things like traumas and toxins and emotional and physical trauma that get in the way of that.
If you ended up in jail, either there’s a corrupted government involved like the guy in Arizona who’s basically selling kids to the privately owned jail or more likely there’s something going on with your brain, but instead of looking at that and saying we’re going to offer you a custom diet that’s going to change your behavior, so you stop wanting to kill people.
We’re going to look at your brain and see what’s going on in there and help you know what’s going on and fix it so that you’re rehabilitated not by lifting up heavy rocks or sitting in solitary confinement for a year but just so that when you get out, you won’t just do it again because it’s annoying when you do it again. It hurts other people and it cost us money.
To this day, I do not understand why we’ve ended up where we are other than some mean spirited same thing that says instead of saying I question your science the same kind of personality that says you’re a charlatan, you’re a snake oil salesman which is a personal attack which is actually a sign that their brain is dysfunctional instead of saying I don’t agree, I think that the scan doesn’t work or whatever else which is what actual scientists do.
There’s this mean spiteful, angry stuff going around that’s counterproductive for everyone. Is there something that you could predict is in the brain of the vengeance focused personal attack takedown kind of perspective? Is this an overactive amygdala? Could we predict what these people are like?
Dr. Amen: Actually, when I first started doing imaging, I found new words for asshole. Your left amygdala is low functioning or radically functioning. You probably have a short fuse. The haters often have frontal lobes that work too hard especially in an area called cingulate gyrus. It’s the part of your brain that helps you shift attention, helps you go from thought to thought, move from idea to idea, be flexible, go with the flow.
When it works too hard, usually due to a deficit in serotonin, people get stuck on negative thoughts or negative behaviors. Now, they may have excessive compulsive disorder or they just may be rigid. If it’s not their way then you’re wrong. They repeat in your head, in their heads over and over again. He’s a jerk, he’s a jerk, he’s a jerk, he’s a charlatan, whatever.
Even given the evidence they don’t care about it. It’s irritating. I think it’s one of the reasons in the Middle East that people can’t get along because the chronic trauma has reset their brain and they can’t properly negotiate so millions of people can have happier lives. It’s that hatred and my way or the highway that just devastates millions of lives.
Dave: As the former owner of an overactive cingulate gyrus, that wasn’t my first brain scan and was not my most recent one. Everything you just said you do get stuck on those negative thoughts and I used to do that. I tell people no really, I used to be a serious jerk and they don’t believe me because I’m not a jerk anymore but I was.
That was very likely from a description one of the contributing factors. I think I have 6 or 7 other brain pathologies listed. I was not in a good place. if we were to look at, we’ll call them the haters, online or offline, it doesn’t really matter. When we assume okay maybe they haven’t overactive cingulate gyrus. There’s another study I came across, a while back that said that they were 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with senile cognitive dementia later in life.
This was actually just around people who are overall extreme cynics, the glass is half empty everywhere. Do you think that there’s a correlation with senile cognitive dementia? We already talked a little bit about Alzheimer’s but some of the other basically diseases of aging and these brain states that you can pick up when you’re 20 or even when you’re 9. Can you see this brain stages and say someone with that disorder is likely to end up here 60 years later?
Dr. Amen: Well, you probably know about the marshmallow test in 4 year olds, they did at Stanford. If I gave you, you can have this marshmallow, that’s what they did with 4 year olds. You can have this marshmallow now or if you wait a few minutes, I’ll give you 2.
It’s frontal lobe function. Your ability to delay gratification and think ahead. The ones who are able to delay gratification had significantly more successful lives, 30, 40, 50 years later. There’s another study at Stanford where Lewis Terman evaluated 1548 10-year-old children in 1921. Then researchers followed them for the next 90 years looking what went with success, health and longevity. It was just fascinating because it wasn’t happiness or a lack of worry.
In fact, the don’t worry, be happy people died the earliest from accidents and preventable illnesses. The people who lived the longest were the contentious ones. You said you were going to show up and you showed up consistently, reliably, predicatively, you live longer than everyone else.
Dave: I read a post a long time ago, that said something like it’s possible to be so far in the land of the lotus-eaters, the floaty yoga teacher, I’ll show up whenever I show up and not really able to care for yourself but happy and floaty and generally happy. That’s one side of the coin. The other side is I’m a robot, everything is logic.
You can be on either side of those but it’s a challenge for people especially in a world with all this technology and all sorts of media coming at you, to walk the middle line that says I don’t want to be too much on the floaty side but I don’t want to be too rigid and stressed all the time either. Are there tips or tricks that you’ve learned from scanning 100,000 brains in your whole career?
How do you stay in that middle area where you consistently show up but you still have time to meditate or take it easy or relax and have fun but you’re not so tightly wound that you’re always working, working and just choose cerebral. How do I stay in the middle?
Dr. Amen: Well, I think the first thing you do is you really know who you are and what you want. One of the exercises I do with almost all of my patients, virtually all of my patients is I ask them why do they care? Why is your health important to you? Then we do an exercise called the one page miracle which is on 1 piece of paper. I want you to write down what do you want in your relationships.
With your spouse, with your children, with your family and friends, what do you want at work, what’s your goals. What do you want with your money and then what do you want with your physical, emotional and spiritual health? What do you want? I think it really starts with that because the brain makes happen what it sees but if you never tell it what you want to see it will make random things happen.
For example, I know I want a kind, caring, loving supportive passionate relationship with Tana, my wife but I don’t always feel that way. I may feel irritated, I may feel overwhelmed from work. If I know that’s my goal, and I get that in front of my face on a regular basis, I’m much more likely to act toward her in a way that’s going to bring her close to me.
It’s really having that definition. Part of it is having fun and being psychologically healthy. Although the longevity studies surprise people in a lot of ways, the one with the Lewis Terman started in 1921 is the people who work the hardest, who are passionate about what they did and successful lived the longest.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been accused of being workaholic, I’ve certainly been accused. I’m okay with it because we live longer especially if our brains work right and we’re successful at doing the deepest level of meaning and purpose. That’s the other thing that the spiritual circle. I often say when we evaluate people we do it in 4 circles.
I want to know your biology. That’s where the brain scans come in but also your psychology how do you think, your social circle who do you hang out with. It’s the spiritual circle most psychiatrist actually never talk about its why do you care? What is your deepest sense of meaning and purpose because whenever I’m there, I am the happiest.
When I’m in the center of God’s will however you define that. I mean, for me, when I’m in the center of doing that, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s just not about brain. It’s not just about your thoughts. It’s just not about who you hang out with, it’s the deepest sense of meaning and purpose. Quite frankly, for me, I don’t have the patience to go sit on the floor and meditate for 3 weeks. It’s not me.
I mean, I love meditation. We studied the 12-minute meditation that activates brain function but I much rather be teaching. I much rather be creating a new show for public television. I think one of the secrets brain and health is critical, brain and health is the basis along with meaning and purpose because not everybody who has a bad brain goes to jail.
Not everybody with a bad brain does bad things. You got to really understand how they think, who they hang out with and what’s their sense of meaning and purpose along with their brain. When you put those 4 circles together, that’s where you get health, meaning and purpose.
Dave: If you’re walking around with a subpar brain, you could be doing more and you’re not because your biology is restricted. We worry about did you recycle that? Did we use the minimum amount of resources required. You’re eating the same amount of food. You’re breathing the same amount of air. You’re conserving the same amount of fossil fuel and you’re running it half your capacity?
That wasted effort is actually more and more important than getting a car where it gets 3 miles per gallon better mileage because for however much gas you’re going to burn your entire life, you might as well do something with it. Having a brain, that’s all the way on, is going to let you do whatever it is you’re going to do. It just seem so wasteful to walk around in a bit of a fog. I say this because I did this for the first, probably, good 25, 30 years in my life.
If I’m like wait a minute, I’m struggling greatly and I’m getting not exactly the results I wanted. I’m getting results but the amount of struggle, the amount of effort and the amount of just waste that went in to that versus aligning with your spiritual purpose or your sense of mission or sense of duty, whatever it is, getting the biology working. It’s a secret to kicking ass at whatever you want to do. At least in my life it has been.
Dr. Amen: Well, it’s all of those circles but without brain and health, everything is harder. I’m just thinking about this great story. I live for this story. There was a 15 year old girl who tried to kill herself. She’d spend time in a psychiatric hospital which has all sorts of side effects to be in a psychiatric hospital. She was cutting herself, had eating challenges and her dad brought her to the clinic.
When I saw her, she had that same pattern you had that when she tried to concentrate her frontal lobe shut down, rather than turned on. She was actually in a pressure cooker school in Atlanta. I’m like she’s never going to be able to get close to her purpose unless I’d balance her brain. Once I treated her frontal lobes, she went from C’s and D’s hating herself because she could never compete, never could get close to her potential to all A’s and B’s.
She just performed at a bigger because she’s very musically inclined. She was just a freaking star. You think where would her life be if I wouldn’t have figure out her brain turns off when she’s trying to turn it on. She hated herself because she could never perform up to her standards. Her mom and dad just thought she wasn’t that smart and so they never really put a lot of pressure on her to perform. She put pressure on her to perform and her life is radically different because she has a brain that works right along with meaning and purpose.
Dave: There are probably a hundred thousand people hearing this interview and more overtime after that. If someone is sitting in their car listening, they’re sitting at their desk, in a cubicle, listening to this doing whatever their work is and they’re thinking all right, I want to control my own brain. I want to do this but I probably not going to get my insurance company if they didn’t have one to pay for a SPECT scan right now.
Is there a way people can get started understanding what’s going on in their brain before they make a decision to get a full SPECT scan or to do some neural feedback or to do something more intensive but more expensive. How do you do this on the cheap because not everyone has a couple thousand dollars to spend?
Dr. Amen: I’ve thought about this for a long time and not everybody can afford a scan so based on thousands of scans, I develop questionnaires to help you predict what their scan would look like. One of the most exciting things I’ve done recently is Tana and I created a course, an online video course called The Brain Warrior’s Way.
It’s 14 hours where you can … if you like this information and really dive deeply into the information, but in addition we’ll test your brain. We do a very sophisticated neuropsychiatric assessment so the same one you took when you came to the clinic.
Dave: That was cool.
Dr. Amen: It’s part of our community so you can take … it’s called WebNeuro, get scores on how your memory focus, attention, mood stress, how you read faces. Get a brain and health score and then become part of our community where based on how you scored on that test, we’ll actually give you very specific exercises in the form of fun games to optimize your weak areas.
We’re really excited about it. If people go to Brain Warrior course, they can see we have some free videos there that you can watch and if you like, you can sign up for the course and become part of our community. I mean we’re really excited. We want to create millions of brain warriors because you’re in a war for the health of your brain. We want to teach you how to optimize it, get it to help you as you can and then give it away to your kids, your grandkids, the people you care about.
Dave: I haven’t done the full course but I’ve been following your work for more than a decade and I know you personally so I can without reservation recommend that if you like the stuff that’s on Bulletproof Radio, this the kind of thing that is going to be a value to you. You and I don’t have any business relationship around the stuff.
I’m just recommending this because people want to know what’s going on. The WebNeuro thing, that’s part of your program that I took. It’s really interesting to me. I didn’t know. My ability to recognize emotion in people’s faces as I recall roughly average but I was twice as fast at recognizing pissed off people, angry people versus happy people.
It could be because I deal with a lot of bullying. When you’re the tallest kid in school, all the small kids want to come and beat you up. Then you just have to put your hand in their face and they can’t touch you after that. I was in a lot of fights with angry small people. I wonder if that’s why. I have no idea. There’s some brain reasons for that as well.
It’s fascinating just to have those little bits of self-awareness that you’re likely to get even from a lifetime of meditation just from taking a little test. When your first book came out, I read this stuff in there, the talk about what part of the brain makes you behave this way. Even back then, it was very accurate to be able to say all right, what’s going on.
The point of this, is you don’t have to go get a SPECT scan, but that you can get a lot of awareness just by using statistics and science to basically backfill what’s going on in your brain. That does work. I’m quite certain of that.
Dr. Amen: 3 ways to get in touch with us. People can clearly go to amenclinics.com and learn about our clinics and our work. If you’ve been struggling, it’s worthy investment because you have to ask yourself, what does it cost to have an ineffectively working brain that bores incarceration, job failure, financial ruin. I really see it as an investment.
Not everybody can afford it so they can pick up one of my books, Healing ADD, Change your Brain, Change Your Life which is coming out in a revised version this November or just check the URL, it’s brainwarriorswaycourse.com and learn about the course. We’re always looking for ways to spread the message of brain and health.
We have a free newsletter. Our goal is to create a community of people who are serious about brain and health who want to do everything they can to keep their brain healthy for as long as possible.
Dave: Well, there’s a final question before wrap up this interview and it’s one that I’ve asked everyone on the podcast. One that I don’t think you mentioned the first time you were on because we did it at the Bulletproof Conference when you were speaker, but you might answer it differently anyway.
The question is given that all you know, not just from your work but also from your life, your top 3 recommendations, most important things for people who want to perform better throughout life. I can guess some of them but just top 3, it’s all you get. What are they?
Dr. Amen: Number 1 is brain envy. Freud was wrong, it’s not penis envy. It’s always too low in your body. You never care about it and the 110,000 scans, I care about it. Now, you care about it because you’re able to see it. It’s about caring about the 3 pounds of fat between your fears.
The second thing is be very clear with yourself, what do you want? Why are you here? What’s your deepest sense of meaning and purpose? The last thing is really simple, it’s a game I play with my daughter since she was 2. She’s 11 now. I call it Chloe’s Game.
It’s no matter what I’m going to think, no matter what I’m going to do, no matter what I’m going to be, is this good for my brain or bad for it. All you have to do is answer that question. If I go to her and I go have a cut or she goes 2 thumbs up, god’s butter. If I say blueberry, she’ll put her hands on her hips and she’ll go, “Well, are they organic? Blueberries have pesticides.
Dave: I love it.
Dr. Amen: Almost any fruit, if they’re organic, 2 thumbs up, god’s candy. If I say talking back to your redheaded mother, she’ll go, “No, that’s not good at all.” It’s answering that simple question that will keep you on track.
Dave: What a perfect answer and I’m going to do that with my kids as well. Is it good for you, but good for your brain or good for the physical parts of it is a very important distinction because it takes some of the judgment out of it and makes it more about control. Wow, brilliant. Dr. Amen, thank you for your work.
Thanks both personally for the impact you’ve had on my life but also for just taking the time to share this with hundreds of thousands of people who are going to hear this overtime. Thanks for your work, keep doing it and don’t let the haters get you down because we know what’s wrong with their brains.
Dr. Amen: Thanks, Dave. It’s always a joy to be with you and I’m very grateful for your heart and your better brain and the work you do.
Dave: We’ll talk again soon.
Dr. Amen: Take care.
Dave: If you enjoyed today’s show, there’s something easy you can do, go check out Dr. Amen’s work. It is totally worth your time. It’ll make you more bulletproof. It is completely solid research. There’s a lot of value in that so go ahead and do that and along the way if you haven’t already got it, check out the Bulletproof Diet book or buy one for a friend.
I’m always looking to show the publisher’s that this was such a good book that I should come out with version 2 or version 3. Click like on my podcast and leave positive reviews for Dr. Amen. Just do good stuff. I appreciate it. Have an awesome day.