A Conversation with Dr. Daniel Amen on Ending Mental Illness by Creating a Revolution in Brain Health.

A Conversation with Dr. Daniel Amen on Ending Mental Illness by Creating a Revolution in Brain Health.

Dr. Daniel Amen’s mission is to end mental illness by creating a revolution in brain health. He is dedicated to providing the education, products, and services to accomplish this goal. Dr. Amen is a physician, adult and child psychiatrist, and founder of Amen Clinics with 11 locations across the U.S. Amen Clinics has the world’s largest database of brain scans for psychiatry totalling more than 225,000 SPECT scans on patients from 155 countries. He is the founder of BrainMD, a fast growing, science-based nutraceutical company, and Amen University, which has trained thousands of medical and mental health professionals on the methods he has developed.

Dr. Amen is one of the most visible and influential experts on brain health and mental health with millions of followers on social media. In 2020 Dr. Amen launched his digital series Scan My Brain featuring high-profile actors, musical artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and influencers that airs on YouTube and Instagram. Over 100 episodes have aired, turning it into viral social media content with collectively millions of views. He has also produced 17 national public television shows about the brain and his online videos on brain and mental health have been viewed over 300 million times. Dr. Amen is a 12-time New York Times bestselling author, including Change Your Brain, Change Your Life; The End of Mental Illness; Healing ADD, and many more. His latest book, Change Your Brain Every Day: Simple Daily Practices to Strengthen Your Mind, Memory, Moods, Focus, Energy, Habits, and Relationships, was released in 2023.

In this interview I speak to Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the world’s most influential experts on brain health and mental health. We discuss his mission to end mental illness by creating a revolution in brain health, and look at the practical ways we all need to think about brain health from what harms and helps our brains, to how we can build mental resilience in high performance careers.

Q: It’s astonishing to me that psychiatry is the only discipline in medicine that doesn’t use imaging?

[Daniel Amen]: Absolutely, it’s quite astonishing. Consider the approach of any medical specialist. Take psychiatrists, for example. Back when I was in medical school, I recognised the inherent flaw in diagnosing conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or psychotic depression without any biological insight into the brain’s workings. It felt fundamentally backward. Reflect on the 1840s, a time when Abraham Lincoln, grappling with severe bouts of depression, even to the point of contemplating suicide, sought help from his doctor in Springfield, Illinois. How did Doctor Henry ascertain Lincoln’s condition as depression or melancholia? He engaged in conversation, observed him closely, and identified clusters of symptoms before diagnosing and treating. Fast forward 184 years, and astonishingly, this method still represents the pinnacle of diagnostic standards. It’s preposterous. There’s a pressing need for advancement. My journey into examining the brain in 1991 revolutionised my entire perspective.

Q: Do we care enough about our brains?

[Daniel Amen]: Living in Newport Beach, California, I’ve often remarked that we tend to prioritize our appearance—our faces, breasts, bellies, and butts—far above our brain health, which is absurd. You notice the wrinkles on your face or the extra weight around your midsection and feel motivated to address these concerns. However, since most individuals rarely, if ever, see their own brain, it simply doesn’t register on their list of priorities. This attitude needs a complete overhaul. We must inspire a shift that encourages people to cherish and look after their brains. My life’s mission is to dismantle the notion of mental illness altogether. I detest it. It only serves to shame and stigmatise those with brain health challenges, which is utterly wrong. When I talk about ending mental illness by sparking a revolution in brain health, people wonder if it’s really feasible. I firmly believe it is. Just picture a world where everyone adores their brain. The idea of 100,000 fans in a soccer stadium cheering on activities that lead to brain damage would be unthinkable. Similarly, in the United States, the thought of 80,000 fans in a football stadium effectively rooting for brain injury would be unimaginable.

Q:  What are some of the main things that harm our brains?

[Daniel Amen]: The misconception that alcohol qualifies as a health food is widespread. It doesn’t. Or the belief that marijuana is harmless. It isn’t. Many don’t give a second thought to consuming ultra-processed foods or applying toxic products to their skin. For years, I used Barbasol for shaving, and on a scale where zero means living a long life and ten equates to dying early, it ranks a startling nine due to its toxic ingredients. Consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s action last year, removing a few sunscreens from the market because they contained cancer-causing ingredients. It’s a stark reminder that while a limited number of people are mindful of what they consume, even fewer consider the implications of what they apply to their skin.

Vikas: So we need to start thinking about how to love our brains!

[Daniel Amen]: You’re spot on. Falling in love with your brain ignites a passion for discovering how best to nurture it. I’m particularly fond of one guiding question: “Is this good for my brain or bad for it?” When you respond to this query armed with knowledge and driven by love—love for yourself, love for your family, love for your purpose on this earth—you naturally start making wiser choices.

Q: What made you fall in love with your brain?

[Daniel Amen]: In 1991, I attended a lecture on brain SPECT imaging and was captivated. It was fascinating and seemed like exactly what our field needed. I went on to scan everyone I knew, including myself. By that time, I was 37, the top neuroscience student in my medical school class, and a double board-certified psychiatrist. Yet, I realised I hadn’t been paying any attention to my own brain’s health. Despite never smoking, avoiding alcohol because I disliked it, my brain scan revealed it wasn’t healthy. I wondered why. The answer lay in my lifestyle: surviving on just four hours of sleep a night, thinking it made me special when, in fact, it was a foolish approach. I was overweight and ate fast food for lunch daily, neglecting my brain’s well-being.

As a psychiatrist who prides himself on authenticity, I understood I had to embody the message I preached. Otherwise, I’d fail as a messenger. The revelation came sharply into focus when I scanned my mother’s brain the week before. At 60, her brain was impressively healthy and beautiful, sparking what I dubbed “brain envy.” I realised Freud had it all wrong; it wasn’t about penis envy—a concept I hadn’t encountered in 40 years of practice. The real desire should be for a healthier brain. That was the moment I understood the importance of brain envy.

Q: How can people in high performance careers love their brains?

[Daniel Amen]: It boils down to this: if someone’s brain isn’t at its healthiest, their decisions won’t be as stellar as they could be, potentially costing them thousands, even millions, of dollars. For leaders, it’s crucial to nurture the “chief executive” part of the brain, the frontal lobes. So, indulging in activities like playing soccer with headers on the weekend might not be the wisest choice. Similarly, hosting a company Christmas party that centres around heavy drinking? That’s simply foolish. Viewing the world through the prism of brain health shines a spotlight on the myriad of unwise actions people take, whether it’s overworking their staff or at Amen Clinics, where we implement the “no asshole” rule. This means I can’t afford to be an asshole, and neither can you, as negative behaviour is detrimental to the well-being of our employees’ brains.

Q: Why are mental health concerns skyrocketing?

[Daniel Amen]: One has to wonder, why are we witnessing such a surge in mental health issues? Let’s talk about Covid’s impact on the brain, a topic that’s scarcely addressed. Covid triggers brain inflammation, heightening the risk of anxiety and depression. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, we’re already grappling with pre-existing epidemics of anxiety, depression, suicide, and addiction. So, what’s going on in our society?

You brought up social media, which is a significant factor. The addiction to our phones is depleting the brain’s dopamine pleasure centres. Between the negativity rampant on social media, the news media that’s shifted from reporting to fearmongering for the sake of ad sales—essentially selling you copper underwear through scare tactics—and the pervasive low-quality food and alcohol promotion, it’s a cocktail for disaster. If I were a malevolent ruler aiming to cultivate mental illness, I’d probably devise something closely resembling current American society.

Q: Do you think we can actually make our brains more robust?

[Daniel Amen]: Several years back, I introduced a concept called brain reserve, closely linked to resilience. It’s essentially the surplus brain tissue that cushions against stress. From the moment of conception—arguably, even before that—our brain reserve is either growing or diminishing. Consider this: a new-born girl arrives with all the eggs she’ll ever possess. The experiences she undergoes throughout her life activate or deactivate specific genes, influencing not just her own likelihood of illness but also that of her future offspring and their children. Hence, resilience and reserve trace back to the generations preceding us.

I firmly believe that teenagers should understand how their actions could affect the health of their children and grandchildren. Yet, there’s a glaring omission in our education system regarding serious health education. Moreover, a mother’s lifestyle during pregnancy, including her stress levels and any infections, either contributes to or depletes this reserve in her child. Post-birth, factors such as diet, household stress, educational opportunities, and physical activity all play critical roles in shaping resilience.

When figures like Tony Robbins discuss resilience, they’re primarily focusing on “software programming.” However, it’s vital to remember that for the software to operate effectively, the hardware—our brain health—must be in good condition. I view brain health as this fundamental hardware that powers our psychological software. Without a properly functioning hardware, software solutions can only go so far in addressing issues.

Q: What happens to our reserves when we feel suicidal?

[Daniel Amen]: When hopelessness seeps in, it’s often a sign of a negativity bias at work within the brain—a tendency to fixate on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. This is particularly prevalent among those experiencing anxiety and depression, where the brain defaults to highlighting negatives over positives. Specifically, the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus show reduced activity, clouding the ability to see hope or maintain persistence. Enhancing brain health can, in turn, foster hope and increase persistence.

I’ve dedicated a lot of effort to positivity bias training, emphasising the importance of a healthy brain and actively seeking out the positive aspects of life. I advocate starting each day with the mindset that “today is going to be a great day” and ending it by reflecting on what went well. For instance, despite the sadness of my mother-in-law passing away three days ago, I’ve continued my practice of finding positive moments even in the darkest days. On what was undoubtedly a difficult day, I found moments of levity that I cherished, such as playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Louis Armstrong to lighten the mood, which became a memorable moment for me.

This approach requires discipline—a quality few people dedicate time to cultivating in their quest to master their minds. It’s about ensuring the “hardware,” or brain health, is in optimal condition, then fine-tuning the “software,” or our mindset. I distinguish between mere positive thinking and what I call accurate thinking with a positive spin. Positive thinking might misleadingly justify harmful behaviours, like excessive drinking, under the guise of harmlessness. In contrast, an accurately positive mindset recognises the benefits of healthier choices, such as abstaining from that extra drink to preserve brain cells, exemplifying a truthful and constructive perspective.

Q:  What could we all do tomorrow to improve our brain health?

[Daniel Amen]: Focusing on the small moments is crucial because significant events are rare. It’s the everyday tenderness, like when I held my wife’s hand on the stairs, that becomes memorable. Or when my mother-in-law joined us for dinner, a rarity that brightened our day. Spotting a rainbow, observing a hummingbird, or even the simple joy of making eight basketball shots in a row at home—all these moments earn a spot in my highlight reel.

Change begins with an individual. It starts with you; it starts with me. We must embody the message we wish to convey. Failure to do so diminishes our effectiveness as messengers. It’s about modelling the behaviour we advocate for and then sharing it, for in giving, we build our support network, increasing the likelihood of persistence. At Amen Clinics, we believe we’re reshaping psychiatry, not just by practicing it differently but by opening ourselves up to teach those willing to learn a new approach. With around 10,000 medical and mental health professionals referred to us, we’re fostering change.

To those who question our goals, suggesting the end of mental illness is an unachievable dream, I say look at history. Individuals have indeed changed the course of history. We’re offering a better approach, one that moves beyond outdated methods to a hopeful, neuroscience-backed paradigm.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.