book cover

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life
The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety,
Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness

Daniel G. Amen
337pp, Times Books

Chicken Soup for the Brain

Based on his experience with functional brain imaging, Dr Amen has come up with a model of the relationship between behavior and brain structure. The model is a partition of the brain into five regions, and a mapping of most (if not all) psychological problems onto over- or underactivity in one of these regions. By surgery or medication that targets the afflicted parts, the problems can be cured. He presents some compelling anecdotal evidence that brain physiology causes behavioral problems. But then anecdotal evidence usually is compelling.

Dr Amen has written another “breakthrough” book on curing Attention Deficit Disorder, one about spiritual growth, and another about dealing with relationship problems. One might wonder whether the doctor is spreading his expertise somewhat thin, but these fields are in fact connected in that medication can correct all sorts of misbehavior. The book actually does present an example of marriage counseling by medication. But when it relates chemistry to how close or distant we feel from God, it feels like we're leaving the solid ground of science and being launched into the astral plane.

On closer reflection, many anecdotes given in evidence of the model can be extremely tenuous. Is it really true that grief over the death of a loved one boils down to a “deep limbic loss” of touch, voice, and smell? Isn't it likely that something less bodily might play a role in our feelings of loss? And if the limbic system is equally affected by voice and appetite, wouldn't we feel the same deep limbic grieving over the loss of some particular food? With each brain part responsible for so many behavioral problems, doesn't fixing one cause others?

I wonder if we actually learn something by blaming behavior on some particular part of the brain, or if we are just taking well-recognized problems and relabeling them. There would be a point to all this if it led to new understanding or therapy. In fact, after doing much work to demonstrate the power of functional brain imaging to diagnose behavioral problems, the doctor goes out of his way to dissuade people from using the technique. In fact, many of the therapies that he does recommend appear quite conventional (cognitive behavioral therapy, diet, exercise).

The book isn't really as married to the model as it purports. Although the framework is structured around this brain partition, the meat of the book consists mostly of stories that bear no relationship to it, and branch out into new theories that are not given any other theoretical basis. Are we still pulling out the old hackney that Mozart is good for you? I've heard it makes your plants grow.

The tendency to view psychopathology in terms of a simplistic unidirectional chemical causality shows when the author unambiguously states that depression is caused by a neurotransmitter deficit. But this is either false or completely irrelevant. When somebody becomes depressed over the death of a loved one, the external event quite obviously must have something to do with this.

I'm not saying that there is no connection between brain and behavior. But the book appears to completely disallow the possibility that rather than being slaves to uncontrollable chemical imbalances, brain chemistry could itself at least partially be a reflection of our behavior. Perhaps the psychological-physiological dichotomy is a false one and both are aspects of the same thing, like the wave-particle duality of matter.

The book does have some useful things to say about the various medications that are in use. The anecdotes if anything are interesting, as are the brain scan images (those of addicts in particular are downright scary).

If the book purports to have a scientific basis, it would have benefited from a much more extensive set of references to support some of its claims. Psychology is a tough nut to crack, and there is still a tremendous amount of research ongoing to understand how our brain works. In the meantime, the field is open for anybody with a pet theory to claim they have the answers.

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