Why Being a Maverick is a Good Thing


Growing up, Dr. Daniel Amen’s father called him a “Maverick”, which to him was not a good thing.

Daniel G. Amen, MD, a clinical neuroscientist, board certified psychiatrist, brain imaging expert, ten-time New York Times best-selling author and founder of the Amen Clinics is a pioneer in the field of psychiatry. In fact, Dr. Amen’s curiosity and nonconformist nature have driven his forward-thinking work in psychiatry and has helped thousands of people.

Imaging Changes Everything

In 1972, the army called Dr. Amen’s number and he was trained as an infantry medic. This is where his love of medicine was born. However, being a medic in the Army was not his destiny. He states, “I truly hated the idea of being shot at or sleeping in the mud, so I got myself retrained as an X-ray technician and developed the passion for medical imaging.”

During his training, one of his professors said something that would stick with him for the rest of his career, “How do you know unless you look?”

Cardiologists look, neurologists look, and orthopedic doctors look. In fact, virtually every other medical specialist looks at an image of the area they are treating. Yet, current practice for psychiatrists is to look for symptom clusters and then… guess.

Psychiatrists guess? Shockingly, yes. Without imaging, psychiatrists still make diagnoses like they did in 1840… by talking to people and looking for symptom clusters.

Resistance to Change

In 1991, Dr. Amen attended an all-day lecture on brain SPECT imaging in psychiatry given by physicians at Creighton University. What was presented was amazing and mirrored findings he and his colleagues experienced early on. Yet, at the same conference, researchers complained loudly that clinical psychiatrists SHOULD NOT be using the scans; they were only for their research.

Being a “maverick” and someone who had personal experience using scans, Dr. Amen knew that this position was dead wrong! He knew that imaging shows us there is a better way.

For the next 28 years, his knowledge of and passion for imaging drove the work he and his colleagues did. They made important discoveries and have used them to impact the way psychiatric illnesses and brain disorders like anxiety, depression, and ADD are diagnosed and treated. They learned that these disorders all had multiple types and treatment needs to be tailored to individual brains, not clusters of symptoms.

Their works proved that imaging really does change everything and that psychiatrists should stop guessing and start looking.

You Are Not Stuck With the Brain You Have

Dr. Amen and his colleagues performed a study on former NFL (National Football League) players. The players involved in the study all showed high levels of brain damage. At the time, the NFL’s stance was, “they didn’t know if playing football caused long-term brain damage.”

The fact was they didn’t want to know.

Though the first revelation was important to recognize, the second part of the study is what really excited Dr. Amen and his colleagues: study participants were put on a brain healthy program and the outcome was incredible. 80% of the players showed improvement in the areas of blood flow, memory and mood.

The NFL study proved that you are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better. Brain healthy programs can help reverse brain damage. This is a very exciting new frontier, but the implications are really much wider.

The imaging work done by Dr. Amen and his colleagues also showed mild traumatic brain injury was a major cause of a psychiatric illness that can ruin people’s lives. The astounding part – virtually no one knew about it because these people would go to psychiatrists for help with things like temper problems, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. And because psychiatrists never look – they never would know that underlying brain injury was present and therefore, could never prescribe effective treatment.

How do you know unless you look?

Redefine Crime and Punishment

To date, Amen Clinics have scanned over 500 convicted felons including 90 murderers. This work has demonstrated that people who have trouble in their life often have troubled brains.
This is not a surprising conclusion.  What is surprising is that many of these brains could be rehabilitated. This type of thinking led Dr. Amen to a radical idea. What if we evaluated and treated troubled brains rather than simply warehousing them in toxic, stressful environments?

Dostoevsky once said, “A society should be judged not by how well it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” Instead of just crime and punishment, we should be thinking about crime evaluation and treatment. We could save tremendous amounts of money by making these people more functional so when they left prison, they could work, support their families and pay taxes. If we help people change their brains, we help them change their lives.

Change Your Brain, Change A Generation

In 1979, Dr. Amen was a second-year medical student and someone in his family became seriously suicidal. He took her to see a wonderful psychiatrist. Over time, he realized that if the psychiatrist helped her, which he did, it would not only save her life but it would also help her children and even her grandchildren.

Years later, this idea was further validated in one of Dr. Amen’s favorite success stories:

Andrew, a nine-year-old boy, attacked a little girl on the baseball field for no particular reason. At that time, he was also drawing pictures of himself hanging from a tree and shooting other children. Andrew was Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook waiting to happen.

Most psychiatrists would have medicated Andrew as they did Eric Harris and the other mass shooters before they committed their devastating crimes. But Dr. Amen’s work with brain SPECT imaging told him he had to look at Andrew’s brain to best understand what he needed.

Thankfully, he did just that.

Andrew’s SPECT scan showed a cyst the size of a golf ball occupying the space of his left temporal lobe. No amount of medication or therapy would have helped Andrew. When the cyst was removed, Andrew’s behavior went back to normal. He could once again be the loving boy he used to be.

Andrew is Dr. Amen’s nephew. 18 years later he owns his own home, is employed, and pays taxes; all because someone bothered to look at his brain. Andrew has been a better son and will be a better husband, father, and grandfather as a result of brain SPECT Imaging.

Dr. Amen states it best, “When you have the privilege of changing someone’s brain, you not only change his or her life, you have the opportunity to change generations to come.”

Being a maverick is a good thing indeed.

In this powerful TEDx presentation, Dr. Amen talks about how the groundbreaking work he and his colleagues have done using SPECT imaging in psychiatry has proven to help not only individuals but also shapes future generations.

Watch the video to discover how Dr. Amen’s journey into psychiatry began and the most important lesson Dr. Amen has learned from building the world’s largest database of brain scans related tobehavior—nearly 125,000 scans on patients from 120 countries around the world.

Amen Clinics approaches each individual with a sense of compassion and respect. Our experienced clinical staff will take a full history of each patient using The 4 Circles Approach before beginning treatment with SPECT imaging or making other recommendations. Connect with us today by calling 888-288-9834 to learn more – we are waiting to help you, or schedule a visit online!

1 Comment »

  1. How do hormones affect mental health

    Comment by Carol — May 16, 2018 @ 8:43 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Contact Us