Forgiveness: Why It’s So Important- PT. 2 with James Ackerman

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Sometimes the most difficult challenges we face in life are centered around those who have wronged us in some way. In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen are joined by Prison Fellowship CEO James Ackerman for a discussion on some of the more extreme cases of forgiveness.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warriors Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. Here, we teach you how to win the fight for your brain to defeat anxiety, depression, memory loss, ADHD, and addictions.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The Brain Warriors Way podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we've transformed lives for three decades using brain SPECT imaging to better target treatment and natural ways to heal the brain. For more information, visit

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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We are here again, with James Ackerman, the president and CEO, Prison Fellowship. They have training programs across the United States. How many people have gone through the programs do you think?

James Ackerman: Good question. It's certainly in the few thousands so far, but our goal is that it's ultimately tens of thousands that go through the program.

Tana Amen: That's fantastic.

James Ackerman: The wonderful thing that happens when somebody graduates from the academy in a prison, is they begin to affect the culture of these around them. That has an effect on ultimately hundreds of thousands, and if not, when they're back in society, millions of just positive impact.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, when we did the Daniel Plan, or The Brain Warrior Way, what we came to realize is if you get the information that you are teaching them, if you get it, you then have to give it to somebody.

James Ackerman: That's right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You have to teach someone else because it's in the act of giving that you create your own support group, making it more likely you're going to stay with it.

James Ackerman: Yeah.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And then, that's how we change society.

James Ackerman: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It starts with us. If we don't live the message of our life, we suck as messengers, so you have to live it and then give it, and that's how you keep it.

James Ackerman: When we were speaking earlier, you made a point about the impact that we have on generations. So, it's true also. A man comes out of prison and understands what it means to be a good father, to be a good husband. He's going to impact generations to come. He doesn't, and he negatively impacts generations to come, so your point's a good one.

Tana Amen: Yeah. One of the things we talked about in the last segment was how do you get people on the outside to now change their view of people who have been incarcerated. I know I mentioned that for me, it's when I worked with the Salvation Army, so what I wanted to bring up was I had my epiphany at that time. It's doing something. So, it's in the act of actually stepping up and doing something. A lot of times we actually find healing for ourselves. I know that's happened to me several times. Whether it's someone in my family, or whether it's healing the past with working with people. And it's really hard to do sometimes. I admit it. It's really hard to do sometimes, but if you can take that risk, miracles can happen. It's pretty amazing.

James Ackerman: And to your point, you end up being both sympathetic and empathetic with people when you go and volunteer. I would encourage everybody, I don't care what your age is, to find an opportunity to volunteer. Maybe at the local old folks' home. It may be in prison. It may be at a Salvation Army. It may be at a soup kitchen. It may be any number of places to find the opportunity to give back to people in some way, because what you'll do when you interact with people is you learn about their story and learn about their narrative. And there's a lot to be learned from that.

Tana Amen: And it might be a little bit selfish, but that's okay. The healing ends up being somewhat for you. You learn to forgive in the process, but you gain so much from it.

James Ackerman: I agree with that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I gave you a copy of my book, Memory Rescue.

James Ackerman: Yes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The idea behind Memory Rescue is if you want to keep your brain healthy, well rescue it if you think it's headed for the dark place. You have to prevent or treat the 11 major risk factors that steal your mind. We know what they are. I have a mnemonic called BRIGHT MINDS. B is for blood flow. R is retirement and aging. Under that, one of the biggest risk factors for Alzheimer's disease is loneliness.

James Ackerman: Oh wow.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And being socially isolated. So just to your point, if you volunteer ... They actually did a study in Baltimore. They had a control group, people who didn't volunteer, compared to, they all started out at the same place. People who volunteered, they were growing part of their brain called the hippocampus, that is involved with mood and memory. So, the more isolated you are, the more likely you are to lose your mind. The more you volunteer, the more connected you are. You're working your brain. You're interacting. You're using lots of the skills you won't have.

How can people support Prison Fellowship?

James Ackerman: So, Prison Fellowship is an organization that is supported exclusively by individuals, foundations, and some corporations. So, if you go to, you can donate right there.

Tana Amen: Oh, fantastic.

James Ackerman: And that's one way you can support. But you can also get involved. You can become an advocacy volunteer. You can become a reentry volunteer, or through a local church. You can sign up, work to sign up your church or community center for Angel Tree program. There's all kinds of ways, and all of those resources are on our website at

Tana Amen: I love that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: What about people who are afraid?

Tana Amen: Yeah.

James Ackerman: Afraid of what?

Dr. Daniel Amen: The people coming out of prison.

James Ackerman: Well, it's important to be wise, right. We are big believers in partnering with Christian churches across the country who we can train on how to receive people back into your community. But we need men's groups and women's groups all over the country signing up to receive men and women who are coming out of prison, and help keep them accountable, but walk with them in love. The other thing we do is we started a video series called Prison Fellowship Insider that we post on Facebook every week. We have a new episode every week, and it shows the inside work of Prison Fellowship. And more often than not, we're featuring an individual who's gone through our programming and is now living successfully, either in prison or on the outside. So, it puts a human face on people, as well.

Tana Amen: I love that.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So you know about the program at Delancey Street in San Francisco?

Tana Amen: Yeah, of course. Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Wildly successful from what I understand. People go from prison to there. They work and they often become integrated really well.

James Ackerman: Homeboy Bakery as well is another example of that.

Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.

James Ackerman: Of, pretty much everybody that works at Homeboy was in prison.

Tana Amen: Interesting. So, I know one thing that people are, some of our listeners are going to be thinking, because they write to me on Facebook and often say this. Forgiveness is not always easy when you've been hurt by someone. One thing I love that I came across, because forgiveness is being studied now because it's so important. Not just from this esoteric perspective, but from an actual biological perspective. It's so important for healing and for aging and for so many reasons, for health purposes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Your mental health.

Tana Amen: Yeah, for health reasons.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Yep.

Tana Amen: There's a doctor. I believe it's from Vanderbilt. He is a burn doctor, and he deals with the worst burn patients. And what he noticed was he started studying, and he started actually teaching forgiveness because he noticed that people who couldn't, were holding onto grudges and were angry and were not forgiving, were not healing because there's stress hormones. It makes sense. Stress hormones are elevated. They can't forgive. So, they are not getting well, and in fact they would often develop other-

Dr. Daniel Amen: And stress hormones shrink the hippocampus.

Tana Amen: Right, and they would develop other chronic illnesses as well. When they could forgive, and he would teach them a way of forgiveness, sort of a system to forgive, they would get well. Oftentimes they would say, "Yeah that sounds good, but I can't forgive that person." And I love what he said. He has this one line that he says. "I understand that you feel entitled to your anger, but would you be willing to set your entitlement aside, and do this just for now, for you? Would you be willing? If you can't forgive them for them, could you forgive them just for now, for you, for your health?" Something about that just sat with me for a minute. I'm like, "Huh." It's like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.

James Ackerman: Can I share with you something I witnessed? My ministry as a volunteer began by counseling a guy on death row in San Quentin. This man had killed seven people in one night. He was jacked up on drugs and booze when it happened, but I mean he took a lot of lives. We were introduced and we began meeting in person. He had earned the right to have contact visits. At San Quentin, they put you in a cage when you have your contact visit. You're put in first, and then the inmate is brought in with you, and they have to take off his shackles, and you have your meeting, which in itself is an incredibly intimidating experience-

Tana Amen: Right. Wait a second.

James Ackerman: The first time you go through it. But after several months of us meeting, one day ... I had noticed a couple of times this really big guy who was around about my age, in a cell with a petite older woman. And I asked the guy that I was meeting with. I said, "Is that his mother?" And he said, "No, but sort of." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "He is the guy who raped and murdered her daughter."

Tana Amen: Ay yi yi.

James Ackerman: "And she has forgiven him, and she has made him her son." Now how incredible is that? So, that's huge forgiveness, right? But forgiveness is, at the end of the day, it is about us releasing things that are hurting us, that are doing no harm. Forgiveness is beautiful when somebody comes to you and says, "I'm so sorry for that thing I did," and you say, "I forgive you," and there's some reconciliation. But sometimes you don't get that, "I'm so sorry for that thing that I did," and you can't-

Tana Amen: Sometimes you don't.

James Ackerman: And we have to sit there, and decide, am I going to ... because this person's living their lives and they're not worrying about it, as far as I know. And I have to do it for me. I have to let it go and forgive that thing.

Tana Amen: Because you're the one suffering.

James Ackerman: Yeah.

Tana Amen: It's like, I love that expression, if you choose not to forgive, it's like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Why are you looking at me like that again? I know what you're thinking.

James Ackerman: But one thing I would add is I don't also want to be glib about it. I've never experienced the kind of forgiveness that woman went through with that man.

Tana Amen: That's incredible.

James Ackerman: And you have people who are following your podcast who have been through that kind of tragedy in their lives.

Dr. Daniel Amen: There's a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he studies forgiveness, and has been teaching. And then someone murdered his mother.

James Ackerman: Oh wow.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And he goes, "Well can I do this?"

James Ackerman: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And he said, "It was so easy," because he practiced it.

James Ackerman: Oh wow.

Dr. Daniel Amen: He taught it and he practiced it. So, if you can make forgiveness part of your practice, and it's part of the Lord's Prayer, right?

James Ackerman: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those. I mean, it's really almost a commandment, if you will. So, he developed a model. It's called the REACH model of forgiveness, R-E-A-C-H. People can Google it to learn more, but the R is you want to recall what happened, but not if it happened to you as a child from a child's mindset, but from a parent's mindset, so you can begin to correct some of the negative feelings you have around it.

James Ackerman: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: E is empathize with them. It's just the one thing the scans have taught me, that behavior is complicated. It often involves a brain that's disrupted. I testified in the death penalty case of a man who shot two women in the face over trees on an easement. It was just as dumb as can be, but when you scanned him, he didn't have his frontal lobes. He had frontal temporal lobe dementia, and had a bad brain injury. So, if you can have some empathy and try to understand why they did what they did. Put it in context, which I thought you just explained beautifully. A in REACH is the altruistic gift of forgiveness. You choose, out of the goodness of your heart, to do that. And what we know is altruism actually helps your body work better. C is make a commitment to forgive, so let that person know or let somebody know about it. And the H, which I just love, because I see so many bitter people who hold on to their hurts, and the H is hold on to the gift of forgiveness.

But it's practice. It's not easy. But it's something you do over time. Your brain actually works better. We studied people who focused on hateful thoughts, and it completely disrupts their brain, versus people-

Tana Amen: Changes literally people who had the same brain.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Who studied great, versus that same person who focused on gratitude. Their brain worked better.

James Ackerman: I went through a forgiveness process of somebody who then later came to me and apologized. And I had the joy of being able to tell this person, "It's forgiven and it's been forgiven for a long time, as if it never happened." And that's how God sees us. Our sin is as far apart as the east is from the west, the casting crown psalm talk about. And really in God's eyes, through the forgiveness that we experience in Jesus, we can be forgiven of anything.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Forgive us our sins.

Tana Amen: So, so interesting.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Can you stay with us for one more?

James Ackerman: Of course.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We'll be back. Stay with us.