Though they’re amazing organs, our brains can be difficult to control. Processes such as epigenetics, which are deep-seated neural pathways passed down from generation to generation, sometimes give us instincts that are outdated or even potentially harmful. In this episode of the podcast, Dr. Daniel and Tana Amen are joined by “A Liberated Mind” author Dr. Steven Hayes for a discussion on how to tame those unconscious instincts and bypass obsolete brain functions.
For more info on Dr. Hayes book, visit https://www.amazon.com/Liberated-Mind-Pivot-Toward-Matters/dp/073521400X
Daniel Amen, MD:
Welcome to The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast. I’m Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen, BSN RN:
And I’m Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging, to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit amenclinics.com.
The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast is also brought to you by Brain MD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.
Welcome, everybody. We actually have a very needed week for you on the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast. We have Dr. Steven Hayes, one of the most cited psychologists in the world, and we are going to talk about cognitive flexibility. He is the author of, I had it.
A Liberated Mind.
A Liberated Mind, and has been involved in something called acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT, which is a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness acceptance and value-based methods. Steven, welcome.
I’m glad to be here with you. Looking forward to it.
Tell us about you and how you got involved in creating ACT, and thinking about ACT, and studying ACT.
Well, I came into psychology because I was interested in aspirational goals, and I’m kind of a Maslow person originally. But then I really thought Western science ought to be able to do something experimentally to speak to that, and I ended up being a behavioral therapist but more on the wing of, the way I say it, is from rats to Walden Two, that you can maybe understand processes that will tell you how to relate to your spouse or raise your children or organize your business.
Than, I had the good fortune of developing a panic disorder as a brand new assistant professor and all that crashed into a thing of, can I even talk to five undergraduates without having it be to the point where I literally couldn’t make sound come out of my mouth? There’s a TEDx talk that walks through that. Hitting bottom and really feeling as though I have no way forward and somehow in that moment of hitting bottom, thinking I’m having a panic attack, a heart attack but I’m actually having a panic attack at [2:30] in the morning after three years of struggle.
I realized that what I was trying to do is run away from myself. In that old kind of, you’re looking at an old hippie, that all those Eastern, sitting on hippie hill, consuming things you probably shouldn’t. I mean, just living on our religious commune, Eastern things, all that kind of stuff had way more traction, than behavior therapy, CBT, and all the things that I had learned in graduate school. It was instant. I turned in a five minute, well, probably 20 minute period and stood up off the floor in a different state and went back to my lab the next week and said, “We’ve got to study this.”
I’ve spent 40 years trying to hack the human mind to understand how could a successful young professor be spun down to the point where I can’t do anything and yet could turn and see a whole nother alternative and if I could express what it is instead of trying to get out of my anxiety and run from that, I learned a way to turn and run towards that scary spot. To run in instead of out. That was transformational. And all that really kind of… The fog lifted.
To run in instead of out.
I love that. I want to hear more about this. I’m assuming there’s some meditation or meditative component to this, obviously, where you’re able to get into .
Try to figure out what are the processes. We spent like 16, 17 years but just invisible. Nobody even knew we were doing it because nobody else was interested. This was before mindfulness was central. You’re talking about somebody out of the CB King team, you’re talking about mindfulness, that’s crazy. I had seen the fights going on. I didn’t want to touch that part of mindfulness where monks hit each other over the head with the sticks because they’re fighting, really. It has a long history of being contentious between different little sects and wings.
But, what I tried to do is figure out a way to get the space that’s inside contemplative practice and link it up to what our wisdom traditions are trying to do in a bottom-up way that you could maybe put on the factory floor in two minute exercises. It just didn’t seem to me that 10 day silent retreats were going to reach Joe Six Pack. It’s just not. The educated elite and the young people can do that, but normal folks, they need many ways into this more flexible, open, aware, values-focused space, where you can take on your history, show up in the moment, focus on what’s important and get your feet moving.
If you don’t do that, you’re going to have all kinds of mental health problems. If you do that, you can step up not just to that, but the challenges of physical disease, diet, exercise, sports, high performance. We’re sitting on 415 randomized trials in all of those areas showing that ACT as a set of techniques, but really what’s more important, psychological flexibility as a focus, is transformation on human minds.
I wrote a book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, based on the brain imaging work I do. There’s a chapter called Getting Stuck, or Getting Unstuck. The OCD literature, which is the classic, you’re stuck on something, is associated with hyperfrontality where their frontal lobes tend to work too hard, which is, with the brain SPECT imaging work we do. Looking at that goes with people who are worried, rigid, inflexible, things don’t go their way they get upset. They also tend to be argumentative and oppositional and if things don’t go their way they get upset, which now the pandemic and the election and the societal unrest, there’s so many people that are stuck. They found that psychotherapy can actually settle the front part of the brain. So, how exciting is that just because there’s a physical manifestation, it doesn’t mean medicine. What it means is perhaps a new set of techniques.
I’m really curious about this with kids. We have a daughter who, she borders on OCD. She can be pretty inflexible. As a child, we used to put flexibility on her chore chart. You had to work with her on being flexible because she was very rigid. Then she started to get much better in her middle school years, the pandemic sent her over the edge. She became extremely panicked, not flexible, frozen, depressed, all of those things. We worked with her on… I’m curious what ACT is in like compared to what we did with her. We worked with her on a handful of supplements, meditation, yoga, and journaling, and it really did help her get unstuck. Tell me, with kids… First of all, can it be done with kids, what are you doing?
Let’s have him explain.
Yeah. I want to know, how does it compare to some of the traditional things?
That’s actually a, I think it’s an awesome kind of hook on the way in that it’s a personal relevance. My mom was clinically OCD. I wouldn’t leave the house any day as a child without her reminding me not to eat all the oleander right outside our door. Every single time I left the house and I have a little bit of it in myself, I’ve had spaces where I’ve struggled with the odd thoughts, throwing my kids out the window and things like that. Especially, when my anxiety was really roaring.
I think a lot of us have had that during the pandemic.
Yeah. Well, that’s a little different. I’ve got smart kids, ages in the 50’s to 15, so I lived that. I understand that. But, no, no, this is different. This is that, “Isn’t he scary?” “Oh my God, what if I did that?”
Oh, I see.
What’s happening is we’re taking something that evolved in the last 200,000 to 2.8 million years, symbolic language that you and I are doing right now. That’s part of the hack that’s underneath ACT. We have a whole basic science or cognition with several hundred studies as to what happened to the human species, because what the birds are doing outside the window and what you’re doing is different. And it’s harnessing parts of the brain that are a thousand times older. That rigidity, I think, comes from the way that cognition lays down a particular structure of all the possibilities and then grooves it, and grooves it, and grooves it. Current, including neurobiologically around the stories of self, the worries that you have about the future, rumination about the past, and if you don’t have a little bit of a break on that, it’ll go down to all the parts of the brain that are sort of kicking up this almost alligator brainstem level, emotional response, where you don’t even know why you’re feeling what you’re feeling or being pushed in the way you are, have the urges that you have.
I’ll give you a couple of things because there’s a lot of work on ACT with OCD, including with children. We might do something like come down to a core thought and sing it, or say it in a funny voice.
Or distill it down to a single word and spell it backwards, or say it repeatedly until it loses all meaning. We’ve developed a, we call them cognitive diffusion, made up word, techniques that allow you to take thought when it comes up like this, and it’s harnessing all those parts of the brain that are flooding in emotion and you’re losing your center, and put your thoughts more like that so that you can notice the process of thinking without being entangled with it. That’s what contemplative practice does. I think it’s kind of cool that we could have little micro things like… I’ll give you another one, say it in the third person. “Steve’s having an odd thought now.” Give your brain a name, “George is saying.” All of those things take thought that automatically doesn’t announce itself as thought, it just is the world structured by thought, but it doesn’t announce itself. That’s up here and it puts it out there, so that you can see you have alternatives and then you can make some choices. Do I really need to engage in that ritual or do I really need to undo that scary thought or do I have other things that would be more useful to me right now?
It’s so interesting. It’s almost, part of what you said sounded to me like instead of sort of fighting the thought, which it seems to me a lot of people do, you’re almost emerging yourself in it and dissecting it or looking at it.
It’s a kind of exposure, but in a different way. We’re not where, is it gone yet? Is it gone yet? Not that kind of exposure, but the kind that allows you to behave differently in the presence of things that usually command a narrow range of actions that are not going to be helpful to you.
The rigidity is part of it is a response rigidity. If I can do anything different, anything different in the presence of that thought or that feeling or that bodily sensation or that image, I’m increasing my alternatives to have a choice about what I can do in this situation. That’s a key element of psychological flexibility. It’s one of the six core processes.
That’s so interesting.
When we come back, we’re going to get into some examples of how you can use ACT in your daily life. We are here with Dr. Steven Hayes, author of Liberated Mind. You can learn more about his work at Steven, with a V, stevenchayes.com. Stay with us.
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