Daniel Amen says he saves lives. His fellow psychiatrists say his brain-scan system is a sham. Eliza Shapiro checks into the superstar shrink’s new Manhattan clinic to see for herself.
My new psychiatrist just told me I have longstanding trauma I need to process and problems with hand-eye coordination, sports, and math. I should also think about having a protein shake with kale and spinach for breakfast every morning.
He told me this within a few minutes of shaking my hand. He didn’t need to know much more; he had already seen a part of me no one had ever seen before: my brain.
Daniel Amen is perhaps America’s most in-demand psychiatrist. He’s also one of the most reviled, at least among his peers. As the founder and medical director of Amen Clinics, a mini psychiatric empire with six clinics coast to coast, Amen sells a line of natural supplements with names like Neuro Memory and NeuroCalm. There’s also a line of books, like Use Your Brain to Change Your Age, and a series of cookbooks and workout regimens developed by Amen’s wife, Tana. He has made the New York Times bestseller list five times.
But the core of the Amen business revolves around his own controversial system called SPECT, or single-photon emission computed tomography, which tracks blood flow in the brain and shows areas of high and low activity. Amen says two scans, one taken at rest and one taken after a concentration test, along with a series of questionnaires and a clinical history, can paint a clearer diagnostic picture than decades and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of talk therapy. He believes his brand of psychiatry gives hope to those who have tried and failed with everything else. He told me that by the time people come to him they have, on average, had 4.2 psychiatric diagnoses, have seen 3.3 psychiatric providers, and have been on 6 medications. “We see lovely people who have been suffering," he says.
Amen’s services don’t come cheap: an hourlong consultation with him runs $350. And that’s only after the $3,575 initial evaluation, which includes two brain scans and a post-scan consultation. Amen’s six clinics employ a staff of 75, a third of whom are psychiatrists, and see about 1,600 patients a month. In 2011, Amen Clinics grossed about $15 million.
Amen says he changes lives. The American psychiatric establishment says his methods have no basis in science. Google his name, and the top two related searches come up as “Daniel Amen scam" and “Daniel Amen quack."
Scam artist or savior? I figured the best way to find out would be to see Amen myself—as a patient. Over the course of two weeks this fall, I subjected myself to IV injections, pointed questions about my personal life, and what felt like hours (but were in fact many dark and lonely minutes) of being photographed as I lay perfectly still, wondering—fearing—what lay festering deep in the recesses of my innermost brain.
In the end, I was able to connect a few dots between own mental faculties and my behavior, and it was cool to learn things I wasn’t able to grasp back in ninth-grade biology—like how important the cerebellum is and why murderers tend to have frontal-lobe problems. I learned that my own brain is processing a crazy amount of material that rarely occurs to me. But ultimately, the chance to peer into my own brain revealed surprisingly little about how my mind works.
A few weeks before my scans, Amen called to tell me a bit about what to expect. He spoke calmly about the logistics, but bubbled with excitement about peering into my brain: “We get to look at the hardware of your soul," he told me.
He asked me a few questions about my psychiatric history. I told him I had been in talk therapy on and off for 15 years, since I was a child, and that I initially went for anxiety about a family illness, but then inevitably found other things to be anxious about and stuck around.
Scam artist or savior? I figured the best way to find out would be to see Amen myself—as a patient.
“Good," he said, taking a swipe at my years of sitting on a therapist’s couch, “so we’re going to have a virgin brain."
Amen’s newest clinic opened in October in New York City, a town that wasn’t exactly lacking in shrinks to begin with. Occupying a full city block in midtown Manhattan, the clinic was partially funded by a large donation from a Hong Kong family. “The mother read Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and sent the whole family to California to see me," Amen told me. “They got so much better." Clinic director John Crepsac said there has already been an influx of patients from Japan and the United Arab Emirates.