Book Review: Your Brain Is Always Listening By Daniel G Amen MD

Tame the hidden dragons that control your happiness, habits and hang ups.
This book is by Dr Daniel G Amen a psychiatrist based in the United States. The contents of the book covered a fairly impressive range of thought patterns that can lead psychiatric illness. It was well worth a read because it broke down a host of mental health issues and their causes in simple terms yet it still covered the topics to an adequate level of depth. The author of this book has more than 30 years experience in psychiatry and mental health having scanned 175,000 brains from over 155 countries. This gives him a fairly rare perspective on approaches to brain health.

“Dragons” and “Ants”

Dr Amen breaks down influences on the brain as dragons and ants, that your brain is always listening to. These are usually hidden as people are unaware of them.  Early on in the book the author narrates his experience with one of his patients the American pop star Miley Cyrus.

“I finally managed to get Miley to take a few deep breaths with me to help her calm down. It was obvious to me that this new pandemic had unleashed Miley’s dragons from the past. These long-hidden dragons were now breathing fire on the fear centres of her brain, fuelling her anxiety, worry, and negative thinking patterns. I let her know that in these unprecedented times, she needed to become a dragon tamer to soothe the savage beasts within.”

– Your Brain is always listening

The author breaks down the different types of dragons in the chapters of the book and explains what to look for when these dragons rear their heads. He groups the manifestations of these dragons in the groupings below.

  • Dragons from the Past—memories and events that still breathe fire on your emotional centres, driving your behaviour.
  • They, Them, and Other Dragons—other people in your life—past and present—who each have their own set of dragons
  • Bad Habit Dragons—habits that result from dragon influences and increase the chances you’ll be overweight and depressed, and have brain fog
  • Scheming Dragons—advertisers, news feeds, social media sites, and the gadgets in your pocket that steal your mind and money
  • Addicted Dragons—repetitive behaviours that damage your health, wealth, or relationships

Automatic negative thoughts are described in the book as ANTs. These are automatically triggered and the author describes them as below.

  • ANTs—automatic negative thoughts that link, stack, and attack you, providing the fuel for anxiety and depression. These are automatically triggered

According to Dr Amen becoming aware of these “dragons” and “ants” is key to having a healthy brain. It is true that many people lack awareness of what they are feeling or what makes them feel that way. The book unpacks threats to brain health in a simple way.

Brain Structure and 4 Circles of Health

The book also discusses in easily understandable terms the structure of the brain. The author explains 6 of the main brain systems that work in concert to control your moods, anxieties, memory, and behaviour

  1. Prefrontal cortex (PFC) – responsible for focus, forethought and impulse control.
  2. Anterior Cingulate Gyrus –  responsible  for shifting attention and detecting errors
  3. Amygdala – Responsible for threat detection
  4. Hippocampus –  Memory and mood
  5. Basal Ganglia –  Pleasure, motivation and habit formation
  6. Cerebellum –  Motor and thought coordination and processing speed

To maintain good brain health the author recommends looking after 4 circles of health; biological, psychological, social and spiritual.  For biological the author uses the mnemonic BRIGHT MINDS

Blood flow,

Retirement/aging,

Inflammation,

Genetics,

Head trauma,

Toxins,

Mind storms (abnormal electrical activity),

Immunity and infections,

Neurohormones,

Diabesity (a combination of being overweight and having high blood sugar),

Sleep disturbances.

The psychological element is to do with how one thinks and talks to one self. The quality of the social health circle depends on having solid relationships, a career or role that a person enjoys, a healthy family and financial situation.  According to Dr Amen if any one of these areas experiences turbulence then dragons can become unhinged. The fourth circle that is discussed is the spiritual circle and this described in the book “as your connection to God, the planet, and past and future generations; and your deepest sense of meaning and purpose”.

Types of Brains

The book also groups different types of brains into categories. This is based upon the physical differences that have been observed in different brains and suggests supplements and what to avoid and what to pay particular attention to.  Without having a scan the book provides a link to free brain assessment questionnaire which be accessed here.  This type of psychological assessment allows the site to identify the brain type.

Overall Impressions

The book covers a lot of ground, but it is well worth a read and laid out well with good annotations.  For someone that is interested health and well being generally or mental health specifically, it provides very useful insights into what “dragons” and “ants” a brain listens to constantly. It provides some very useful tips in keeping the brain in a healthy state and what can physically damage or diminish capability of brain functional centres like the prefrontal cortex.

The book seems to adopt a holistic approach to mental health; the impression from reading it was that there are a lot nutritional, spiritual, and social dimensions to brain health and as a consequence mental health. Whilst people are increasingly aware of physical health this book provides great insights into brain health. It highlights the “dragons” that need to be slayed and the “ants” that need to be dealt with. As well as discussing lifestyle choices and their link to brain health. The use of pharmacological intervention is not suggested to be panacea in this book although it does mention use of medicines. All in all a very useful book well worth having on the bookshelf, as a reference or as a resource for self improvement and development.

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