Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Day I Had My Head Examined

(The good, kind, brilliant, Dr. Earl Henslin, with whom I wrote This is Your Brain on Joy. )

The following is an excerpt from This is Your Brain on Joy -- my (Becky's) personal experience of getting a brain scan...

Since the first time I read Dr. Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life with complete fascination (over ten years ago now), I’ve wondered, Hmmmm . . . what would my brain SPECT scan look like?And then I quickly decided that some things were probably just better left . . . a mystery.

I was that girl in high school who, though a true brunette, was often the butt of blond jokes anyway. I was book-smart rich but common-sense poor. I might make straight A’s, but while accepting my report card from the teacher, I could be wearing mismatched shoes and my shirt inside out and never notice it. After forgetting to bring my gym suit to my seventh grade PE class for nearly two weeks in a row (each day being as astonished at my own forgetfulness as the day before), the junior high school coach held a conference with my mother and told her flatly, “Becky is going to have to really lean on that cute little way about her in order to get through life. Her ability to make me laugh is all that’s keeping me from strangling her.”

So I took to carrying my Honor Society card in the wallet of my purse so that I could pull it out in scenarios where my basic intelligence might be called into question. And it worked, as long as I could remember where I last put my wallet . . . and my purse.But, alas, my junior high gym teacher was right. My sense of humor has saved my forgetful neck in more ways, and for more years, than I care to count. I actually had a fairly prolific career as a humor writer and speaker, telling stories about the scatterbrained situations I so often found myself in. As my youngest son, then age fifiteen, once said to his buddies after hearing me speak for the first time: “Mom basically just tells about the funny or weird stuff that is always happening to her, and people laugh like crazy and actually pay her for it.” So using my naturally high sense of optimism, I simply turned my most blaring faults into a cottage industry.

Though it may seem totally out of my normal character to collaborate on a book about the brain, when I was asked to consider writing this project with Dr. Henslin, I fairly lept at the opportunity! Since reading Dr. Amen’s first book so many years ago, I’d become an armchair brainiac. My bedside table nearly always had one or two books about the mind or the brain, which I absorbed like a neuron-hungry sponge. While other women flipped through People magazine, I was soaking up "Scientific American Mind."

Equally of interest to me were books on what makes happy people . . . well, happy. So when Dr. Henslin proposed writing a book on the brain and joy, from a Christian perspective, all the pieces clicked. A dream came true. I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about brain imaging and how the brain affects our moods, behavior, relationships, and more. (I have learned that the fastest way to learn something well is to have to write about it or teach it.) Moreover, because I am not exactly your average science-person, I hoped I could help a brilliant mind like Dr. Henslin’s communicate life-changing concepts to an even wider audience.

Then Dr. Henslin and Dr. Amen offered to let me experience getting my brain scanned as part of the research for this book. At first I was truly thrilled about that opportunity, but the night before the actual scan was to take place I found myself feeling surprisingly nervous. The insides of my head would be exposed--naked!--and what if I really didn’t have much of a brain? What if it was stuffed with fluff? Or one of those brains with big pot holes instead of healthy blood flow?

One stipulation before the brain test was that I could not have coffee--no stimulants before the scan. I had visions of my husband having to wheel me in to the clinic, with me stuck in my usual state of morning catatonia until I get my first jolt of java. (I would soon discover why I’d relied on coffee to jump start my head every day.)I felt a little foggy the next morning as we drove to the Amen Clinic in beautiful Newport Beach, California. The clinic itself is in an unassuming but nice, private area. Nothing intimidating or frightening about it at all. In fact, there’s a pretty garden and fountain in front of the clinic door so you get a shot of calming beauty before entering.The staff was friendly, and I flipped through maybe half a magazine (I’m a fast reader) before the technician called my name to go back.

I sat in a little room where I was soon stationed in front of a computer screen. The tech gave me a little shot of the imaging tracer, which I hardly felt. The needle was tiny and barely noticeable. I felt no effects--or aftereffects--from it at all. Unlike most patients coming to the Amen Clinic, I just took one kind of SPECT scan (since my purpose was more research-oriented than a diagnostic need): the concentration test. (I didn’t do the resting test.) However, I would still get two different pictures of my brain: the surface scan (or “the tie-dyed bread dough” scan that checks blood flow), and the active scan (which can show overactive areas deeper inside the brain).The concentration test involved eye-hand coordination and concentration, like a video game for grownups. Eye-hand coordination has never been my strong suit, though I did win third prize once in a three-legged race in third grade. Sadly, it was the only athletic ribbon I ever won. At first I felt, as I always do when trying to play a computer game, that my brain had just vacated the building when I needed it most. But eventually I caught on to the game, and felt I did pretty well! (Which is just more proof that how we feel doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.)

Then it was time for me to lie down on the big machine for the scan. The scanner itself is sort of like a bed with a three-sided triangle (the camera) where your head tucks neatly inside. One thing I really appreciated is that only half of your face goes into the scanner, so there’s not that terrible sense of claustrophobia that people who have to go fully into “a tube” for other sorts of medical scans (that you see on ER and Grey’s Anatomy) have to deal with. You can’t move during the scan, so of course they duct-tape your head to the bed. Okay, well, that’s not exactly true. They gently put some kind of soft belt around your head to remind you not to move. Then they threaten to take your firstborn child if you so much as sneeze. I was given a blankie, which I really appreciated. I get very cold in any kind of doctor’s offices--whether from nerves or the typical Arctic conditions in medical facilities, I don’t know.I decided to spend the fifteen minutes or so doing all the relaxation exercises I could think of while the camera slowly clicked its way around my head, including praying blessings over everyone I loved. (Although, I should point out that all the relaxation I used at this point would have no effect on my scan. The picture that would show up on the scan was captured and held in sort of a cerebral “still life” by the imaging tracer earlier, during the concentration task.) I actually enjoyed the experience, and because I was thinking such happy thoughts about people I cared about, entrusting them into God’s hands, the time went by quickly. I felt totally relaxed at this point, except for the little nagging worry about what my scan would look like and if a brain would actually appear on the photos.

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and in the back of my mind I suppose I worried that my forgetfulness that I’d struggled with since puberty could be a sign of early dementia. (Of course it would have had to begin at age twelve.)When I walked into Dr. Amen’s office, my husband and Dr. Earl Henslin were also there. Earl (I can call him “Earl” now) must have known that I was anxious because he said to me, “Becky, the first thing Dr. Amen said when he saw your scan was that you have a beautiful brain.”I thought I might swoon. I have a BEAUTIFUL brain! This, in the world of ditzy people, is bigger than winning the Miss America pageant! I not only HAD a brain; it was beautiful. The surface scan showed even blood flow with pretty pigments of hot pink, blue, yellow, and lime green throughout. I wanted to make a T-shirt out of it and wear it everywhere as both a fashion statement and a “See: I TOLD YOU I Wasn’t Senile!” proclamation to my kids.

There was, however, just one wee little “dent” in my left prefrontal cortex. Dr. Amen took a look at the results of my computer-game-playing stress test, grinned, and without fanfare said, “Oh, you did just awful.”“What does that mean?” I asked, worried.“It means that you have a super-healthy brain, with no signs of dementia in your near future at all! However, you probably have a little inattentive ADD. This means that when you are required to concentrate on a task, the blood tends to leave your prefrontal cortex.”

In fact, when I took the Amen Brain Test in this book, it showed that I probably had inattentive ADD symptoms, and now the SPECT backed it up. This type of person usually wakes up in a fog, begging for caffeine--but they are usually mumbling, so it may be hard to understand their requests in the morning. “You could take a half dose of Adderall,” he said, “to help with focusing.”But I decided I’d try the supplement route. I’m finding it to be very helpful. I take l-tyrosine, an amino acid that works like a stimulant to the brain. I also take a good Omega-3 fish oil, L Carnitine, and Co-Q10 along with an amino acid complex called NeuroLink. (The Amen Clinic offers a wide variety of supplements.) I am blessed that my husband, Greg, besides being the dearest man on earth, is also one of the most gifted organizers I’ve ever met. He is happy to help keep me organized and considers it his spiritual gifting and joy. “I like the challenge,” he’ll say, and means it with all sincerity.

So my forgetfulness doesn’t keep me from living a happy, productive life right now. But in case it ever does cause more irritation than either Greg or I can stand, and my “cute little way of making people laugh” isn’t enough to cover the general aggravation of my losing several items per day anymore: it is good to know there is medication available and a variety of activities I can do to improve my condition.Right now you may be asking, “How could a scatterbrained person be a writer? Doesn’t that take, like, concentration?” Remember that ADD types can focus on something they find highly stimulating. In fact, we’ll actually overfocus on it. Reading new information and writing about it is one of my greatest pleasures. Apparently it just tickles my prefrontal cortex to no end. So if I am on a project that I love--I’m totally focused on it. Of course, the roof could be falling down around me and fire alarms could be going off and I wouldn’t be aware of it if I’m absorbed in crafting a really good paragraph.

The next scan, the active SPECT scan, showed a lot more red-hot activity than I had expected to see. “Do you have any past traumas that you struggle with?” Dr. Amen asked as he looked over the scan.So here was the part where I felt emotionally exposed: but thankfully, I was in loving, kind, and professional hands. I have suffered for several years with what Greg and I would call “episodes”--all of them relating to trauma memories from my previous marriage. I had nightmares for a few years where I would be faced with and trying to escape from a painful memory. Greg would pray for my sleep to be good and sweet. Usually I was fine during the daytime hours and my experience of life (particularly since my second marriage) was always joyful and peaceful--unless I was somehow “triggered” by a person or event that reminded my brain of past pain. And then my body would react by shutting down or trying to flee. It was the oddest thing, even to me--the person it was happening to!

I remember one time I was on the patio in our backyard and one of our guests began speaking in a belittling tone to his wife. I didn’t say a word but I immediately stood up, went inside the house, and closed and locked the door behind me. Then, still shaking, I walked upstairs robotically and into my bedroom, locking the door. Then into the bathroom, locking that door behind me. Then I just sat there and tried to breathe and recover from whatever had just happened to my mind and body.

What happened was that I was triggered by a tone of voice that reminded me of confusing and painful experiences that I had once endured on a fairly regular basis in what felt like “a past life.” However, my body was reexperiencing what I’d wanted to forget and went, on auto-pilot, into “shut down and get outta here” mode.“You have a scan that shows the classic diamond pattern of overactivity in the cingulate, basal ganglia, and limbic associated with PTSD,” Dr. Amen said gently. “You’ve probably got some trauma memories here that are stuck in your brain’s neural system.”I felt both sad and relieved. At least there was a name for what had been happening to me: post-traumatic stress.

I plan to do some EMDR therapy (which you can read about in the appendix on PTSD). I’ve heard and read great reports about its ability to repair the brain when it gets stuck like this. And Dr. Amen, who has also went through EMDR himself when he was in a particularly stressful situation, says that brain scans can show radical improvement after just a few EMDR sessions with a trained professional. This also happens to be one of Dr. Henslin’s specialties.In addition to that, I am also taking some supplements at bedtime that are calming support for PTSD. I’ve found that taking GABA in the evening before bed has really helped my sleep and my dreams to be more peaceful. (END OF BOOK EXCERPT)


Just to be clear: not everyone needs a brain scan! In fact, Dr. Henslin has been an enormous help to many of my friends and readers of this book in doing phone coaching based on the Amen Brain Test in the book. He writes up a wonderful "prescription" of possible supplements or even medications you may want to try (to be given to your local doctor) along with nutritional, exercise and lifestyle adjustments.

Everyone who I have recommended to Dr. Henslin for either therapy or coaching has said, "He's an angel." If you suspect your brain could use a little help, check out This is Your Brain on Joy, take the Amen brain test (which is backed up by results of over 50,000 brain scans) and if you'd like further help, please feel free to call my friend Earl. (Okay, Dr. Henslin. But after you get to know him, he's quick to say, "Just call me Earl.")

1 comment:

  1. Excellent book excerpt. I like your sense of humor and insights. Wow, to get a SPECT scan and have Dr. Amen personally analyze it for you... I'd love to be in your shoes, Becky. Interesting that Dr Amen found some ADD and PTSD. I bet those vitamins are awesome. I take alot of those myself. Thanks for sharing; I can't wait to read this book.