- He sprinkles a nice helping of olive oil on his antipasti,
and orders a decaf espresso. Studies have already proved that proper nutrition
is beneficial not only to the body, but also to the mind, and this is his
expertise - the human mind. He pulls out his laptop, ready at a moment's
notice to show the latest studies and findings on a subject he calls "the
emotion medicine." The interview with him is held in the lobby of
a Tel Aviv hotel, but he still insists on hooking me up to an electrode
that measures the fluctuations of my heart. "I deal with materials
that seem so abstract that I have to demonstrate what it is I am talking
about," he explains.
- Within seconds, a graph of my heart rate appears on the
computer screen, giving an indication not only of the physiological state,
but also of the mental state. French psychiatrist and neurologist David
Servan-Schreiber looks pleased. The heart rate is normal. In order to prove
his theory, he asks me to carry out a simple mathematic calculation: 1,573
minus 8. The cognitive effort turns the graph chaotic. Proof of the ease
with which humans become tense. In order to regulate the heart rate and
restore harmony, he gives a few pointers for proper breathing and physical
consciousness, sounding almost like a Zen teacher. The heart rate instantly
returns to normal.
- Emotion medicine
- Servan-Schreiber is in Israel this week to promote his
theory about the emotion medicine, meeting with psychiatrists and medical
professionals at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. He doesn't look
like a revolutionary, but the idea he has been promoting in the past few
years certainly sounds it. He decided to skip over the two main solutions
that have been found in the West for mental problems: psychoanalysis and
psychotherapeutic drugs. His route to mental health does not pass through
talking or through Prozac. The body, he contends, has the ability to heal
the mind, and chronic problems such as depression, anxiety and stress,
including old residual tensions and traumas experienced early in life.
Treatment with natural methods is usually considered to have a minor effect,
providing some relief, but not a cure, but based his findings, the results
are considerable, and warrant a rethinking of the subject.
- Servan-Schreiber, 44, was born in France, moved to the
United States 20 years ago and is a professor of psychiatry at the University
of Pittsburgh Medical School. Servan-Schreiber was a pioneer in neurocognitive
research in America. He is the son of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, founder
of the French newspaper L'Express. His father's side of the family ("The
wrong side, I know," he says) was Jewish - a family of rabbis that
left the faith and over time became journalists. Servan-Schreiber is also
a founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in the
U.S. He is married to an American woman, and they have a 10-year-old son.
He now divides his time between Pittsburgh and Paris.
- David Servan-Schreiber lays out his beliefs in "The
Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs
and Without Talk Therapy," an international best-seller that has been
translated into 27 languages, including Hebrew. Although psychoanalysis
and drugs are in many cases effective, in many other instances, they do
not offer a solution to the problem. The book suggests seven methods to
heal the mind through the body, all of which have been scientifically examined
and verified: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (an effective
treatment in cases of severe trauma); heart coherence, in which the heart
rate is stabilized through breathing (studies indicate that during prayer,
monks experience the most well-balanced heart rate); setting the biological
clock by natural light (which is known to reduce depression); acupuncture
(capable of blocking off pain and fear zones in the brain); use of Omega-3
fatty acids (scientifically proven to produce happiness and ease depression,
and found mainly in fish, flax seeds, walnuts and soybeans; it is recommended
to consume them via the food itself and not in pill form); physical exercise;
and development of emotional communication.
- Tibetan treatments
- Servan-Schreiber at times seems to use scientific terminologies
to describe the same simple ideas that may be found in New Age practices:
breathing, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, proper nutrition. But he wields
scientific studies that prove the effectiveness of these methods.
- "I spent 20 years in Canada and the United States
in medical schools, I developed a very conventional career as a scientist
and psychiatrist," he says. "It took 20 years for me to find
out that there are studies in the scientific literature on natural approaches
to treatment of depression, anxiety and stress, which have been examined
and verified. I began using them in my practice and realized that they
are even more effective than the conventional methods, except that no one
talks about them, because it is impossible to acquire them and make money
- Servan-Schreiber's conversion took place 10 years ago,
during a visit to Dharamsala in northern India, where he volunteered for
Medecins Sans Frontieres, treating Tibetan refugees. There he also saw
traditional Tibetan medicine in action: The diagnosis was made by feeling
the pulse in the palm of the hand and examining the tongue and the urine;
the remedy was acupuncture and herbs. Servan-Schreiber noticed that the
Tibetan treatments, at least for the chronic diseases, were at least as
successful as the Western methods, except that the Tibetan drugs had fewer
side effects and were also much less expensive.
- "I'm interested in what works," he says. "Like
every psychologist, I'm interested in good results in a short period of
time, with few side effects. After all, the body has a natural tendency
to heal itself. If you are injured and bleeding, the bleeding stops by
itself after a few minutes without you having to do anything, and after
a while you can't even tell where the original wound was, because the skin
completely heals itself. Everyone agrees about this in regard to the body.
As a psychiatrist, I noticed that exactly like the body, our emotional
brain has a natural tendency to heal itself."
- What is the emotional brain? The human brain, he explains,
consists of two parts - the more "developed" part, which is responsible
for consciousness, speech and thought, "but that is only the surface
of the brain, which evolution built at a very late stage," he says.
The main part of the brain, the "animal" brain, is responsible
for instincts and reflexes and controls everything that happens in the
body - heart function, blood pressure, hormones, the digestive system,
the immune system. The emotional brain, he argues, has the inborn ability
to restore balance and good feeling.
- "If a person goes through a painful romantic separation,"
Servan-Schreiber says, "if his child is sick and he is concerned about
the child's health, if he loses someone dear to him, then it is clear that
for a while he dreams about it, can't sleep well at night, has recurring
upsetting thoughts - but after a while, for most people these things begin
to fade away. Even when serious events happen that are etched into the
brain, the individual still has a natural mechanism that can heal them."
- In especially tough cases, he uses eye movement desensitization
and reprocessing (EMDR), in which the eyes are moved from side to side.
It turns out that during the eye movement the emotional brain enables the
absorption of information from the present that places the traumatic event
in a new and proper context.
- Health, says Servan-Schreiber, is simply a good relationship
between the parts of the body. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine,
called this pneuma; in Chinese medicine, it is called chi. The brain, he
says, is a collection of neurons linked to one another; thoughts are networks
of neurons. "You're asking me if I at times think that this vitality
originated in the creation? I don't know. I do think that God is found
in the relationship between the organs of the body, between the different
- On the computer screen, he shows three pac-man figures.
There is no connection between them. In the next picture, they are arranged
such that a triangle is formed between them. "Life is created when
all of the pac-mans form some sort of meaning between them. In this case,
the triangle is life," says Servan-Schreiber. "When there is
no connection between the parts in the picture - that is death. The meaning
lies in the relationship between the parts. The medicine in which I am
interested is medicine that helps to rehabilitate the connection between
the parts of the body."
- His treatment approach focuses on the present, and tends
not to pry into the past. This strongly contrasts with psychoanalysis,
in which the basic premise is that most mental troubles are formed in the
first years of life, when the individual is by and large helpless. Servan-Schreiber
presents a highly optimistic approach that does not take into account this
sort of mental determinism. "When we are babies, we do not know how
to govern our emotions, so we have to be in contact with someone with a
better ability to govern the emotions, and he or she shows us how to do
it. However, later on we can learn to do it by ourselves and to reclaim
control of our emotions. I have had patients who suffered from anger, anxiety
and panic attacks, who learned to enter a state of heart rate coherence.
We helped them digest their emotions and get a perspective. So there is
still a lot of hope."
- No backing
- If the methods proposed in the book are so effective
and inexpensive, why aren't they being used in hospitals?
- "Some of these methods, like EMDR, have been proven
to work, but we don't really understand how. The psychologist in me is
happy only because it works, but the scientist in me is unhappy, because
I don't know how it works. Most of my colleagues are bothered by this,
it seems silly to them to tell people to move their eyes from side to side."
- The other, and perhaps most important, reason is that
these natural methods do not have the backing of a money-based industry,
and nobody in the West is promoting them. "There is no one handing
out colorful brochures to psychiatrists and selling them something,"
he says. "But acupuncture really can help in depression and in anxiety.
There is a Harvard University study that shows that if you stick a needle
into the hand between the thumb and the index finger in a spot in which
people have been claiming for 5,000 years stores anxiety, then it extinguishes
the specific area in the brain that is responsible for anxiety. That is
impressive. We are not completely expert in the mechanism, but it happens.
Right now, I am not aware of a single Western country in which acupuncture
is used to treat anxiety and depression in hospitals. In my opinion, this
is not logical."
- We are what we eat
- In its present state, Servan-Schreiber believes that
the world encourages depression and anxiety. He enumerates three primary
factors that promote depression. The first is diet. "What we eat builds
parts of our brain. Omega-3 fatty acids, for instance, are very important,
and they have nearly disappeared from our diet. We eat eggs, meat, milk,
cheeses, butter - but none of these have any Omega-3 fatty acid.
- "The second factor is that none of us have learned
how to govern our emotions. When you are seething with anger, losing control,
when you are in a state of anxiety or tension, nobody teaches you to identify
it, or to deal with it. Conversely, the consumer society is constantly
sending the message - if you buy this thing or do that thing then you will
be happy. A consumer society has no interest in teaching you that you will
be happy if you learn to control your body and your emotions, because then
we would not have to buy anything. The consumer society causes you to believe
that happiness lies in the acquisition of things from the outside; we only
learn how to run away from the emotions."
- Now you're sounding like an Indian guru.
- "That's a little frightening... But it reminds me
of a book written by an Indian researcher, called `Flow.' He studied which
activities made people happy. He outfitted them with pagers that were hooked
up to their brainwaves and which beeped in accordance with what they were
doing. They only had to write what they were doing each day and what they
felt. It turned out that the thing they did the most was watch television,
but they didn't feel any happiness when they watched television. They spent
a lot of time shopping, but that didn't make them happy, either.
- "The activity that makes people happy is basic things
like being with friends and favorite people, playing games, like cards.
The problem is that it doesn't force them to spend money, so you won't
see advertisements in the street calling out to you to spend more time
with people you like.
- "The third cause of depression is our attitude toward
one another. One study conducted in France found that 90 percent of people
hit their children. Nobody teaches us to resolve conflicts, what to do
when we disagree with something, when somebody hurts us. Either we are
over-aggressive or we are passive."
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