Top Docs Call Psych Diagnoses by Brain Scans “Modern Phrenology”


The Washington Post profiles Daniel Amen, “the most popular psychiatrist in America,” who claims in copious books, DVDs, television and speaking engagements to be able to use brain imaging to diagnose mental illness. “I Can’t imagine clinical decisions being guided by an imaging test,” says Steven Hyman, former director of the NIMH. “What he’s doing is the modern equivalent of phrenology,” said incoming president of the APA Jeffrey Lieberman. Thomas Insel, current director of the NIMH, points out that although brain scans “might be playing in prime time … There is simply too much individual variation in brain structure and function for an individual’s scan to be diagnostic or predictive, given the current state of the science.”

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Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


  1. Ha! Readers, who doubt the humor of those posting on this site, take notice!

    This may rank as one of the best “pot calling the kettle black” instances in recent memory. Amen is frowned upon by his colleagues, because he more deftly and successfully capitalized on the myths surrounding “mental illnesses” than they did.

    His detractors are just jealous they didn’t think of it first!

    Are we fighting an uphill battle here at MIA? Perhaps, I mean, Amen.

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  2. They can see changes and differences in brains, but they can’t say how those changes came about. Falling in love changes the brain, family problems change the brain. And when they drug a brain they see those changes also. The problem is that drugs damage brains and while they make people feel different and often have a placebo effect that can alleviate distress, drugs do not fix “broken brains.”

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  3. This is what psychiatry and the NIMH get for fraudulently convincing the American public that mental illnesses were brain malfunctions/diseases. It was only a matter of time before some snake-oil-peddler came and took advantage of that. I find it ironic when I look at the people who are criticizing him, especially Leiberman. Some guy just ran off with their own story to make money without them and hearing people like that talk down on the “science” that they created is mind boggling to say the least. Will they soon be admitting that child drugging was an atrocity of a mistake and that psychiatric drugs are neurotoxic brain poison? Would they if someone started making money off psychopharmocology that they couldn’t touch?

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    • In fact that’s what I’m waiting for. We’re starting to see a trend toward medicaid and insurance companies using cheaper non-psychiatrists to prescribe drugs. Is it right around the corner that we see psychiatrists talking down on psychotropic drugs for mental illness? If such a thing coincided with their loss of business, would it finally be enough to bring criminal charges against them for willfully and fraudulently harming and even killing patients, including children? I seriously hope so.

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      • I want to add some perspective by blending a true story with a what if.

        What if you had a kid who was diagnosed with ADD and you reluctantly put him on ritalin after receiving threats that he be taken away from you otherwise but after awhile he began suffering manic-like symptoms from the drug at which point the psychiatrist chose not to discontinue it but to add other drugs with a new and more severe diagnosis. Now imagine losing custody of that child and fighting the state for years, only to get him back at age 14 after having been on 44 different drugs and suffering from noticeable brain damage.

        Now imagine that you see that psychiatrist on the news one day, or read a blog he posts on a site, where he is talking against the psychiatric drugging of children and you then find out that he just recently lost the bulk of his business to a psychologist as they were recently given prescription pads in your state.

        Wouldn’t you demand criminal charges? How can someone genuinely be for something but then when the money dries up they no longer are? Isn’t that PROOF that they were fraudulent? What sort of amazing coincidence would it be that they just happened to change their mind at the same time they lost their business and it had nothing to do with that? Wouldn’t a psychiatrist lend support to whoever takes his place if he truly believes it’s good for the children?

        I am anxiously awaiting to see what happens. If any of the psychiatrists who “treated” me as a child ever talk against psychiatric drugs after losing business, I will demand justice, even if I have to get it myself.

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        • Psychiatry is bereft of morals or ethics at this point. I can’t understand how any of them can go home at night and look themselves squarely in the eye in the mirror. They have no self-respect at all. Many of them need to be in prison or at the least paying hefty fines to recompense some of the many people they’ve harmed and damaged.

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      • Jeff,
        This is in fact what I’m hearing/reading from a policy and funding perspective. “Funders” are coming to the conclusion that medical school isn’t necessary to follow a flowchart of medication dispensing. Diagnosis A? Then give Xmg of WunderMood. WunderMood no good? Give Xmg of Pleasantus. Pleasantus not doing the trick? You get the idea.
        Scary stuff.

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  4. Well, as reprehensible as he is, at least Amen is TRYING to find some test – these guys who are criticizing him are using paper-and-pencil CHECKLISTS to diagnose people! They have a lot of nerve criticizing ANYONE for a lack of scientific rigor!

    —- Steve

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    • Whether they’re doing it with paper checklists or with fancy machines the fact is that tey’re just playing games and none of it has any validity. Some day all of them will be exposed for the frauds and quacks that they truly are. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

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    • I suspect Amen knows very well that his SPECT scans don’t reveal any diagnosis. The treatments his clinics provide are the same-old same-old drug cocktails one can get from any run-of-the-mill psychiatric clinic.

      Read the complaints on Yelp for his various clinics and you’ll see quite obvious snake-oil sales.

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  5. Eugenics people. That is what it is all about. The more i study and investigate this world the more steadfast i am in the belief that this world is run by very sick people. All of psychiatry is a scam. There are ZERO redeeming qualities about it. It is just that too many people have become dependent on the scam that they must keep it going. Not in my wildest dreams could i have imagined people to be so wicked.

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    • It’s not the first time that psychiatry carried out a policy of eugenics. They sided with the Nazis with no problem and sent thousands of people to their deaths. The toxic drugs that they state are “best treatment” kill people slowly and if they don’t kill they certainly take away any quality of life. And they wonder why people are so “noncompliant” about taking the wonderful toxic drugs! It’s nothing but flim-flammery and quackery at its epitome.

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  6. Not only Amen’s SPECT scans, but the fancier fMRI scans showing up in psychiatry journal articles are nothing but high-tech phrenology.

    There’s so much noise in those scans researchers can read anything they want into them. They also manipulate data to “enhance” images and bring out contrasts. Color is added later to make the scans more interesting.

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  7. The PET scans measure ACTIVITY rather than structure. The cause of an increase or decrease in activity is never known or even sought out. Of course, the testing is also based on our set of “known diagnoses” out of the DSM, and those with these “diagnoses” *(by the DSM’s own admission) may have little or nothing in common with each other, physiologically or otherwise. Additionally, a lot of the “results” for a particular diagnosis are obtained from averages of many scans. Any individual with an “ADHD” diagnosis may or may not have a scan remotely similar to the average scans.

    On the whole, phrenology is an excellent analogy. We’re probably better off with horoscopes.

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