Q & A With Dr. Joe

Q & A With Dr. Joe

Why do you think it all starts with RESPECT?
Respect is the vehicle to a core desire and need of human beings: to simply feel valuable to someone else. When we were evolving as a species, humans were not the strongest, the fastest, the smallest or the largest.  In fact, by ourselves we were incredibly vulnerable to other larger, faster, stronger predators who probably considered us a pretty easy and tasty meal.

We developed groups and communities as a way to survive. Collectively we could overcome the inherent physical deficits of being human.  Valuable members of the group were able to help find food, share food, and help ward of predators and enemies, which in turn meant that they were better equipped to survive, have babies, and inherit the growing biological and social imperative of being a valuable member of a group.  If you were not valuable you were more likely to be cast out to fend for yourself, and more likely to be some other animal’s breakfast!

When we feel respected, we feel valuable, and when we feel valuable, we feel safe. It is in this relationship of respect where trust develops, and trust is the foundation of the human’s unlimited potential.  When is the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?  The brain is not designed to work that way.  I believe this has the same valence as an apple falling down. Apples do not fall up and the brain does not activate anger when it feels safe.

Respect is the great modulator of anger. Respect is the foundation of trust, and trust the foundation of potential.   Imagine the unlimited potential in all of us.  Respect is our road to achievement.

You routinely lecture on theory of the mind, why do you think that is so important?
Theory of mind is, in many ways, a pre-requisite for respect.  People attach, driven by a basic human need to be in the company and proximity of another person.  Attachment is a building block of society.  It implies a desire to rely on someone else, and be relied on in return.

Theory of Mind is the ability to appreciate someone else’s point of view, or what someone else is thinking and feeling.  We often hear the expression, “to walk in someone’s shoes.”  This is empathy, and is generated through an ability to take someone else’s perspective: through Theory of Mind.  Human beings are very interested in what other people think or feel.

I believe the Theory of Mind drives all human interaction. There is a huge adaptive advantage to guess–or even be interested–in what other people think and feel.  Not only are human beings interested in what other people think or feel, we are especially interested in what others are thinking or feeling about ourselves. This is not Theory of Mind, but something else. You’re actions will have an impact on me. When I feel valued by you, (a function of being able to theorize what you are thinking or feeling about me) I will feel respected. I need to know if you see me as valuable.

TOM is involved in every interaction we have, and every interaction is an opportunity to influence someone else’s brain and sense of value. A valued brain is a trusting brain, and is on a path to unlimited potential.

You are currently working on several new books.  Tell us more about one of these.
One book develops a few basic ideas into an overarching philosophy and approach which is captured by a concept I call IMAX: our current maximum potential.  This book explores my belief that people and systems are always doing the best they can, but this Imax changes from second to second. What happens when we see each other this way–as simply doing the best we can?  I am not suggesting we have to like it, or condone it, but when we recognize the influences on our lives we have to respect it.  When is the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?  Imagine what would happen to us all if we were both treated and treating others with more empathy and understanding?  How does this shift us from a “me” generation to a “we” generation–recognizing that we control no one but influence everyone?  The Imax approach is used at my adolescent substance abuse program with remarkable results.  The book will share this exciting new approach that synthesizes our latest understanding of the brain and the social connectedness we share.

In all of the books I’m working on, I’m looking at human neurological and psychological evolution and how they affect modern day human interaction. Ultimately, the way we manage stress and anger may be more effective when we manage and reduce the stress and anger in those around us.

What do you think are the toughest challenges for at-risk teens?
There are roughly sixteen thousand adolescent deaths each year, but nearly all of them are preventable.  The main reason for these deaths are things like driving too fast, jumping from dangerous places, and risky behavior.  What we’ve learned over the last decade, is that the adolescent brain is fundamentally different from the adult brain.  They’re at a unique stage of development where the emotional and impulse centers are at different levels than the thinking and rational parts of the brain. This puts teens at a greater risk for making impulsive decisions that put them in harm’s way.  For many teens, especially for those with emotional and addiction issues, leading them to this understanding and ultimate self-behavior modification can be challenging.

The reason that this is important is that you cannot design a treatment approach for a brain that is not developmentally ready to use it.  So our ability to reach this population depends entirely upon the level at which their brains are developed–we’re trying to help a population of human beings whose brains do not biologically self-regulate the way the adult brain generally does.

More philosophically, one of the other great challenges we face is our increasing physical disconnection from each other due to the way we communicate such as through text messages, the internet etc. Teens are growing up amidst a distancing of human relationships.  Face to face communication inhibits most unpleasant behaviors, and as a result of our increasing lack of that, communication become uninhibited.  It can lead to more aggressive types of messages, bullying, and very hurtful behavior that would otherwise have remained in someone’s imagination as opposed to on a public web page.

Why has your CASTLE program at the highly respected High Point Treatment Center been so successful?
It’s successful because we are integrating what we know about adolescent brain development with a cogent treatment approach.  Many of these kids have felt disrespect in some form or another.  And as we know, someone who feels disrespected feels under valued. With adolescent kids using drugs and alcohol–the fact they are using casts a shadow on how they are seen.  They‘re seen as defiant, losers, and druggies.  If you seem that way long enough, from a Theory of Mind point of view, you’re not going to be interested in what others think of you because now you’re “bad,” “worthless,” or “nobody cares.”   That habitual thinking puts kids at huge risk because they turn off the filtered, pre-frontal cortex thinking that would allow them to respect and trust others.  Over time, such thinking patterns and attitudes can lead to lack of empathy on their part, and to total apathy that can be dangerous for them and sometimes others.

At Castle, we view kids in the Imax way–by approaching each person as doing the very best they can do in that moment in time.  We don’t judge them.  In doing so, it leads to them judging themselves, which can inhibit them from exploring who they are, how they form relationships, and how to build trust.  We really like these kids.  We really respect them.  We try to rekindle in each of them their sense of value.  The kid who feels valued is less likely to use drugs and alcohol.

What motivates you to work with teens?
It’s such a cool age. They’re on this cusp between childhood and adulthood. I know, that’s Captain Obvious speaking, but it’s a remarkably sensitive time as they’re developing an approach and style of living.  Because the teen brain is developing, the methods and habits they form now could potentially last a lifetime.  That’s why we worry about teenage addiction. This brain is at its highest risk for lifelong addiction.  This population is at a tremendously important development vortex where all sorts of things are happening in the brain and expectations are placed upon them.  Part of them wants to be little kids with no worries and part wants to say, “I’m an adult, I can manage.” Of course, they’re somewhere in between.

The teenager has gotten a bum rap for a long time. It’s a turbulent stage of development that is often perceived as a dark place, and that’s perpetuated in the drama-hungry media (Donnie Darko, and the Virgin Suicides.)  Teen drama is so intense.  But it doesn’t have to be that way at all.  While Theory of Mind is about what other people think or feel, what most parents can attest to is that teens are often more concerned about what others think of them.  So we have the opportunity to reach into that space and say, “You guys are cool!”  This doesn’t necessarily mean, “I like what you’re doing,” but rather, “I understand what’s going on in your life.”  So let’s reframe this relationship.  Let’s take another look.  It’s easier for them to do this when they’re respected.  They’ll be more receptive when others see them as valuable.  They and we feel safer.