Dr. Jon Lieff is a neuropsychiatrist known as an innovator in several branches of psychiatry. He pioneered the development of integrated treatment programs combining medical, psychiatric, and neurological treatment. He has an award-winning blog called Searching for the Mind and his most recent book is entitled The Secret Language of Cells: What Biological Conversations Tell Us About the Brain-Body Connection, the Future of Medicine, and Life Itself.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in the inner city of Newark, NJ with my parents, an older sister, and a younger brother. Although I was intellectual, athletic, and musical, I stuttered badly enough that it interfered with my social life, and I was quite isolated as a result. In high school, I was a competitive runner and swimmer, played the violin, and read voraciously every day. Like Fiddler on the Roof, I often played the violin on my porch (most often the second movement of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto), entertaining the neighborhood.
When I arrived at college, I suddenly stopped stuttering. Later in life, I became a public speaker, exhibiting no stuttering whatsoever. I developed my first real friends in college at Yale, where I initially majored in religion and music, then switched to mathematics, later adding science courses in preparation for medical school. My music interests expanded from violin to electric mandolin, drums, and singing. I took singing lessons for many years and became a lead singer in a large band that played dance music from a wide variety of genres, including spiritual and mantric rock-and-roll, reggae, and a variety of original pieces. I often sang religious music from many traditions in a variety of forums. Years later, I sang in a gospel choir for ten years.
Throughout most of my childhood, my mother worked to finish a Ph.D. in sociology. My father had a Ph.D. in chemistry. I joke that, as a neuropsychiatrist, I am the product of an argument between sociology and chemistry.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
At the height of my career, during my forties, fifties, and early sixties, I wish I had understood the importance of continuing the intense meditation and yoga exercises that I had practiced when I was younger. As my career progressed, my life became much more hectic and I slacked off on my intense practices, only meditating (sometimes briefly) on most days. When I reached my sixties, I again realized the importance of those intense practices and wholeheartedly incorporated them back into my life. I can only imagine how much those practices would have helped with the stresses that came in mid-life.
During my twenties, I had a strong personal practice of meditation, yoga, and prayer, and I taught meditation in a variety of venues, including hospitals. These practices were incorporated into treatment programs I developed in elderly housing projects, at nursing homes, brain injury programs, and then as the chief of psychiatry at the large Lemuel Shattuck Public Health Hospital in Boston. At this hospital, the programs included multiple alternative modalities, such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, and diet, along with conventional psychiatry, medicine, and rehabilitation programs. We conducted research into the impact of a vegetarian diet based on grains, beans, and vegetables, and found that it greatly decreased agitation in very ill elderly psychiatric patients. Our pain and stress clinic for the elderly, which incorporated multiple alternative modalities, showed great success in alleviating resistant pain in this population (the BBC produced a documentary about our approaches and results). During these years, I continued my personal intense program of meditation and yoga.
When these hospital programs ended after five years (because of politics), I went on to develop large conventional psychiatric treatment programs for the elderly in four hospitals and in 200 nursing homes. I began to have multiple, increasing demands on my time, including raising six children, writing books and papers, and becoming president of a national medical subspecialty organization. During this difficult period, my meditation/yoga practices took a back seat.
Many years later, as I became quite worn out, I again devoted myself to my daily intensive renewal. Later, inspired by my meditation, I started my website that explores the mind in nature, and eventually, I wrote my book, The Secret Language of Cells.
In retrospect, I wish I had persisted with my intense practices throughout my life, especially when my life was difficult and hectic.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Some psychiatrists are dogmatic about one particular approach, strongly promoting one medicine or psychotherapeutic approach while denigrating others. We need all the medicines, psychotherapeutic approaches, and alternative therapies that we have, even though they are all imperfect. It requires artistry and wisdom to use the entire panoply.
Most of my career was spent creating programs that integrated medicine, neurology, and psychiatry, with alternative approaches included as well.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
Since I was always interested in the mind, I studied the emerging science of brain chemistry and psychedelics while at Harvard Medical School in the late sixties. During medical school, I conducted research at the Harvard Psychopharmacology Research Lab and the Harvard School of Public Health on the effects of LSD and other psychedelics on cognitive function, social factors, and genetics. I published multiple papers on this research, including one in the American Journal of Psychiatry on LSD discontinuers and another in the American Journal of Public Health about attitudes toward psychedelics and marijuana in the medical profession.
During that same period, I led a course for three years at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government/Institute of Politics on the use of psychedelic treatments in psychiatry, the use of marijuana, and the impacts of these substances in society. I was able to invite all the major national researchers at that time who were legally studying psychiatric treatment with LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline, including some from the National Institutes of Health. Lectures were very popular and often took place in large Harvard amphitheaters with hundreds of students and faculty. For three years, this course provided a center at Harvard for discussion about the need for the legalization of marijuana and the use of psychedelics as treatments for a wide range of psychiatric illnesses.
Very suddenly, it all came crashing down when research into psychedelics was made illegal. Any discussion about psychedelics in psychiatry among medical students, professors, and physicians was extremely discouraged. All conversation about therapeutic research and the legalization of marijuana was strongly prohibited in medical circles. I became shunned for my leadership in this area and was rejected and ostracized by my colleagues.
Because my name was strongly associated with psychedelics, marijuana, and by conjecture the drug culture in general, I was not accepted at any of the top residency programs. The only residency open to me was at the large Boston State Hospital (now closed), which served all psychiatric patients in Boston who were either unable to afford private psychiatric facilities or were too violent to be accepted by them. This is the equivalent of going to work “on the wrong side of the tracks” and I don’t think any other graduate of Harvard Medical School had ever done a residency at Boston State Hospital prior to my arrival. This very undermanned state system introduced me to the most difficult, violent patients in psychiatry, who were not included in the leading training programs. These patients, along with the elderly and the brain-injured, were ignored in academic circles.
This setback was a gift in disguise. In fact, going from Harvard Medical School to the large state hospital was more than eye-opening. It introduced me to the vast number of seriously mentally ill patients who were ignored by conventional psychiatry at that time. Back then, the elite psychiatric residency training programs were all based on psychoanalysis, with mostly high-functioning, non-elderly patients receiving therapy. As the chief resident of the state hospital, I was introduced to large numbers of the seriously mentally ill. While presenting many challenges, it allowed me to become a pioneer in the treatment of very underserved populations, including the elderly, complex medical/psych/neuro patients, and the brain-injured. Being rejected by the mainstream and working in systems ignored by them, I was able to build large, creative, unique programs for the elderly, complex medical/neurological patients, and the brain-injured.
My programs became pioneering models of treatment for patients ignored by mainstream psychiatry, and at one point I was directing the largest treatment network for the elderly in Massachusetts, which serviced over 200 nursing homes and three hospital units. I was part of the creation of the new field of geriatric psychiatry, a new subspecialty in medicine. I was called upon by the Federal government to consult in the development of new regulations for nursing homes, became the president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, and was involved in founding the major academic journal in that field.
My entire, very satisfying, career, including my leadership positions, most likely would not have developed as it did without the impetus of overcoming this major rejection early on.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Each day I set aside some time for what I call my “homework,” where I search and collect all the new important scientific findings that came out that day. Often, if I don’t find them on the day they are first publicized, they become impossible to find. This is because of the deluge of scientific results coming out each day and the fact the titles of articles are based on almost incomprehensible jargon and therefore very difficult to search.
What is your morning routine?
I usually awaken without an alarm around the same time every day, several hours after dawn. I always start my morning with a cup of coffee. My morning routine includes approximately forty-five minutes of meditation, followed by an hour of yoga and aerobics. I then often walk on the beach with my dog. After this, I have a bowl of whole-grain cereal and blueberries. Then I focus on any tasks that need to be completed followed by reading, research, and writing.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
As stated above, a regular routine of meditation, yoga, and exercise has greatly improved my life. I have been a strict vegetarian since 1976, consuming a simple, healthy diet consisting mostly of vegetables and grains. Although being a vegetarian was not popular then, now it is quite accepted and has allowed me to stay balanced through years of twists and turns in my life.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
At this point in time, my active clinical medical work is a small part of my life. Most of my time is spent researching, thinking, reading, and writing about topics related to my next book.
I am fairly structured in my daily routine. First, I do my meditative practices and exercise. Then I have a simple meal and start to work. I clear my desk of busywork, calls, emails, and paying bills, so I do not have to keep thinking about them. Then I focus on my creative work, reading articles and books, following leads, and organizing and writing content for the next book. I find that dictating my thoughts as I read greatly increases my efficiency. I follow leads, wherever they may go, to their conclusion. I read a subject until I think I have grasped the importance for my new book. Following a lead could take hours, days, or weeks.
I clear my mind, work hard, and try not to think about results.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The books I read are primarily about science and spirituality. In the field of science, most of the textbooks and journal articles I read are about neuroscience, molecular biology, microbiology, immunology, molecular genetics, chemistry, and biophysics. I also read popular books about biology and consciousness.
In addition, I read extensively about spirituality. I have read a wide range of books on experiential religious traditions, but the book I have read most often over the years, and that has most influenced my life, is the Bhagavad Gita or Song of God.
In this allegory, Arjuna, the ideal man, is in the midst of a battle for his family’s honor. On the battlefield between two warring armies, each consisting of his family and friends, he is fighting for ethics and honor with the help of his charioteer, who happens to be Krishna, an incarnation of God. As Arjuna becomes despondent due to the agony of having to kill those that he loves, he stops and throws down his weapons in despair. God, in the form of his charioteer Krishna, exhorts him to never give up the good fight. He then instructs Arjuna how to live a good life and fight the good fight, which includes many types of meditation and spiritual activity. He explains that Arjuna should not be fixated on the results of his actions but should just live in the moment and perform each action with his best effort as an offering to God, unconcerned about what will happen. These teachings from the Bhagavad Gita have provided invaluable guidance to me throughout my life.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Awed by the magnificence and radiance emanating from the physical world, the mind, and the spiritual realm, I meditate on this light and pray that it will illuminate my intuition and understanding. – Translation from the Gayatri Mantra