Wednesday, October 21, 1998
(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)
From ABC’s 20/20
SAM DONALDSON: Tonight, we bring you word of an amazing medical discovery. It’s not a bio-engineered drug or a dazzling piece of high-tech equipment. This is a breakthrough treatment for depression and anxiety that is so simple, even the Harvard doctor who came up with the idea couldn’t believe it would work. Our own DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: turns the spotlight on this cutting-edge therapy-a pair of goggles and some tape, giving some patients a dramatically different view of the world.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON, ABCNEWS MEDICAL EDITOR (VO)
Depression and anxiety-what is the key to unlocking the troubled mind? Psychologists believe in the healing power of talk therapy. Neuroscience, on the other hand, tells us that emotions are generated by brain chemistry and that drugs like Prozac are, therefore, crucial. But now, Dr Fredric Schiffer, a Harvard psychiatrist, has come up with a startling new concept to explain some common emotional disorders. And he says he’s found a safe, cheap and surprising way to help treat them-a simple pair of goggles, seen here in a college class demonstration. These ordinary goggles are taped so that a person can see only out of the extreme left side, and these goggles allow the person to see only to the extreme right. Dr Schiffer says that the light from looking out just one side activates the opposite side of the brain, and, therefore, triggers thoughts and emotions specific to that side.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER, PSYCHIATRIST: I’m so amazed at this.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): So are his patients. This patient agreed to talk to 20/20 if we did not identify him. We’ll call him “Joe.” Three years ago, JOE: felt himself slipping dangerously into depression. The pressures of a new job had quickly overwhelmed him. The anxiety he felt was intense and painful. He tried one medication after another, but nothing worked.
JOE, GOGGLE THERAPY PATIENT: When you’re depressed and you’re severely depressed, one of the things that seems to disappear is hope.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): He says the first time he tried on the goggles in therapy, they dramatically lifted his dark and pessimistic mood.
JOE: It was such an immediate difference. It was startling. And this was the very first time.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): Dr Schiffer, who is on the staff at the world-famous McLean Hospital in Boston, believes, like many people do, that we often have two sides to our personalities-one that’s more calm and accepting, another that’s more emotional and impulsive.
ANGRY MAN: It’s insane.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): But he takes it one giant step further. In his book, “Of Two Minds: The Revolutionary Science of Dual-Brain Psychology,” he argues that sometimes we literally have two different minds in our brain-a calm, optimistic mind on one side, and an anxious, pessimistic mind on the other. Dr Schiffer says visual stimulation with the special goggles he uses in therapy can activate one or the other side of the brain and therefore trigger either the calm and optimistic mind or the anxious and pessimistic mind. Dr Schiffer says the glasses help his patients get better by calling on their calm mind to help teach their anxious mind. (on camera) So the glasses, really, through the eyes, help to isolate one part versus the other part.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: It’s to get the healthy part to help the troubled part.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: Looking left or right in order to change our feelings or emotions is controversial. Some neuroscientists are skeptical. But many other experts believe that Dr Schiffer’s theory is a logical extension of past studies showing that the two halves of our brain function quite differently. In other words, if our two halves can function differently, maybe they can feel differently. In 1995, Dr Schiffer decided to test that theory with an admittedly very low-tech experiment.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: I decided to put my hands over my eyes like this to see if I felt a little different that way versus that way.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (on camera) Yeah?
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: And I didn’t feel any different. But I went to the office that afternoon and, not expecting anything, I asked a patient to do it.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: Figured it wouldn’t hurt. Might be worth trying.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt. And the patient says, “Oh, my God.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He says, “I got all my anxiety back.” And he was a guy who had come in six months earlier for anxiety, and he was doing much better. And so, I quickly said, “Well, try the other side.” And he said, “Oh, that feels good.” So I was amazed. I was absolutely amazed.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): All five of Dr Schiffer’s patients that day had similar dramatic responses. So just two days after the first attempts with patients using hands in his office, Dr Schiffer tried using taped goggles instead.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: The patients would tell me how far to put the tape over, and they’d say, “No, that’s not as strong.” And I’d move it over a little more. “Yeah, that’s better,” and …
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (on camera) So you’d experiment with them?
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Yeah. They would literally give me feedback, and it was very accurate and consistent.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): The next step was to test the goggles more scientifically. Dr Schiffer tested emotional responses in 70 patients while provoking different feelings with the right or left-sided goggles. He noticed that some had the anxious and pessimistic feelings in their left brain, others in their right brain. It would vary from one individual to another, and it was difficult to predict which side had which feelings until he tested them with the goggles. He also used brain wave studies in 15 test subjects to demonstrate that left-looking goggles, indeed, aroused the right brain and vice versa. I observed a volunteer test subject, a college student named Chris. It was his first time trying the special goggles. Neuroscientist Carl Anderson (ph) asked CHRIS: to rate how anxious he felt while looking out goggles that were taped to allow him to see only out of the extreme right side.
CARL ANDERSON, NEUROSCIENTIST: How much anxiety do you feel now? None at all, mild amount, moderate amount, quite a bit or an extreme amount?
CHRIS: I want to say an extreme amount.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): CHRIS: also reported that he felt extreme tension and anger while looking to the right. But when he put on goggles that let him look out the left, his reactions were quite different. When asked to rate his anxiety level …
CHRIS: I don’t want to say I feel like none, but I don’t feel like really anxious.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): Dr Schiffer asked CHRIS: to retry the right-looking glasses that seemed to provoke him.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Tell me what you’re feeling.
CHRIS: I’m feeling like I want to take these glasses off.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (on camera) Because?
CHRIS: They’re making me angry.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Now I want you to try this other pair again.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): These glasses allow CHRIS: to again see out the left side, and they seem to comfort him.
CHRIS: This side feels more easy-going, more happy-go-lucky kind of personality. The other side, I kind of feel like I want to go to war or something.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Go to war?
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): What CHRIS: has just demonstrated in the lab is what Dr Schiffer says he’s observed in his patients. Their psychological suffering seems to be located more profoundly in one side of the brain than the other. I had the opportunity to sit in on a therapy session with Joe, the patient we met earlier. In previous sessions, he had learned how his two brain sides differ.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: Why don’t you pick a pair?
JOE: These? Well, the negative side first?
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): For Joe, the negative side is in the left brain. I observe how quickly Joe’s distress sets in.
JOE: It immediately puts you in an uncomfortable situation.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: What are you feeling?
JOE: Anxious. I’m a walking advertisement for, you know, just insecurity and ultimately failure at what I’m setting out to accomplish. And it manifests itself in anxiety because I don’t want to feel that way.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: It sounds very painful.
JOE: Yes, it is. Life would be intolerable if you had to live it constantly out of this one side.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): Dr Schiffer now asks JOE: to switch to the positive goggles. I can see the anxious expression on Joe’s face change immediately.
JOE: See, it never ceases to amaze me. Right now-and I always chuckle with you when this happens. I mean, despite that we’ve been together for a while. I mean, I still get a kick out of it.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): The difference in JOE: is startling.
JOE: The perspective from this side is just so much different than the other side. I mean, it’s incredible. Right now, I’m looking at, you know, just going forward instead of swimming against the tide. It’s a wonderful feeling.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): Dr Schiffer reports that 40 percent of his patients had no response to the goggles, and 30 percent had a mild to moderate response. However, another 30 percent of his patients report an intense response, overall about the same response reported with Prozac. But even for the positive responders, the glasses are still just a tool.
DR FREDRIC SCHIFFER: No one is going to be helped by just putting on a pair of glasses. They’re an adjunct for teaching the person how to communicate with themselves.
DR TIMOTHY JOHNSON: (VO): But many of his patients say the glasses are the medicine they need to keep their mature mind in focus.
JOE: has had special sunglasses made that are tinted so he can see clearly to his left, but not to his right. They look like regular sunglasses, except that by forcing him to activate his optimistic mind, they provide a very practical boost to his mental health.
JOE: It gives you hope. And you know, hope is, you know, obviously a very important thing. Because with hope, anything can happen, and it’s worked for me.
SAM DONALDSON If this therapy looks easy enough to try at home, Dr Schiffer says it is. And you don’t even need goggles to do it. Simply hold your hands in front of your eyes, as you saw in our story, covering one eye completely, the other halfway-so you’re looking out from the extreme left or the extreme right. If you feel more relaxed seeing from one side than from the other, then goggle therapy might be able to put you in touch with the bright side of your brain. We’ll be right back.