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Interview with Dr. Dean Burnett


Interview about Brain, Depression, Phobia, Reading Literature, Creative writing, and many other things



The Interview


 1- Is it possible that reading fiction can trigger a phobia?


It’s possible, yes. There are many known cases of people being unreasonably afraid of things they read because of a pre-existing phobia. For instance, people who have arachnophobia would likely find it very difficult to read something very detailed about a spider, or attack by spiders. It’s worth remembering that phobias themselves exist because our brains create simulations (imaginary scenarios) about something really bad happening to us when we encounter the source/trigger. Reading about the trigger in fiction is pretty much doing the same thing; causing our brain to create an unpleasant imaginary scenario.



For the Arabic version of this interview click here



2- Can reading fiction actually "create" a phobia? A one which did not exist before?


I don't think I know of any instances where someone has developed a full-blown clinical phobia from something they read in a book of fiction. I believe this would be difficult as, unlike with TV or movies etc., the brain is more actively involved in creating the experience of the scenarios involved in a book. There's no passive sensory aspect aside from the words, and the brain's defense mechanisms mean it's unlikely to end up creating something that scares it so fundamentally.

However, this isn't to say that people can't become fearful or phobic of things they've read in books. Detailed descriptions and imaginative immersion can mean people perceive everyday things in different (scarier) ways than they would do before reading the book. I've experienced this myself; after reading Stephen King's 'The Stand', about a deadly flu virus which wipes out most of humankind, I would be much jumpier and more alarmed whenever I heard someone cough nearby, something which would never have troubled me so beforehand.


3- Can depression be the cause of creativity (like writing fiction for example)? Or is it vice versa, creativity could sometimes be the cause of depression?


There is a known link between creative individuals and mental health issues, quite often depression (e.g., Vincent Van Gogh is widely regarded as having serious depression). There are many explanations for this. While depression is often associated with a complete lack of motivation, that’s not always the case, and the episode doesn’t last forever. Those experiencing depression may feel compelled to do *something*, anything, to express what they’re going through. A lot of mental health treatments involve creating something tangible to represent the purely mental aspects of a disorder, and creating things could help do the same. It imparts a sense of focus, control, and more. All of which can relieve the negativity of depression somewhat.

Depression and other mood disorders also cause people to experience feelings and emotions that others usually don’t. It means parts of their brain are ‘activated’ more, so they can come up with original angles and have unique insights, which allows for greater creativity. And so on.

I don’t think it’s common, but I can’t see why creating something wouldn’t lead to depression, or at least increase the likelihood of it occurring. Particularly if you’re creating something deeply personal or tragic, then those emotions can infuse our own brain. Our brain processes emotions and emotional experiences by essentially ‘replaying’ them, i.e., our brains have to generate an emotion in order to effectively process it. So, if you’re immersing yourself in a creative work that has a lot of negative emotions, this will impact on your own brain. Possibly to a harmful extent.


4- Isn’t it possible that a person can actually get depressed and feel some symptoms of depression by reading about it? Can a person be predisposed to getting depression after extensively reading about its symptoms? How can we avoid that? How can we achieve the needed level of awareness among the public, while making sure that does not backfire in a way?


It is very common for people to experience confirmation bias in situations like this, meaning that when they read about a condition they suspect they have, they will focus on the aspects that they feel do apply to them, and ignore/downplay those that don’t. We’re also inclined to focus more on negative outcomes, so will be more drawn to info that suggests we’re unwell.

This is different to actually experiencing depression, though. I’d say that’s actually quite difficult. You can feel generally depressed after reading about depression, as in, sad, but not clinically so. But to get full blown medically recognized depressive disorder, that’s a much bigger ask.

This is particularly true if the information presented is particularly clinical. Just the facts about depression, the mechanisms that underpin it, how common it is, the various symptoms, this won’t be particularly emotionally negative. So it would be fine to read such things, the odds of developing depression as a result of doing so are extremely remote.

Learning about depression presents very little risk of actually causing depression, while not sharing information about depression can have many negative outcomes.


5- Unfortunately, in many societies, clinical depression is not being recognized as a real severe illness, a one which might lead to suicide without apparent strong reasons. In those societies the misconception that clinical depression only attacks persons with “weak” personalities is prevalent. How can we get rid of the stigma surrounding this severe illness? How can we successfully increase public awareness? And how can the sufferer face that challenge?


This is a very big issue, and not one I can really address myself in a single answer. The misconception about depression meaning ‘weakness’ is particularly unhelpful, and completely incorrect. Depression is very common among soldiers fighting a war, and nobody would argue that they’re all ‘weak’. By sharing information and experiences as far as we can, we can hope to undo some stigma. It’s particularly effective when high-profile individuals share their experiences of it, that helps normalize it much better.

As for the individual sufferer, that’ll vary from person to person. Someone who’s in the grips of a depressive episode shouldn’t be expected to also put themselves out there to educate others. But if they’re out of the episode and feel inclined to do so, that’ll be beneficial for everyone.


6- How can a person suffering from anxiety or any form of Phobia control it, or successfully alleviate its symptoms when he/she does not have access to professional help?


Most people with an anxiety disorder/phobia tend to practice avoidance behavior, by staying away from whatever the trigger of the phobia is. This is often easier for some people than others, e.g., if you’ve a phobia of snakes but live in a busy built-up city, you’re unlikely to encounter snakes. But if you’ve phobia is about birds, they’re everywhere.

It's trickier to do without professional help, but individuals could also attempt gradual exposure... This is the method where someone exposes themselves to aspects of their phobia that don’t trigger an attack, and slowly build up. E.g., if you’re afraid of birds, first look at cartoons of birds, then photos, then hold a feather, then watch videos of birds, and so on.

The key is building up your tolerance without triggering the panic response. It takes a while, but it seems to work.


7- The COVID-19 pandemic had a great impact on the already increasing global rates of depressive and anxiety disorders among adolescents and teenagers. How can we face such a huge challenge? And how can we minimize the long-term effects they could face in the future?


While there have been more cases of mental health issues in younger people. For instance, a lot of the things that cause adolescents stress and worsen mental health (waking up too early for school, exam stress, fear of missing out) were removed by the pandemic, offsetting the issues it caused in some ways.

But the most obvious ways to face this challenge is to increase awareness of mental health issues, and expand the provisions for mental healthcare as much as possible. Unfortunately, while the first thing is regularly championed, many governments are very reluctant to fund the necessary mental healthcare system that we require. Changing their minds about that is something that we could work on for the future.



8- If you rewrite “The Idiot Brain” nowadays, what part or parts would you change in light of the pandemic and the events of the last two years?


I’d probably include more things about the effects of isolation and loneliness, and the vital role of emotions in processing negative experiences. I lost my father to covid very early on in the pandemic, so have been dealing with a lot of grief and trauma, largely in isolation. I’ve learned a great deal. This is actually the subject of my next book, but if I could go back and emphasise this in an earlier book, I would.


9- Being a Neuroscientist and a person who is aware of the tricks your brain plays on you, does this make you more able to distinguish right from wrong? Does this make you less likely to be affected by its illogical tendencies?


I’d say being a neuroscientist helps keep me aware that I might be wrong about things. If by right from wrong you mean ‘correct from incorrect’ rather than the more moral ‘good from bad’, it is still tricky. Assessing the information, you’re presented with, and figuring out how valid or legitimate it is, still requires time, effort, concentration, and more. And it’s not always possible to provide such things. But my experience and insight from many years of neuroscience mean I’m often stopping myself and thinking “Why did I say that? Why do I feel this way? What made me respond like that?”

I tend to assess myself more, and am more wary of falling into traps and pitfalls our brains tend to set for us. It doesn’t mean I don’t fall into them, but I like to think I get myself out of them quicker.


10- You have discussed the dark side of happiness in the “Happy Brain” book. Couldn’t the fear of such a dark side make a person fearful of actively pursuing happiness?


I don’t think this is really a concern. Happiness is just too fundamental an aspect of who we are and how we function. I can’t envisage a situation where people would be genuinely worried about pursuing it for fear of things going ‘wrong’ with it. As ever, it’s all about moderation. I’ve even written about the risks and dangers of ‘toxic positivity’, which is where people expect/insist on happiness at all times, which is equally harmful for mental health and wellbeing. That’s just not how our brains work. So, maybe a little wariness about too much happiness is a good thing?


11- How to maintain your mental health if you are in a toxic relationship (abusive or narcissistic) which consumes you?


I’ve never been in such a situation, thankfully, so can’t really comment on this from a personal perspective. However, it’s not an ideal question, as the most obvious answer is to remove yourself from the relationship by any means necessary. Asking how you can maintain good mental health in such a situation is like asking how you can carry on doing your job when you’re on fire. You shouldn’t; you need to put out the fire.

I realize this is much easier said than done, and that many people in such situations may not have the insight required to recognize their plight; romantic attachments do a lot of confusing things to the brain, and impair our recognition and analytical skills where our partner is concerned.

If you *are* aware of the issues with your relationship, but can’t escape it yet, then figure out plans and means to do so at some point. Anything that allows you to feel a sense of autonomy, of control, will help with your wellbeing.


12- How could a person avoid burnout which leads to a total system breakdown?


Anything you can do to remove yourself from the situation, to prevent the effects of whatever is causing you such stress, will help. Be aware of your limits, and do more to say no to anything that demands more of you than you can offer.

And if you know you’re approaching a point where you can no longer function, see if you can do anything to seek help, because it’s much harder when you’re already in the depths of a breakdown.


13- How can we prepare our kids and increase their awareness to face mental health challenges?


Simply by educating them about mental health matters as much as possible. The internet and social media has made this much easier than it used to be. And being up front and honest about tricky subjects, rather than hide away to avoid the difficulty, can make a big difference.


14- Is there a difference between writing daily or weekly articles and writing a book?


Very much so. With weekly articles, there’s a quick turnaround time. You pitch or receive a pitch, work out what you want to write, do the necessary research, write it up, and send it off. From start to finish in a few days at most. And if it doesn’t go well, there’s always next week.

While you have much more time for a book, that presents challenges in other ways. It’s harder to maintain momentum when creating something over many months, and a lot more work is required to make it make sense, to keep track of the narrative, and so on.

There’s also a big difference between measuring ‘success’. An article succeeds or fails within the first day usually, with traffic numbers, clicks, reactions, etc. A book sits on the shelves for a very long time, and may not see much movement until something publicises it months after publication, at which point it could become a big hit. There’s a lot more uncertainty.


15- What are the main challenges you have faced in writing a science book for the general public?


My main challenges concern keeping my material understandable without losing the detail or nuance. That is usually where people struggle; in order to make the subject matter accessible, they tend to dumb down the material, or dress it up in various pleasing ways, but which often distort or hide the key science that they’re trying to convey.

My default assumption is that the person reading my work is at least as smart as I am, they just don’t have any of my existing knowledge. Therefore, I can tell them what I want, I just need to do it in a language that most people will have access to. It’s served me well so far.






  • Dean Burnett was born and raised in South Wales, UK, in the former mining valley of Pontycymer.
  • He is the first member of his family to go to university. He studied neuroscience at Cardiff University.
  • After spending two years embalming dead bodies for the Cardiff Medical school, he completed his PhD at Cardiff University School of Psychology.
  • During his studies, he developed his hobby of writing and performing comedy, which he eventually channelled into a regular science-humour blog.
  • While working as a psychiatry lecturer, his was soon picked up by The Guardian website, where he quickly obtained hundreds of thousands of regular readers.
  • This led to him being offered his first book deal, for The Idiot Brain. Published in 2015, it quickly became an acclaimed international bestseller.
  • Dean is now a full-time author and science communicator

Dean Burnett's Books

  1. The Idiot Brain - 2016 - For our book review click here
  2. The Happy Brain - 2018 - For our book review click here
  3. Why Your Parents Are Driving you Up the Wall and What To Do About It -2019
  4. Psycho-Logical - 2021 (although there was an audio-only version released in 2019, exclusive to Audible UK)