Expert Profile - Alex Korb
Dr. Alex Korb
Neuroscientist and best selling author of “The Upward Spiral” with over 160,000 copies sold
One of the founders of #SameHere Author Alliance
Coach of UCLA Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team
Dr. Alex Korb’s Bio:
Dr. Alex Korb is a neuroscientist, speaker, personal development coach, and bestselling author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. He has PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, and currently teaches there in the Department of Psychiatry. Outside of the lab he is a personal coach who helps smart, successful, and passionate professionals get unstuck and unlock their brain’s peak performance. Dr. Korb is also coach of the UCLA Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, and has a wealth of experience in yoga and mindfulness, physical fitness, and even stand up comedy. For more info visit alexkorbphd.com or follow @alexkorbphd on twitter, facebook, and instagram.
What life events or challenges that you’ve experienced (could be minor, could be major) – whether you’ve experienced them directly or via someone close to you, have had any type of impact on your desire to write and publish your book(s)?
When I first started coaching the UCLA women’s ultimate frisbee, a first-year player eventually revealed to me that she was suffering from depression. I was very surprised by this because she was so smart and had a lot of friends and laughed a lot. It made me rethink depression and realize that you can’t always see someone’s struggles with mental health. While she found the ultimate team to be a great source of comfort and she was getting treatment for her depression, this story, unfortunately, has a tragic ending. Early in her sophomore year, she ended up taking her own life. That led me to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience, trying to understand what was happening in the brain in depression so that I could one day help people like her. Eventually, it led me to write The Upward Spiral – to share what I had learned about what’s happening in the brain in depression, but more importantly what you can do about it. It’s dedicated to her memory.
How did those events impact you emotionally/morally? How, if at all, did those events impact the storyline or characters in your book(s)?
I wrote The Upward Spiral and subsequent workbook because it was important to me that people not blame themselves for their depression or mental health challenges. I want people to have more compassion for themselves and understand that the brain is complex. Just because you may be dealing with trauma, there is nothing “wrong” with your brain. Neuroscience shows us that your brain is not broken. And even though it might not be working exactly as you’d like, our brains can in fact be reshaped by making small changes in our thoughts, actions, interactions, and environment. These small changes actually change the activity and chemistry of key brain circuits that will help our productivity and overall mental health.
When and why did you decide to focus on writing and publishing your book(s), specifically, how was your decision shaped by the experiences above?
I was fascinated by neuroscience and on a trajectory to make it my career. Although I have enjoyed the research aspect, I didn’t want to limit my whole career to analyzing data and writing grants. The science was important, but sometimes too abstract. While I did want to make a positive impact through research, I also wanted to help in a more direct way.
Separately, while I was majoring in neuroscience in college, I’d always had a passion for writing. I made sure to take a writing class every quarter to sharpen my skills. Writing became a part of me just as neuroscience had.
At the end of my Ph.D., I began to think about how I could make the neuroscience I’d learned more relatable to others. I asked myself, what if I could simplify it to the point where I kept the integrity of the data but made it digestible for the reader? From there I started writing a regular blog on the Psychology Today website. After a few years, a publisher reached out about a blog post she’d like and asked if I had ever thought about writing a book. It was only after that that I realized, yes! That’s exactly what I wanted to do. So I started writing.
How do you feel your book(s) have helped connect society through the commonalities of challenges we all face?
How you explain depression to people will have an effect on that individual. While we sometimes understandably get caught in a downward spiral of self-doubt, stress, and worry, it’s also possible to create an upward spiral. My goal was to write a book that shared the message that depression and mental health challenges are rooted in your brain and biology. There is no moral failing. But then the second key message was that your brain is malleable and can be reshaped. I wanted people to stop blaming themselves and not be pessimistic about their outcomes. It’s not predetermined. While you don’t have full and total control over your brain, you do have control over how you live your life, and that changes your brain. And those brain changes make further life changes more accessible.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write and publish a book, but may be apprehensive about sharing their life challenges or personal experiences?
Remember that just because you like writing doesn’t mean that you have to write a book. It’s OK to write for yourself and that alone can be therapeutic.
And if you want it to be public, put some thought into how much you feel comfortable sharing about yourself. It should not be forced, nor should you be guided by your fear of what other people might think.
Think about why exactly it’s important and meaningful to you to actually try to publish your book. Do you want to help people? Do you want external validation? Do you want money? Probably some combination of all of those things. But make sure to have a clear reason that’s authentically important to you and not just driven by ego. If you don’t, it can be pointless suffering and pain to revisit certain circumstances in your life. But if you think about who else might be facing similar challenges and how you might help them with your story, then that same suffering and pain become meaningful in the service of helping others.
If you have told your story before, how did people react when you went public? If you have not previously shared your story, how do you think people will react?
People have been supportive when I speak about the player on my team who took her own life. Speaking about her opens the conversation about mental health and not placing blame on oneself, which is ultimately why I wrote my books.