Smartphone psychiatry? How NIMH director Tom Insel turned from brain scanners to social tech

Thomas Insel, photo courtesy of The Atlantic.

Around this time, Insel told me recently, he’d just finished a talk describing the wonderful things the NIMH was discovering about the brain when a man in the audience said, “You don’t get it.”

“Excuse me?,” Insel said. “I don’t get what?”

“Our house is on fire,” the man said, “and you’re telling us about the chemistry of the paint. We need someone to focus on the fire.”

“I heard that,” Insel told me. “I went home and thought, There’s truth to that. It’s not just that we don’t know enough. The gap between what we know and what we do is unacceptable.”

This is the story of how NIMH director Tom Insel, the most powerful psychiatrist in the world, decided to try closing that gap with smartphones — not as treatment, but as a way to assess mood, and then marshal the social and clinical support to intervene when need be.

The Smartphone Psychiatrist, at The Atlantic, July/August 2017