Psychologist Dr. Howard Rankin
HILTON HEAD, S.C.: Two things stand out when you walk into the relaxed and welcoming lobby of The Rankin Center for Integrative Health on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A huge mural of the brain dominates one of the walls of the spacious hallway and over a collection of articles and books on psychology, therapy and brain function, a video loop plays clips depicting highlights of the career of the Center’s founder, psychologist Dr Howard Rankin. And it is a career that has spanned more than three decades and has included everything from groundbreaking research, renowned seminars, academic appointments at some of the most prestigious institutions, the authorship of no fewer than seven books, and a clinical practice that has demonstrated tremendous breadth and scope.
At a time in life when many people might be thinking about retirement, Dr. Rankin is enthusiastically looking forward to the next phase of an illustrious career.
“It is an exciting time for me professionally because we are now able to seriously integrate the latest developments in neuroscience with more conventional psychotherapy and psychological understanding. That is something that I find intellectually and clinically irresistible,” says the British born psychologist.
Dr Howard’s lifelong involvement in psychology began innocuously enough.
“In my junior year in high school one of my teachers told me about the night school course in psychology he was taking. My parents, neither of whom had a high school education, knew very little about science or related professions and were pushing me towards accounting and law. Psychology sounded a lot more fascinating to me and half my applications to university declared an interest in law and the other half in psychology. That tells you the absolutely huge role that mentors can play in an adolescent’s life.”
By this time Howard was a huge Americophile. As a sports crazed boy living in London he had started to learn about America by listening to sports, specifically baseball, on the American Forces Network and in 1968 he won an American Field Service Scholarship, and went to southern California to live with a family and attend high school for seven months.
“The day I heard the news that I was off to America was one if the happiest days of my life,” he says with a warm smile
After graduating first in his class from the University of Nottingham with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Howard really wanted to return to California and applied to various PhD programs there but when he got accepted at the University of London’s prestigious Institute of Psychiatry on a full scholarship he couldn’t refuse.
On graduating with his Master’s degree and professional qualification in Clinical Psychology, the Dean of his department, a distinguished leader in the field of Behavior Therapy, Professor Jack Rachman, asked him to join a research project team whose funding was starting in six months.
“Professor Rachman told me to find another job for six months. So I got employed at the Institute’s heralded Addiction Research Unit. I stayed for ten years.”
Under the supervision and guidance of Professor Sir Griffith Edwards, one of the world’s leading addictionologists, Howard and his colleagues spent the next decade turning out important research on the nature of addiction. In fact, the work they did provided the basis of the scientific definition of dependence used to this day. One of Rankin’s projects and part of his PhD focused on the question of whether addicts could be taught self-control. His study showed that visualization and behavioral training did help to improve temptation management. Rankin, as well as other clinics around the world, still use those treatment techniques to this day and this pioneering work on temptation management was featured in a 1999 ABC “20/20” edition. Howard has also appeared on CNN, “The View,” and many other television shows and his work has been referenced in hundreds of magazines and newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. In 2008 he was part of a team that won a Freddie award – a medical Oscar – for the movie The Million Calorie March – in which Rankin provided professional commentary.
In a relatively short span Howard developed a reputation within addiction research and was invited to consult on projects for the World Health Organization and The National Institute of Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse. Howard thrived as a professor in a prestigious academic environment and was soon recruited to teach at the University of London’s Medical School and at the postgraduate clinical course at Oxford.
After ten years, however, Howard was getting disenchanted with the academic and research life and accepted an offer to become a clinical consultant at a private non profit psychiatric hospital, St Andrews Hospital in Northampton, about seventy miles north of London.
“Research and the academic life are intellectually interesting but I was beginning to find it too restricting. I’m interested in data but I’m more interested in people’s souls. I needed to focus more on clinical work,” says Howard.
Rankin had authored or co-authored more than fifty scientific papers by the time he left for St. Andrews, mostly on addictions but there was one paper that really stands out.
“Professor Rachman was a big practical joker and he was the editor of one of the leading psychological journals, Behavior Research and Therapy. One day while driving to work I created a fake paper on someone who was addicted to limericks and I eventually wrote it entirely in limerick form and sent it off to Dr. Rachman as a joke. He published it! For years I was getting limericks from academics around the world.”
Howard is no stranger to humor. He has even done stand-up which he admits “is about the most stressful thing I’ve chosen to do.” He wrote and performed in annual revues at the Institute of Psychiatry’s Christmas parties with some of his colleagues. One of them, Tony Buffery, a clinical neuropsychologist, was a college mate of John Cleese and the other Monty Python members.
“I asked Tony why he hadn’t gone into a career in humor. His answer was simple. ‘Psychology is funnier,’” remembers Rankin with a wry smile.
Howard believes that humor is really crucial for a good sense of self and has a role to play in therapy.
“Obviously if someone is sitting in front of you feeling suicidal you’re not going to start cracking jokes, but humor is crucial if you’re going to see the big picture. Too many of us get caught in the small details of our lives and can’t get beyond ourselves. Humor helps you do that,” says Howard who has created a variety of comic but poignant characters which he sometimes uses in seminars to deliver health information and motivation from a different angle.
“Any role, even the one of an informed professional, has its restrictions on how much it can influence people. Sometimes people have to hear the message in a different way from a different source.”
At St. Andrews, Howard enjoyed consulting on the Addiction Unit and running the inpatient Eating Disorders program, which he found challenging.
“Eating Disorders are really very little to do with food. They are about the management of emotions. Over the years I’ve had good success with bulimics but anorexics are another story. At St. Andrews there was a senior social worker with me on the Eating Disorders Unit (EDU). It was her opinion that despite the fact that at St Andrews we had programs for disturbed adolescents, dementing seniors and the seriously psychotic, the sickest patients were on the EDU. She was right. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition.”
Dr Miller had co-founded a successful journal called ‘Addictive Behaviors’ and one of Howard’s duties was to act as associate editor, which put him back in touch with many of his former research colleagues and kept him abreast of the latest addiction research.
Howard was also becoming more experienced clinically.
“Psychological research suggests that you have to be doing an activity for at least ten years before you get really good at it. I think that by the time I was 40 and had been doing therapy for more than fifteen years I was really at the top of the learning curve,” says Howard.
This was good because soon Howard was going to meet his biggest clinical challenge.
“One day a client walked into my office and spent the entire session gripping the arm of her chair so hard I thought it was going to come off,” recalls Howard. “Eventually she began recounting horrific details of her current marriage and her past childhood but in time I realized that these were merely the tip of a massive iceberg. Honestly, no Hollywood scriptwriter would even dream of the life she endured,” says Howard.
“I learned what childhood trauma, real life-threatening trauma, and betrayal by parents really does to the mind – it fragments it into tiny, disconnected pieces,” says Howard. “It’s the worst torture imaginable because it is perpetrated by the very people who should be protecting you, whom you depend on.”
The patient turned out to have more than thirty alter egos in a classic and severe case of what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder but is now more accurately called Dissociative Identity Disorder.
“We worked together for more than twelve years, gradually peeling back the layers of her mind, processing the terror and defusing it of its demonic energy and eventually putting her mind back together again in one piece. It was an amazing and incredibly rewarding experience that honestly required massive commitment, courage and trust on both our parts. I honestly felt responsible for managing her alter egos and moving them around in her mind so she could survive. There were definitely times when she was on the edge of both suicide and homicide but in the end we made it. Incredibly, she was able to reconcile with her parents before they both died, actually got her PhD as she was going through therapy and went on to have a distinguished career as an academic,” says Howard pausing to reflect on the enormity of the achievement.
Rankin’s work on this case led him to a specialized interest in trauma, PTSD and dissociation – the ability of the mind to distract itself by absenting part of itself from the grotesque reality of traumatic experience.
“I’m sure that medieval witches were actually suffering from dissociative disorders and I’m fairly sure that most of Freud’s cases were also dissociative because treating someone with this condition is like reading a Freudian casebook.”
So what is therapy about for the good doctor who has been now plying his trade for more than thirty-five years?
“Therapy is the business of secrets and the art of story-telling. It offers the chance of a unique, empowering and very special relationship that is like no other. The stories we all have about ourselves shape our perceptions and actions, and so, for me, therapy is about rewriting our life scripts.”
What should people look for in a therapist?
“Trust, honesty, respect, courage, compassion, effective communication, knowledge. That’s what I hope I bring to the table – er, couch,” says Howard.
Howard believes that a really good therapist is also creative.
“Therapy appeals to, and indulges, my creative side. The hard part of therapy isn’t diagnosing people or figuring out what my clients should be doing, it’s actually getting them to do it. Attacking the problem head-on often simply isn’t going to work because people will resist head-on approaches. You have to be creative enough to devise an approach that gets behind the client’s natural resistance and gets them to buy into what they need to be doing. Nobody likes being told what to do – even by a therapist they are paying to do just that,” says Howard.
It was when Howard had left the Health Institute after ten years that he turned his attention to the subject of communication and influence – subjects that had somehow eluded him through an impressive education.
“I realized that a therapist is just like a used car salesman – sorry, horrible cliché but you get the gist – in that a therapist and a salesman are both trying to influence their clients to do certain things, actually give up certain precious things, in one case money, in the other certain behaviors.”
After researching the subject comprehensively, Howard wrote and published Power Talk: the Art of Effective Communication. It was actually the second book he published in 1998.
“For a long time I thought there was really nothing new to say about human behavior. After all the Romans and the Greeks knew all there was to know. But then I realized that it wasn’t saying something new but saying known things in a new way that was important, so I started writing,” says Howard.
Howard has so far written or co-authored seven books on wellness, relationships and communication. His Inspired to Lose briefly reached #50 on the Amazon.com bestsellers list and #5 in their mind, body, spirit titles. He has just finished co-authoring a book on happiness and has several others on diverse subjects in the works. One of them is the true story about the rehabilitation of a woman who was shot point blank in the head when she refused to accede to a carjacker’s demands to hold her 13 month old baby up to the windshield at a police roadblock.
But other projects might have to wait as Howard dives passionately and wholeheartedly into the brave new world of neuroscience, brain-mapping and neurofeedback.
With the ability to actually see and chart neurological activity, Rankin sees a whole new dimension to therapy, behavior change, mood management, peak performance and the prevention and management of disease.
“There’ll always be a place for talk therapy because human beings are social animals and we need to connect to other people to thrive but techniques like brain-mapping and neurofeedback will add a completely new dimension to the understanding and treatment of the human condition, one that will make therapy more scientific. We truly will have a science of you.”
And with Dr Howard Rankin’s experience in science and research and his compassion and expertise in therapy he is ideally suited to help advance knowledge of the brain and help a lot of people along the way.