A Community of Heart Profile: David Servan-Schreiber (1)



There is a man who is taking the French-speaking world by storm and his name is David Servan-Schreiber. He has written a best selling book called “Guérir le Stress, l'Anxiété et la dépression sans Médicaments Ni Psychanalyse” (The English title will be: “The Instinct to Heal: Curing stress, anxiety and depression”). However, we know David as a valued member of our international EMDR community.

David first learned about EMDR during a lecture by Francine Shapiro. He became curious about EMDR and went on to take the EMDR Institute training in January 1998. During the course of the program, Robert Tinker’s “The Mary Tape” touched him. Although he was skeptical that EMDR could really work, he went back to his office and used EMDR right away. He said, the following:

“It worked from the first day and I was hooked. That’s the story! I think that it happens to everybody. It is surprising to see something work so well. After years of doing therapy, I never experienced somebody leaving my office and not feeling like the same person. People would feel better but that was nothing like what I saw with EMDR. Also, what happens with it made me feel less helpless and I felt more effective.”

David’s first encounter with wanting to help others was when he was 2 years old. He was playing with his friends at a playground in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris and there was another 2 year old there with thick glasses. David remembers that he wanted to help him. In fact, he says that the feeling of wanting to help others when they are in misery has been a feeling that has never left him.

At first, he thought that he would follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather who was one of the first surgeons in France. He began his medical training at the Faculty of Medicine, Necker-Enfants Malades at the University of Paris. However, every summer during college, his other interests, computers and film, brought him to a university in North America to learn about these areas of interest. During that time, he learned how Americans were taught medicine and decided to transfer to The School of Medicine at Laval University in Quebec. While doing a clinical rotation at Stanford in conjunction with Laval U, he fell in love with Psychiatry. David said: “What could be better than to listen to people telling the story of their lives? It was like going to the movies!” Furthermore, he went on to say that there was an aspect of EMDR that was similar to surgery: “You are working with one lesion at a time and you are cleaning it out with EMDR like you would a lesion.”

After medical school, he decided to do a Bi-disciplinary internship in Internal Medicine and Psychiatry at the Royal Victoria Hospital at McGill University. The following year he completed a Fellowship in the field of Artificial Intelligence in Medicine at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He thought that his career would be about “Information and how to improve medicine by how people make decisions and he would capture it in computer expert systems.” Several years later he completed his Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience at the School of Computer Science at the same University. It was an exciting time where David had the opportunity to combine his love of Psychiatry, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience. He was part of the group that developed a way to model neural networks on computers so that it would be possible to understand how thoughts and emotions arose from interactions between neurons and then gave rise to behavior. He worked under the Nobel Prize Scientist, Dr. Herbert Simon, and Dr. Jay McClelland. His thesis was a great success and was published in Science, August 1990 under the title “A network model of catecholamine effects: Gain, signal-to-noise ratio and behavior.”

David went on to start an NIH lab for clinical applications of cognitive neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that he co-directed for 8 years. During this time, he finished his Residency in Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. During his research career, David published more than 90 papers in diverse areas of knowledge such as engineering; artificial intelligence and medical management; a system for sexually dysfunctional couples; computerized psychotherapy; language learning; schizophrenia; human brain mapping; fear conditioning; neuroleptic effects on learned behaviors; Anxiety Disorders; Dopamine and the mechanisms of cognition; computational modeling of emotion; etc. He won many awards in recognition of his research skills such as the “Research Scientific Career Development Award” from NIMH, the “Mead Johnson Award” from the American College of Neuropsyychopharmacology to the most recent “Pennsylvania Psychiatrist Society Presidential Award for Outstanding Career in Psychiatry.” The problem was that the more successful he became in Research the less clinical work that he did. When he understood that his career would continue to move in this direction, he reflected on what was happening and decided that because teaching residents about Clinical Psychiatry was the best part of his work, it was time to make a change. He said that this was very hard to do and that it was the first time that anyone sent money back to NIH!

David moved to join the staff of Shadyside Hospital. He became the Chief of Psychiatry and later, also, Director of Psychiatric Services for the new Center for Complementary Medicine. He later went on to be its Medical Director. While working with people with medical conditions, he began to understand the importance of the mind-body connection. As he began to use this principle to organize his thinking about human behavior, he began to have powerful results with his patients. The Center for Complementary Medicine was one of the very first university-affiliated units that used complementary-based medicine.

As the new millennium was born, David became an EMDRIA Instructor and began to teach EMDR at the University of Pittsburgh and McGill University. A year later, he became an EMDR Institute Trainer and began to offer the first EMDR trainings in French in France. Building on the foundation of the first EMDR sponsor in France, Francois Bonnel, David has trained 250-300 therapists in France. Currently, he is in the process of creating a group of French-speaking facilitators and supervisors to support the growing number of clinicians in the French-speaking world. He has been asked to be part of a training course in Cognitive Therapy at the University of Lyon I where he is training medical students, psychiatrists, and therapists who are taking a university level course in Cognitive Therapy. Currently, he is helping to develop a university degree in Clinical Traumatology as part of a 2-year program at the University of Paris V; the basic training will include EMDR.

In September 2001, David took a sabbatical to give him a chance to integrate all that he had been experiencing and learning. The book “Guerir” became the way to pull this information together in a coherent fashion. It also became a way for him to return to France and to the Paris where he had grown up. Currently, he is living in a building that belonged to his great grandmother with other members of his family.

The book came out in March 2003 and is changing the way the French conceptualize healing. David has used studies published in some of the most prestigious scientific journals such as “General Psychiatry”, “Lancet,” and the “Journal of New England” to give support to the importance of natural treatment methods for stress, anxiety and depression. What he talks about is that what these natural methods have in common is that they all tap into the body and the emotional brain to help bring it into balance. Also, he noted that the emotional brain is more connected to the body and its experiences than it is to language and reason.

To the EMDR community David wanted to say the following: “I think that EMDR is at the forefront of this movement. This realization is going on worldwide. The new medicine of the 21 st century will capitalize on the powerful healing connection between the mind and body. They should continue to do what they are doing because they are pioneers.”

David is a firm believer in the benefit of pets when it comes to stress and anxiety. He has a cat and enjoys cooking and playing cards with his friends on Sunday night as a way to deal with his own stress.

We wish David the best with the important work that he is bringing to the public. We are glad that he is a member of our international EMDR community.


“A Community of Heart Profile: David Servan-Schreiber (1),” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed July 15, 2024, https://francineshapirolibrary.omeka.net/items/show/7683.

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