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Benjamin Carson

Interview: Benjamin Carson
Pediatric Neurosurgeon

June 7, 2002
Dublin, Ireland

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(Dr. Benjamin S. Carson was first interviewed by the Academy of Achievement on June 29, 1996 in Sun Valley, Idaho, and again on June 7, 2002 in Dublin, Ireland. The following transcript draws on both interviews.)

People often speak of brain surgery as the epitome of something difficult and hard to achieve. When did you first have a notion that you actually wanted to do this?

Benjamin Carson: Medicine has always been the only career that I considered, but the aspect of medicine changed. It went from missionary doctor to psychiatrist and then I toyed for a while with the idea of being a cardiovascular surgeon. But, as I began in medical school -- toward the end of my first year -- to realize that I really didn't want to do psychiatry, and I felt that although cardiothoracic surgery was challenging, that it didn't offer me enough variety of cases. And then I said, "Well, what's an area where you could become an authority very quickly?" and I said, "The brain, because nobody knows anything about the brain." And, I spent all those years thinking I was going to be a psychiatrist. So, I already knew quite a lot about the brain. So, it was toward the end of my first year in medical school that I decided that neurosurgery was going to be the right field for me.

You say you never really considered anything other than medicine. You must have been a very serious student, to get into medical school.

Benjamin Carson: I was not a serious student at all. In fact, I was a horrible student. But, you know, like many students, I kind of envisioned myself as a doctor anyway, despite the fact that I wasn't doing well. I can remember we used to sit in the hallways at Detroit City Hospital or Boston City Hospital for hours and hours because we were on medical assistance, which meant we had to wait until one of the interns or residents was free to see us, and I didn't mind at all because I was in the hospital. And, I was listening to the PA system. "Dr. Jones, Dr. Jones to the emergency room," just sounded so fabulous. And I would be saying, "They're going to be saying 'Dr. Carson' one day." But, of course we have beepers now. But nevertheless, it was just wonderful to have that dream and to imagine myself in that setting.

It was perhaps unrealistic, because...

We lived in the inner city, single parent home, dire poverty, my mother only had a third grade education. I was perhaps the worst student you've ever seen. I thought I was really stupid. All my classmates and teachers agreed, and my nickname was "Dummy." But, fortunately I continued to hold onto that dream and, you know, when I was in the fifth grade, my mother put us on this reading program and said we had to read two books a piece from the Detroit Public Library and submit to her written book reports, which she couldn't read, but we didn't know that, and she'd put a little check mark on them and act like she was reading them.

So she actually could not read.

Benjamin Carson: She couldn't read, no. She only had a third grade education, but she was horrified when she saw my report card at mid-term in the fifth grade. I was failing almost every subject. She knew what a difficult life she had, having only a third grade education, trying to raise two young sons in the inner city, with no resources. She saw me heading down the same path, and my brother as well. She just didn't know what to do. She prayed for wisdom and came up with this idea of turning off the television set and letting us watch only two to three pre-selected TV programs during the week. I was considerably less than enthusiastic about this program, as you might imagine.

We had to stay in the house and read these books and our friends were outside and they were playing and they knew we couldn't come out. It seems like they would be making just that much more noise to torment us. But, I hated it for the first several weeks, but then all of a sudden, I started to enjoy it because we had no money, but between the covers of those books, I could go anyplace, I could be anybody, I could do anything. And, I began to learn how to use my imagination more because it doesn't really require a lot of imagination to watch television, but it does to read. You've got to take those letters and make them into words, and those words into sentences, and those sentences into concepts, and the more you do that, the more vivid your imagination becomes. And, I believe that's probably one of the reasons that you see that creative people tend to be readers, because they're exercising their mind.

A lot of people say, "I can learn everything I need to know. I can watch this video or I can watch this DVD," or what have you, but that's like saying you can develop your muscles by watching somebody else lift weights. You have to actually exercise your mind in order to get it to be active and to get it to be creative and reading is a tremendous way to do that.

I was reading about people in laboratories, pouring chemicals from a beaker into a flask and watching the steam rise, and completing electrical circuits, and discovering galaxies, and looking at microcosms in the microscope, and I just acquired so much knowledge, and I had put myself into those settings and I saw myself differently than everybody else in my environment who just wanted to get out of school so they could get some cool clothes and a cool car. And, I was looking down the pike and seeing myself as a scientist or a physician or something of that nature, and that was one of the things that sort of carried me through much of the ridicule and some of the hardships that a person would have to go through coming from my environment and going to medical school.

What were some of the books that you particularly liked as a kid?

Benjamin Carson: Actually, in the beginning, it was all animal books, like Chip the Dam Builder. It was about a beaver and the adventures of this incredible beaver. But you know, Call of the Wild, Becky's Thunder Egg. And, then there were a lot of books that weren't necessarily story books, but they were fact books like Reptiles of the Serengeti or things like that and that was really neat because I learned so much about animals that whenever the science teacher brought up anything that even remotely is -- I was Johnny on the spot. I had the answer. And within a matter of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class, much to the consternation of all those students who used to tease me and call me names. The same ones were coming to me and they'd say, "Benny, Benny, Benny, how do you work this problem," and I'd say, "Sit at my feet, youngster, while I instruct you." I was perhaps a little obnoxious, but it sure did feel good to say that to those turkeys.

I just went on from there.

Once I recognized that I had the ability to pretty much map out my own future based on the choices that I made and the degree of energy that I put into it, life was wonderful at that point. I used to hate my life up until that point because I hated being poor. I hated the environment. But, once I came to that realization, I didn't hate it anymore. It's sort of like if I said to you, "Put your foot in that ice bucket." You would hate to do that, but if you knew you could take it right back out, it wouldn't be such a chore. So, I saw my situation then as being temporary, knowing that I had full power to change it and that completely changed my outlook.

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Did you have brothers and sisters?

Benjamin Carson: I had an older brother, Curtis. He's a couple of years older than me, and he had to go through the same things that I went through, but he had a similar experience. He became extremely academically inclined and is now a manager for Honeywell in the aircraft landing division.

You obviously had extraordinary support from your mother. The situation can't have been easy for your mother, on her own, with little of her own resources and no man to help her. How did she instill in you this confidence in your own ability?

Benjamin Carson: My mother was a person who would never accept an excuse from my brother or myself. It didn't matter what the situation was. If you came with an excuse, she would always say, "Do you have a brain?" And if the answer was yes, then you had a way to get around it. Maybe you should use the brain. That was her point. After a while it became clear to us that no excuse was acceptable, so we became pretty creative.

How did she support the family?

Benjamin Carson: My mother worked as a domestic, two, sometimes three jobs at a time because she didn't want to be on welfare. She felt very strongly that if she gave up and went on welfare, that she would give up control of her life and of our lives, and I think she was probably correct about that. And, so she worked very hard. Sometimes we didn't see her for several days at a time, because she would go to work at five in the morning and get back after 11:00 p.m., going from one job to the next. But, one thing that she provided us was a tremendous example of what hard work is like, and she was also extremely thrifty. She would go to the Goodwill, she'd get a shirt that had a hole and put a patch on it and put another one on the other side to make it look symmetrical, and she sewed her own clothes. She would take us out in the country on a Sunday and knock on a farmer's door and say, "Can we pick four bushels of corn, three for you and one for us?" and they were always glad at that deal. And she'd come home and she'd can the stuff, so that we would have food. She was just extremely thrifty and managed to get by that way. No one ever could quite figure out how she was able to do what she did. She would drive a car until it fell apart, and then she would buy a new car because she saved every dime and every nickel, stuck it under the mattress, and when it came time, years later, to buy a new car, she could do it. And, the neighbors said "What is it with this woman? What is she doing?" Because our mother was a very attractive woman and they figured, you know, she was selling her body and doing all kinds of things like that. But in fact, she had to endure that kind of ridicule, as well as work extremely hard. But, she figured it would pay off in the long run.

Is she still living?

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Benjamin Carson: Yes. She is alive and well. In fact, she lives with us. She has her own floor. We have quite a large house, so she lives on the top floor, and she does a lot of gardening. She goes and comes as she pleases. She has her own car, and she's also involved in restoring antique furniture, and just sitting back, relaxing and enjoying her life.

How important do you think that early family environment is? You started to talk about your classmates and other kids, how important are they?

Benjamin Carson: The more solid the family foundation, the more likely you are to be able to resist peer pressure. Human beings are social creatures. We all want to belong, we all have that desire, and we will belong, one way or another. If the family doesn't provide that, the peers will, or a gang will, or you will find something to belong to. That's why it becomes so critical for families with young children to understand what a critical anchor they are.

So, if your mother hadn't been the kind of person she was, what would have happened to you?

Benjamin Carson: Bad things. No question about it. I know I wouldn't be sitting here at the Academy of Achievement, that's for sure. There's an excellent chance that I wouldn't even be alive, considering the large number of individuals in my high school graduating class who are dead already.

We've also read that you had to overcome a terrible temper.

Benjamin Carson: I had an incredibly horrible temper. I was one of those people who thought they had a lot of rights, and of course, the more rights you think you have, the more likely someone is to infringe upon them. And I did get into fights, I would injure people. I tried to hit my mother in the head with a hammer. I would just become irrational because I would get so angry. It all culminated one day when --

Another youngster angered me, and I had a large camping knife and I tried to stab him in the abdomen, and fortunately he had on a large metal belt buckle under his clothing and the knife blade struck with such force that it broke and he fled in terror. But, I was more terrified as I recognized that I was trying to kill somebody over nothing. This was after I had turned my grades around. I was an A student at that time, but I realized at that moment that with a temper like that, my options were three: reform school, jail or the grave. None of the options appealed to me. So, I just locked myself up in the bathroom and I started praying and I said, "Lord, I can't deal with this temper." And, I picked up my Bible and I started reading from the Book of Proverbs. That was the first day that I started doing it, and I've been doing it every day since then because it had all these verses in it about anger, and it seemed like they were all applicable to me. And, while I was there, I had a revelation and that revelation was that the reason I was always angry is because I was always in the center of the equation. So, just step out of the center of the equation and then everything won't be directed at you, and then you won't be angry, and also, you'll be able to look at things from other people's points of view. Also, where I lived, you know, it was sort of like a macho thing. You get angry, you kick down the wall and punch in the window and it makes you into a big man. But, I came to understand that when you react like that, it actually is a sign of weakness because it means that other people and the environment can control you, and I decided that I didn't want to be that easily controlled. And, I've never had another problem with temper since that day.

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There were so many verses in the Book of Proverbs about anger. If you get an angry man out of trouble you're just going to wind up doing it again, because anger is always going to have him in trouble. And "A man who can control his temper is mightier than a man who can conquer a city." If people can make you angry, they can control you. So, why do you want to give up control to every little insignificant person walking along?

From that point on, I found it much more interesting to watch people try to make me angry, knowing that they weren't going to succeed. I almost made a game out of it. I was able to take myself out of the center of the equation, to look at things from other people's perspective, not to feel that all the rights belong to you. Once you can do that, the things that make you angry become few and far between.

In addition to your mother, were there teachers that were important to you along the way?

Benjamin Carson: I definitely had some teachers who were important.

My fifth grade science teacher, Mr. Jake, was really the first teacher to express confidence in my academic abilities because I was the only person who could identify a rock, which was obsidian and it was because of the reading that I had been doing because after I got through with the animal books, I went to plants, and when I finished all the plant books, I went to rocks because we lived on the railroad tracks and there were a lot of rocks, so I became an expert in geology, and this was while I was still a dummy in the class. So, it was like the first time that I had an opportunity to raise my hand and demonstrate my knowledge because nobody else knew the answer. Everybody was absolutely flabbergasted, but Mr. Jake said to me, "Benjamin, that's incredible." He said, "Why don't you come by the laboratory after school and we can talk about starting a rock collection for you." And, from there I started going to the laboratory every day, getting involved with feeding the squirrel, a red squirrel named Maynard. There was a tarantula, crayfish, a Jack Dempsey fish and I got involved in all this stuff. There was a microscope and I started looking at water specimens and learned all about paramecium and volvox and amoebas, and it was just incredible. That really was what started me on my way.

And then later on in high school, Mr. McConnor, the biology teacher. I started working for him after school, setting up laboratory experiments. I got a lot of extra tutoring from him, and from Mr. Jordan in chemistry, and Mr. Green in physics.

What high school?

Benjamin Carson: This was at Southwestern High School in inner city Detroit. Most of the classroom period was spent with disciplinary problems, so nobody was learning anything. So I got a lot of extra tutoring afterward. And then there was Ms. Miller, the English teacher, who helped me tremendously, mostly by making me feel guilty any time I deviated from the path.

I have read that there was a teacher along the way who had a racist attitude about your achievement. Can you talk about that?

Benjamin Carson: Yes. In the fifth grade, I was at the bottom of the class. By seventh grade I was at the top of the class, same kids.

In the eighth grade, I was still at the top of the class and they would give a certificate out at the end of the semester to the student with the highest academic achievement. And, it turned out to be me, but I was the only black student in the class, and the teacher got up in the front and she basically chastised all the other students because they clearly weren't working hard enough. Because, how in the world could a black student be number one? And, the other students, they were rolling their eyes and they were looking at me and sort of -- whenever she wasn't looking, they'd say, "She's crazy," and this stuff. But, she really believes stuff like that. It's amazing that there were people back there who had such ideals. There were teachers who would try to -- I remember the band teacher tried to destroy my report card because I had all As and so he got to put a mark on it, so he gave me a C, and he figured by doing that I wouldn't get the award, only to find out that band wasn't included as an academic subject! [Laughter]

How did that make you feel when you heard her say that?

Benjamin Carson: It was irritating, but at the same time, I just felt, "People are people, and this lady is a buffoon, and I'll show her," and I did. Maybe gave me a little extra determination, if nothing else.

Even after you graduated from high school and went on to Yale, there were certainly obstacles you had to overcome. There must have been times when you were discouraged. What role did persistence play in your career?

Benjamin Carson: When I was in college, I used to come home to Detroit for the summer. This was when Detroit was going through a lot of turmoil, because the Japanese were ascending in terms of their automobile production, and Detroit was going down, so there were never any summer jobs.

They would have all these stories on about how there would be no summer jobs, and there would be riots in the streets because the kids wouldn't have anything to do. A lot of kids just gave up and they said, "There's not going to be any jobs." But, I would just get on the bus and ride out somewhere and get off, and if I saw a business establishment I'd go knock on the door and say, "I'm a summer student, I need a job." And, I usually got one.

But, one time I couldn't get a job, even that way, it was so bad. And, my creativity, I guess, went into another gear, and I decided to go to the Young and Rubicam Company. When I was applying to college, I had done my regional interview there, and I knew that the Executive Vice President would remember me, 'cause he had done my interview. So, I went up to the penthouse suite, waited 'til his secretary turned her back, and darted into his office. And he said, "Benjamin, how are you? How are things at Yale?" And, I said that "Things are wonderful, but I can't find a job this summer." And he said, "Did you try our personnel office?" I said no. Actually I had tried it. And, he said, "I'll tell you what." He picked up the telephone, and he called the personnel director. He says, "I know we're not hiring this summer, but I have a young man here, and I'm going to send him down. I want you to give him a job."

So, having gone to that next gear, rather than sort of giving up, provided me with a very excellent job that summer too. That happens to me a lot. It happens all the time in medicine. I'll try one thing, it doesn't work, and I'll look and see what other people did. I'll read about what they did, and then I'll say, "Hmm. There must be a better way to do this."

Race is a very important element of American history and contemporary society as well. Would you say that race is something that you have had to overcome, or is it something that has ultimately worked in your favor?

Benjamin Carson: I would put it this way; it's something that I haven't invested a great deal of energy in. My mother used to say, "If you walk into an auditorium full of racist, bigoted people," she said, "you don't have a problem, they have a problem." Because when you walk in, they're all going to cringe and wonder if you're going to sit next to them, whereas you can sit anywhere you want. And, that was a philosophy that I sort of carry through life. You know, if somebody else was having problems with the way I look, that's too bad. You know? I have more important things to do than to invest my energies in their problem.

Wasn't it hard to come to that determination?

Benjamin Carson: It wasn't difficult for me at all. And it remains not difficult today. I remember when I was an intern, and anytime I would go onto the wards with my scrubs on, one of the nurses invariably would say, you know, "Mr. Jones isn't quite ready to be taken to the O.R. yet," assuming that I was an orderly. I wouldn't get angry, I would simply say, "Well that's nice, but I'm Dr. Carson. I'm the intern." And, you know, they'd turn about 18 shades of red, but I would be very nice to them and understanding, and I had a friend for life. You know? Rather than blowing up and saying, "How dare you!" You know, all this, because I recognize that the reason they said that was not necessarily because they were racist, but because from their perspective the only black man they had ever seen on that ward with scrubs on was an orderly, so why should they think anything different?

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A lot of times people blow things out of proportion that don't need to be blown out of proportion. Not to say that there aren't some people who are clearly racist on both sides, on all sides. There always will be people who are like that, as long as there are people with small minds and the devil to stimulate them. But why should I spend my time worrying about that?

You only have so much time in your life, and you only have so much energy. So you have to select very carefully how you're going to spend that time and how you're going to spend that energy. If you waste it spinning your wheels on things that are not going to change, then it deprives you of an opportunity of utilizing it on things that are going to change.

You've made history in more than one way, by performing operations that people thought couldn't be performed -- in one of the most highly specialized and technical and challenging areas of surgery -- and by being the first black man to do this. Which of those things is more important to you?

Benjamin Carson: The most important thing to me is taking your God-given talents and developing them to the utmost, so that you can be useful to your fellow man, period. That is by far the most important thing. And, you know, whether I happen to be the first black person to do that, or the first person, period, to do that -- which is the case in both situations -- I don't know that that's particularly important.

So you're not motivated by that.

Benjamin Carson: I am definitely not motivated by that. The thing that really motivates me right now, to be honest with you, is the opportunity to get other people to understand what's important in life. What's important in their life, and what's important in the life of our society and in the life of our nation? I really believe that that's what civilization is all about. And, it doesn't have a whole lot to do, quite frankly, with the accumulation of wealth, and titles, and degrees and power. Even though, interestingly enough, when you do develop your God-given talents and you become valuable, you know, those things just seem to accumulate.

But that should not be a person's goal. The goal should be to become a valuable individual, and I believe that that's what success is all about. And the more people we can get to understand that, the better off we're going to be as a nation. And I believe it becomes particularly important when we're talking about America, because this is a nation that is composed of so many different kinds of people from so many different places. And, if you look at the globe right now, and you look at all the ethnic strife that is going on, you realize the tremendous potential for destruction that exists in our country, if we don't begin to channel our energies in the right ways. And begin to think logically and begin to outline what our visions and our goals are. Begin to stop attacking our leadership, so that individuals who really do have leadership ability would be willing to step forth and lead.

We need to learn from the past. We need to look at history and understand how the great empires of the past went into decline. Many of the things that they did are things that we are doing now. I believe that we're smarter than that as a people, and that we do have the ability to turn it around. That's my real goal in life. Neurosurgery is only a vehicle whereby to do it.

What was your mother's reaction when you said you wanted to go into medicine?

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Benjamin Carson: She said, "Of course you can do it. If anybody can do it, you can do it, except you can do it better." That was always her mind trick. "You can do anything anybody else can do, except you can do it better." She kind of brainwashed us into thinking that we had some kind of special powers, which I don't think we did, but I think everybody is special if they believe they're special, because there's so much potential in each human being. When you look at the human brain and how little of it we actually use, how little of our potential we actually use, if you can convince somebody that they've got a lot of potential and get them moving in that direction, then obviously they are going to be persons of accomplishment.

So are expectations are a large part of performance?

Benjamin Carson: Without question.

I remember once going to a school system in Yakima Valley, Washington, and the school official said to me, "Don't expect the kind of reception you usually get," because these kids were from reservations, they were from migrant families, and he said, "They have a different set of values. So, don't take it personally if they don't listen. Don't even be offended if they throw things at you." Well, of course, that's exactly what you want to hear. And, when I went into the auditorium, they were jumping over seats, they were shooting paper wads. I mean, it was a madhouse. And, I just quietly went up to the microphone and I started talking about what it was like living in an environment where you walk into a room and turn on the light switch and it looked like the wall was moving because there were so many roaches, and rats that were big enough to move garbage cans, and sirens and gangs and people lying in the street with bullet holes in their chest, and how my two cousins that we lived with got killed. And, then I started showing them how they could use their fingers to calculate, instead of just doing addition and subtraction, how they could do multiplication. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. When I finished, standing ovation. They wanted pictures and autographs, and the school officials said, "Who are these kids? We've never seen them before." I said, "They're the same kids. It's just that I just spent an hour telling them what they could do, not what they couldn't do."

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It's just a matter of raising expectations, and I think this is an area where we've largely fallen down in this country. That's one of the reasons we've created a scholarship program. We've created reading rooms in different schools where the kids actually get reward certificates for reading, which they can trade in for gifts and all kinds of things.

We've got to get them excited and start them at an early level, unless we want to go the same route as other pinnacle nations have in the past. We're not the first pinnacle nation, but every pinnacle nation in the past declined. There came a lot of sports and entertainment, lifestyles of the rich and famous, they lost their moral compass, and they went right down the tubes. Maybe it's inevitable, but if we're going to avoid that, we have to start with the youngsters and we have to create the right mind set and the right set of values.

You obviously had a considerable religious background. I know faith is very important to you. At what point did it become important in your life? How much of your success do you attribute to it?

Benjamin Carson: That actually was the day that it became very important to me, that day in the bathroom. Because when I came out and that temper was gone, I knew there was something more that was involved than just me determining that I wasn't going to get angry anymore. It became clear to me at that point that God was a real entity you could call upon. I've had multiple experiences in my life, subsequently, that made it very clear to me that there was really a supernatural being called God that you could call upon to take care of problems. It gives me an extra sense of confidence.

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I have come into conflict sometimes with people in the scientific community who say, "How can you believe in a God? Somebody who was brought up in the sciences, you understand evolution and all of these various theories, and natural selection, how can you believe in God?" And I say, au contraire. Because when I look at my belief in God, and I look at the order of the universe, when I look at how the earth goes around the sun, and then I look at all the other things that are orbiting, I know that that doesn't just happen. When I look at the human brain with hundreds of billions of interconnections, much more sophisticated than anything that we can create and call a computer, I know that that didn't just happen.

Copernicus made a model of the universe that he would turn with a crank, and all the planets would rotate around the sun. He showed it to the king and the king said, "This is really an intricate thing, this is wonderful. How did this happen?" And he said, "It just came into being. It just popped up." And he said, "No, no. Somebody had to make this." He had proved his point, that yes, there was a creator.

It has become an essential part of my life and my being. It's part of my B.I.G. philosophy, the last letter. The G is for God. I feel very strongly that, in American society, we should not be ashamed of it. We shouldn't shy away from it. Consider the fact that it's on our money. Every coin and every bill says, "In God We Trust." It's in our pledge; it's in the preamble to our Constitution. It talks about our creator. It's on our courtrooms. On the walls it says, "In God We Trust." When we created this nation, we believed in God, why do we all of a sudden have to say we don't believe in Him? I believe that's one of the reasons we got to be so great, so quickly.

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What do you say to kids who look at you and say, "He is inherently smarter than I am. He can get it together better than I can, and there's something just basically unfair about the universe."

Benjamin Carson: I would say to them, "That's exactly the way I felt when I wasn't doing well." I would look at some of the kids in my class -- Bobby, Steve, Lenora -- who always got "A"s and I would just say, "They're inherently smarter than I am. I just don't understand things the way they do." And I would leave it at that.

The fact of the matter is, once I developed confidence in myself and began to believe that I was smart, then all of those innate abilities began to come out. Everybody has them, everybody who has a normal brain, because there is no such thing as an average human being. If you have a normal brain, you are superior. There's almost nothing that you can't do.

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It's really just a matter of understanding that. Take two baseball players, two rookies that come up. The first day in the Major Leagues and the first one comes up, he looks out at the mound, and he sees Nolan Ryan. "Oh no! He's a legend in his own time, he's got a 95 mile-an-hour fast ball, struck out more men than anybody in the history of baseball, more no-hitters. I probably won't even see the ball." With that mind-set, he's very unlikely to get a hit. Another rookie comes up, with the same talent. He looks out there and says, "Nolan Ryan, he's an old man. I'm probably going to knock the cover off this ball." He's going to approach that assignment in a completely different way, and his chance of getting a hit is much greater.

It's really a matter of the mind-set and what one thinks. Achievement really has very little to do with some innate intellectual gift.

You are as knowledgeable about the brain and the way it functions as almost anybody, and you're arguing against a presupposition that seems obvious to many people, that some of us are just born better. Could you clarify that?

Benjamin Carson: Let me make it very dramatic. There was this book that came out a couple of years ago called, The Bell Curve. I'm sure you remember that. It said black people were, perhaps, not intellectually able to do certain things very well, but that they were particularly good at some other things -- basketball, maybe.

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What an absurd thing that is! If, starting today, all the young black girls in America said, "We're not going out with you guys unless you can work a calculus problem," the next edition of The Bell Curve would come out saying, "Black people have this innate ability to perform calculus problems. They can't play basketball very well, but they're really good at calculus." It's a matter of what a person concentrates on. It's a matter of what a person feels is important.

To try to make artificial distinctions on non-science, which is what these silly guys did, is just divisive and stupid. What we need to do is concentrate on those things that are uplifting and positive in our society. I could tell you story after story after story of individuals in our society who have overcome enormous odds, who were not expected to do things, who have done so.

These are the people that we need to concentrate on. These are the people we need to talk about. We don't need to be talking about Madonna, and Michael Jordan, and Michael Jackson. I don't have anything against these people, I really don't. But, the fact of the matter is that's not uplifting anybody. That's not creating the kind of society we want to create. I think all of us have some significant responsibility in that.

What is the magic of studying the brain? Why is it so fascinating?

Benjamin Carson: The human brain is the thing that makes you who you are. I never get over my awe of the brain. When I open up -- this week, I was doing a hemispherectomy on a child and looking at that brain. That's an operation where we remove half the brain to stop intractable seizures. But, I'm saying, "This is the thing that makes this person who they are," and if I were to expose my brain and expose your brain, and put them side by side, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference and yet, we're very, very different people, and no one can truly understand that.

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People will say it's all logically sequenced, and "We have these biochemicals and they got together and a cell was formed and because of external forces, that cell went in this direction and over millions and millions of years, we evolved into this incredible organism, based on natural selection and survival of the fittest." That's all nice and good to say, but that really doesn't even come close to explaining the human brain, because if it were just survival of the fittest, then none of us would care about anybody else. We'd only care about ourselves. There would be no such thing as a person who is self-sacrificing in order to help somebody else. So there's a lot more to our brains than just the neurons and the synapses. There's an intangible aspect, which is called a mind and a spirit. The thing about the human brain is you've got all of these billions and billions of complex interconnections and neurons which, in and of itself, is fascinating, and then you throw on top of that the whole concept of the mind and the spirit, and it becomes a vast, vast laboratory in which you can work for a millennium and still never get very far. That's what drew me to it, because I knew that I could find some things that were new.

How did you come to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery?

Benjamin Carson: Pediatric neurosurgery became fascinating to me, more because I didn't like adult neurosurgery, in the sense that there were so many chronic back pain patients in adult neurosurgery, and they never got better no matter what you did until they got their settlement. So, it seemed like there were just so many secondary game issues and things. With children, what you see is what you get. You couple that with the fact that I like to do complex things. You can sit there and you can do these enormously complex operations on old people, and it might be successful, and your reward is they live for five years. Whereas with a kid, you do this incredibly complex thing and your reward may be 50, 60 or 70 years. So I like to get a big return on my investment. So, I'd rather go with the kids.

Isn't it harder?

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Benjamin Carson: It is more difficult in the sense that they're smaller, you can't afford the blood loss. But the big bonus with the children is the phenomenon we know as plasticity. All the neurons haven't decided what they want to do when they grow up yet. So consequently, you can be more radical in terms of some of the things you do.

For instance, the hemispherectomy, you can't get away with that in an adult, but a child has the ability to actually transfer functions to other parts of the brain. So you can take out half of the brain of a kid, and you'll see the kid walking around, you'll see him using the arm on the opposite side, and in many cases even engaging in sporting activities.

How do you determine that a hemispherectomy is required? That must be the last resort.

Benjamin Carson: Right. We will do hemispherectomies in children who have intractable seizures; that is, they cannot be controlled. If the seizure focus is all in that one hemisphere, the surgery can be extraordinarily effective. This is one of the best examples of what teamwork does. We have to have a pediatric epileptologist evaluating these people, and then you have to have a surgeon who can do the work. I always say good surgeon and a bad candidate is a bad result, just like a bad surgeon and a good candidate would be a bad result. You've got to have good preoperative evaluation, and you've got to have good surgery and good postoperative care.

Weren't you one of the first surgeons to perfect that operation?

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Benjamin Carson: I was one of the first people to really revive it. The very first hemispherectomy was done at Johns Hopkins 70 years ago by Walter Dandy, in an attempt to cure a malignant brain tumor. The procedure was brought back by MacKenzie and a few other people, and then fell into disfavor. At the time that I did my first one in 1985 it seemed like something new. An article came out in The Washington Post and we started getting all kind of calls from people. A couple of medical students from the Boston area called and said, "We read about you taking out half the brain to stop seizures, and we talked to our neurosurgeons and they said that we were mistaken and that we hadn't read it right."

Over the course of time, it's become much more widespread again. The key thing is not so much that I was this wonderful surgeon, but I came and relooked at it at a time when I think we had much better tools, much better ways of evaluating things and controlling things, and I think that makes a big difference. As Solomon said in Proverbs, "There is nothing new under the sun." It's a matter of relooking at things, particularly in light of advancements.

It was the same way with separating Siamese twins. I looked at that situation. I said, "Why is it that this is such a disaster?" and it was because they would always exsanguinate. They would bleed to death, and I said, "There's got to be a way around that. These are modern times." This was back in 1987.

I was talking to a friend of mine, who was a cardiothoracic surgeon, who was the chief of the division, and I said, "You guys operate on the heart in babies, how do you keep them from exsanguinating" and he says, "Well, we put them in hypothermic arrest." I said, "Is there any reason that -- if we were doing a set of Siamese twins that were joined at the head -- that we couldn't put them into hypothermic arrest, at the appropriate time, when we're likely to lose a lot of blood?" and he said, "No." I said, "Wow, this is great." Then I said, "Why am I putting my time into this? I'm not going to see any Siamese twins." So I kind of forgot about it, and lo and behold, two months later, along came these doctors from Germany, presenting this case of Siamese twins. And, I was asked for my opinion, and I then began to explain the techniques that should be used, and how we would incorporate hypothermic arrest, and everybody said "Wow! That sounds like it might work." And, my colleagues and I, a few of us went over to Germany. We looked at the twins. We actually put in scalp expanders, and five months later we brought them over and did the operation, and lo and behold, it worked.

You have said that you have a philosophy for assessing the risk of a given procedure. What is it?

Benjamin Carson: Sometimes people have said that I tackle things that other people won't tackle and so on and so forth, and it has nothing to do with that. It simply has to do with me asking the question: "What's the best thing and what's the worst thing that happens if I do something, what's the best thing and what's the worst thing that happens if I do nothing?" On the basis of those four questions, I can determine whether I should do something or not. If the best thing that's going to happen if I do nothing is that they're going to die, then I certainly don't have anything to lose by doing something. And, you can go through the combinations and you can see that they really would tend to lead you in the right direction. So, it's not a matter of being radical or daring. It's a matter of being logical, I think.

It must take courage to do something that hasn't been done before.

Benjamin Carson: It can sometimes be challenging because sometimes people put obstacles in your way and certainly, I remember one case where a very well known neurologist said that I shouldn't do something and wrote letters to everybody -- and this was early in my career -- including the dean and the president of the hospital. But, I took advantage of the fact that he left the country to go to a conference, and I did the operation and it turned out to be very successful. But, the reason that I was willing to do it, at the risk of my career in this situation, was because I had studied it very well, and I think that's a crucial element here. You really need to know what you're talking about. You can't sort of go off half cocked. So, you need to prepare yourself. And also, because I had a tremendous amount of faith in God, I asked God to give me wisdom.

My middle name is Solomon, and I start each day reading from the Book of Proverbs, and I end each day reading from the Book of Proverbs. That tells me that God has a since of humor, because he knew I was going to have this great sense of affinity for the Book of Proverbs. So he made my parents give me the middle name Solomon. But also, when Solomon became the King of Israel, the first big challenge he had that brought him great fame was when two women claimed to be the mother of the same baby. What did he advocate? He said, "Divide the baby," and he became very well known. That's how I became well known, when I divided babies too. So I think God has a sense of humor.

During the course of building your career, have there been failures and disappointments that temporarily deterred you?

Benjamin Carson: Certainly there have been failures, but I always say that you have to learn from your failures.

Thomas Edison said he knew 999 ways that a light bulb did not work. He didn't give up, and along with his right-hand man, Lewis Lattimer, they eventually came up with a successful light bulb. There's a cleaning formula called Formula 409. Of course, the reason they call it that is because the first 408 didn't work, but they didn't give up and they kept going. I always say, "If something doesn't work out, make sure you analyze it and try to find out why it didn't work and don't repeat that." It's like people who are always late. You can always count on them being late. They never seem to learn that if you get organized and you leave 15 minutes earlier, you won't be late. They just don't seem to be able to understand that. And, a person who can learn from their mistakes is a person who is going to be successful.

Dr. Carson, what does the American dream mean to you?

Benjamin Carson: The American dream to me means that you have the ability to determine where you're going. You have the ability to formulate your dream, and you have the ability to put in motion all the building blocks that will help you to achieve it. And I am so grateful that I was born in America because I've had the opportunity to travel throughout the world, and I must say sometimes it's exciting to go to Paris, or go to Egypt or to go anywhere else, China. But, there's no place like home, and there's no place that really affords you the same types of opportunities that we have. And it's just a matter of how hard we want to work, and I would go so far as to say, in America, you can take somebody who is very successful, who has the right mind set, and you can take everything away from him and put him on the street and make him be a bum, and they'll be right back up there in a couple of years because all it requires is the right mind set and the willingness to work. And, people who realize that are already halfway there, to realizing their American dream.

What is the next great challenge for you?

Benjamin Carson: Well, there are a couple of big challenges for me right now. One is helping to turn around our young people, helping them to understand how important it is to achieve intellectually, which is why we started our scholarship program, and we start giving scholarships in the fourth grade for superior academic performance and humanitarian qualities.

What is the nature of the scholarship?

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Benjamin Carson: It's called a Carson Scholars Fund, and it's done on a school by school basis throughout Maryland, Delaware, D.C. and Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Santa Ana, California. We're moving into Michigan and Georgia this next year. Hopefully, we'll eventually go across the nation. But, for a child to qualify, they have to have at least a 3.75 grade point average on a four point scale, and have demonstrated significant humanitarian qualities, more than just the six weeks before the application process.

What we are trying to do is establish our leaders for tomorrow. Most scholarship programs concentrate on children when they're in the 11th or 12th grade. It's really too late, and you've missed the boat on a lot of them. But if you can get them stimulated early on, boy, they become world beaters. Not only that, the other kids are saying, "You're in the fifth grade and you got a scholarship," and they get really interested. Many teachers have told us that the grade point average has gone up a whole point in their classrooms because they have a scholar there and that school gets a big trophy, every bit as impressive as any sports trophy you've ever seen.

They go to a banquet. They get a statement each year in terms of how much their money is worth, because it is invested on their behalf, and they get it when they go to college. They can win year after year, if they're good enough. So they can accumulate quite a lot of money. We've started reading programs in schools, where kids go into a special reading room, and they actually get certificates for reading. They accumulate these and then they can turn them in for a boombox or whatever it is that they want. It really gets them interested in reading, and that will have a profound effect, in and of itself. The other big challenge for me is healthcare, which has become incredibly frustrating.

In a way, it's kid of ironic because I grew up in dire poverty. I said, "I can make myself into anything I want to be. I think I'll become a brain surgeon and I want to be one of the best brain surgeons that ever lived." And, then when I got there, I found out that it wasn't so great because there was all this managed care stuff, and it no longer paid to be good. It only paid to be cheap. And, then we have the situation where there's so many families that would come and they would want your services, but the hospital doesn't accept their insurance, or just all kinds of horrible things. So, it became incredibly frustrating, and I know so many of my colleagues have just quit, or just don't want to deal with it. But I'm not a quitter. So, my next project is something we've just started, the Benevolent Endowment Network fund, in which we are creating a medical endowment which will help to supplement people's healthcare. So, that if their insurance is not such that they could come to a place like Johns Hopkins, the fund kicks in and allows them to be able to come and be treated.

Some people don't have healthcare. Like last summer, a little boy from Africa with a very complex brain tumor, and I said, "Of course, I will treat him," and then I was told, "No, you can't treat him because even though you can give your services away, you can't give away everybody else's". And, I understand that because if everybody was like me, the hospital would have been bankrupt a long time ago.

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But by creating this fund with an endowment, and working only off the endowment, we don't keep throwing good money after bad money, and as the endowment builds, we can treat more and more and more people. So I'm going to start if off in pediatric neurosurgery, expand it to all of neurosurgery, and eventually try to create an endowment large enough so that the entire hospital is covered, and demonstrate that it is something that works very well, so that other institutions will start doing it.

Our population is getting older and older, and it's costing us more and more money. We spend one in seven dollars in our economy on healthcare. If we were to be wise about it, we would take ten percent of that amount each year and put it into an endowment. In the course of ten to 20 years, we will have built up an endowment that was big enough to take care of virtually everybody in the country. We need to start thinking that way, because otherwise we're just going to be throwing away money.

Was it disappointing to you when President Clinton's healthcare plan didn't work?

Benjamin Carson: It was disappointing to me to see President Clinton's healthcare plan. It was a horrible healthcare plan. It wasn't his plan; it was actually his wife's plan. They didn't consult with a lot of people who were actually practicing medicine. It sort of started out with the premise that all doctors are criminals and then built from there, which is far from the truth. It just built these incredible bureaucracies. There are very logical ways to take care of healthcare. For instance, using computers to do all billing and collections, as opposed to these mounds and mounds of papers and mountains of people to push them around.

We've gotten to a situation where more of each healthcare dollar goes to pay administrative costs than goes to pay professional fees, by almost a two to one margin, and it continues to grow out of proportion. And, we've got so many costs involved in giving healthcare now that it's totally ridiculous. The facilitator -- the middle man that came in to facilitate the doctor-patient relationship -- has become the principal entity, and the doctor-patient relationship is there to support it, and the whole thing is turned upside down. And if we could inject a little bit of logic back into the system, I think it would be a tremendous thing, and there are a lot of ideas that I've had for doing that, which I wrote about in my last book, which many people have written to me and said, "Why isn't this in the Congress?"

Which book is that?

Benjamin Carson: The Big Picture.

What are you most proud of, Dr. Carson?

Benjamin Carson: The thing that I am probably the most proud of is not all the medical accomplishments or honorary degrees or various boards and societies. I'm most proud of the 100,000-plus letters that I have from young people, throughout America and around the world, whose lives have been changed by reading one of my books, or seeing me on television, or an interview in a magazine, and recognizing that they have the ability to define their own lives. If that's the legacy that I leave, I'll be very happy.

A great legacy. Thank you, Dr. Carson. It's been a pleasure.

Thank you.




This page last revised on Apr 18, 2012 20:39 EDT