Dr Caroline Leaf and the brain control misstatement

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“Always give credit where credit’s due.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist, and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Yesterday, Dr Leaf made a couple of carefully worded statements on her social media feeds, which given the quality of her previous couple of neuroscience-based factoids, is a definite improvement.

First, she said that, “Your brain is being continuously rewired throughout your life …”. Yep, I can’t disagree with that one. The brain is a very dynamic tissue, constantly remodelling the synaptic wiring to process the information it receives on a daily basis. That’s why the brain is referred to as ‘plastic’, reflecting the property of plastic to be moulded into any shape.

Her next offering sounds really good too. It’s full of encouragement, positivity and hope … the classic feel-good quote: “You can bring your brain under your control, on the path to a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life.” Whether it’s true or not depends on how literally you interpret it.

If you loosely interpret it, then it sounds ok. Sure, we have some control over how we act, and if we live our life in the direction dictated by our values, then we will have a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life. Modern psychological theory and therapies confirm this [1].

However, what Dr Leaf actually said was, “You can bring your brain under your control”. Having some control over our actions is entirely different to bringing our brain under our control. We can control some of our actions, but we don’t control our brain any more than we ‘control’ our car.

When we say that we’re ‘controlling’ the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control, tic disorders for example. These can range from simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) to complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Another common example are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, or sleep eating.

The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control. Our brain is driving, our stream of thought just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much to upset that veneer of control we think we possess.

Ultimately, our brain is still responsible for our action. We don’t have a separate soul that is able to control our brain. Any decisions that we make are the result of our brain deciding on the most appropriate course of action and enacting it [2] (and see also ‘Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis‘ for a more in-depth discussion on the subject of dualism). Therefore, we can’t ever bring our brain under control.

This is important because if we believe that we can bring our brain under control, then by simple logical extension, we can control everything our brain is responsible for – our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our memory, and every single action we make. This is Dr Leaf’s ultimate guiding philosophy, though it’s not how our neurobiology works. If we were to believe that we control our thoughts and feelings, we set up an unwinnable struggle against our very nature, like trying to fight the tides.

We are not in control of all our thoughts, feelings, emotions or all of our actions, and neither do we have to be. We just need to make room for our uncomfortable emotions, feelings and thoughts, and to move in the direction of those things we value.

So if you were to take Dr Leaf at her word, she still missed the mark with her post. It sounds ok in a very general sense, but closer inspection reveals a subtle but significant error.

Giving credit where credit’s due, Dr Leaf has tried to tighten up her social media statements. It’s commendable, but unfortunately she needs to bring her underlying philosophy closer to the accepted scientific position to further improve the quality of her teaching.

References

  1. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497

Dr Caroline Leaf and the genetic fluctuations falsehood

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While idling away on Facebook, as is my usual pass time, I came upon Dr Leaf’s Facebook feed. There were her usual self-indulgent holiday happy-snaps and another couple of Pinterest-style fluffy inspirational posts. Then this: “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing”.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a South African born and trained, US based, communication pathologist. She also claims that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist. Given the quality of the posts on her social media pages recently, no one could ever take such a claim seriously.

To make sure we’re all clear about what she just said, I’m going to say it again: “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing”. It was an astonishing, if not bewildering statement, especially coming from someone with a PhD level education. If Dr Leaf were a medical doctor and publically made a statement like that, her registration would be reconsidered.

The core of the statement, which pushes it so far beyond the boundaries of rational scientific thinking, is the phrase “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute.”

DNA in our cells is like an old audio cassette tape. Audio cassette tape is a long magnetic stripe, storing the code which the tape player decodes as sound. DNA is a chemical string which has a sequence of “bases” off to the side. The full DNA molecule is made of two matching strings joined by chemical bonds between the bases (hence the name, “base pairs”). Depending on what the cell needs, it runs the DNA through a decoder to either copy it, or to ‘play’ it (i.e. using the information stored in the code to build new proteins).

Like the tape in an audio cassette, the code of the DNA is incredibly stable. The rate of DNA mutation is about 1 in 30 million base pairs [1]. DNA doesn’t ‘fluctuate’, (“rise and fall irregularly in number or amount” [2]). It’s not the stock market. The number of genes in each cell of my body does not rise or fall depending on whether I’m having a good hair day.

The other part of Dr Leaf’s statement, that our DNA “fluctuates … based on what we are thinking and choosing” is also scientific nonsense. The only way that your thoughts and choices are capable of inducing genetic mutations is if those thoughts or choices involve cigarette smoking or standing next to industrial sources of ionising radiation.

I think Dr Leaf is trying to say that our thoughts and choices can change our gene expression, which is the construction of new proteins from the instructions in the DNA code. However, gene expression has nothing to do with our thoughts and choices. IVF embryos are expressing genes like crazy as they grow from one cell to an embryo in just a petri dish. It doesn’t think or choose.

More often than not, our thoughts and our choices are the result of gene expression, not the cause of it. We don’t have any specific control over the process either. The process of genetic expression is dependant on a complex series of promoters and tags on the DNA, which are controlled by other proteins and DNA within the cell, not thought or choice.

The truth is that gene expression occurs moment-by-moment, regardless of what we think or don’t think, do or don’t do. Gene expression is simply DNA being read. Our genetic makeup, the DNA code, is stable. It does not fluctuate. There is no part of Dr Leaf’s statement that is scientifically accurate.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf continues on her pursuit of pseudoscience, an affront to the people who trust her to tell them the truth, and the God of all truth that she purportedly represents.

References

  1. Xue, Y., et al., Human Y chromosome base-substitution mutation rate measured by direct sequencing in a deep-rooting pedigree. Curr Biol, 2009. 19(17): 1453-7 doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.032
  2. Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition, 2010, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Dr Caroline Leaf and why we’re not victims of our biology

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“We’re not victims of biology, but NOT because we control our biology.  We’re not victims of our biology, because we’re not victims, period.  Our biology keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, our immune systems fighting germs, our intestines digesting, our nerves feeling, and our brains loving, laughing, and living.  We’re not victims of our biology, because our biology is allowing us to fully experience the wonder of life.  Suggesting that our biology in any way makes us victims depreciates the unfathomably amazing design that God has woven into every human being.  Suggesting that we can control our biology is pure hubris, a form of narcissistic idolatry.” Dr C. Edward Pitt

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Profound Simplicity Paradox

It was a guy called Charles Bukowski that said once, ‘Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way’. It always grabs our attention when something is said that’s easy to understand, yet deeply meaningful. The simple yet profound juxtaposition draws our attention and exercises our cognition in a way that nothing else seems to match. Those that are able to utter pervasive truth in a few syllables are elevated to gurus, and their pearls of wisdom are endlessly reposted on Pinterest and Facebook.

Of course, for something to be profound, it doesn’t just need to be deep, but also true.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her social media feeds are littered with Pinterest profundities, and she adds her own sometimes for good measure. Today, she shared something which I’m sure she thinks is one of those strokes of genius that Charles Bukowski was talking about,

“What we say and do is based on what we have already built into our minds.”

Well, her statement is simple, but it’s certainly not profound. It’s a paint-by-numbers version of the neuroscience of behaviour, based on her underlying assumption that we are in full control of every thought and action that we ever have or do.

It’s nice story to tell. It seems to fit with our experience of our thoughts and of the attribution of every action we take with our feeling of conscious volition. It’s just that it’s not what real neuroscientists actually tell us is going on in our brain.

Our thoughts and our actions are based on a number of things, mostly beyond our conscious control. This is because our perception, physiological responses, and personalities are all strongly genetically determined, our memory systems are predominantly subconscious, and so is the vast majority of the processing our brain does on a second-by-second basis. Our thoughts and our feeling of our conscious ‘free will’ are the subconscious brain simply projecting a small sliver of that information stream to a wider area of the cerebral cortex for fine-tuning (I discuss this in much more detail in chapters 1, 2 and 6 of my book).

So what we say and do is not based on just based on what we have already built into our minds, because our actions are largely built on our genetics and our subconscious memories, which we don’t necessarily have control over either.

There will be some people who think that this sounds like a cop-out, just an excuse to avoid responsibility for our own actions. I would argue that this actually refines our responsibility to that which we can change, taking the focus away from those things that we cannot change. For example, there’s no point in suggesting that I’m a bad father because I can’t breastfeed my children. This is an extreme example of course, but chiding someone for not doing something that they can’t do because of their genetic predisposition is no different.

Rather than focusing unnecessary effort on trying to change what cannot be changed, we should look to work on the things that can be changed. Even then, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take a long time to learn something that another person might pick up straight away.

It’s also important for people to understand that not everything you struggle with is related to your poor choices. There’s no point in wrestling with something that isn’t going to move. All you do is tire yourself, sapping you of energy that you could be using to effect change on the things you do have power over.

So on the surface, Dr Leaf’s statement may be simple, but it’s ultimately erroneous. Instead of being liberating, it can actually be oppressing. Those who are looking for something profound would be better served looking somewhere else on Pinterest.

Reference:
Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848

Dr Caroline Leaf and Picking Cherries

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When it comes to fruit, I’m a bit picky. Cherries are one of my least favourite. It makes things difficult at times. I’m no good with Black Forest cake or with traditional Christmas goodies like Christmas pudding or rumballs. I guess that’s a good thing, one less thing to be tempted by.

Some fruit can be picked a little unripe, because it will still ripen after it’s picked. Cherries are a bit more delicate. Apparently when it comes to picking cherries, the key is to pick only the ripest fruit and leave the rest on the tree.

In science, “cherry picking” is a colloquial expression for the practice of selectively picking or presenting only the information that agrees with your personal theory, ignoring the rest. Richard Somerville put it well: “Choosing to make selective choices among competing evidence, so as to emphasize those results that support a given position, while ignoring or dismissing any findings that do not support it, is a practice known as ‘cherry picking’ and is a hallmark of poor science or pseudo-science.” (Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, March 8, 2011).

You can see cherry picking everywhere if you know what to look for. It’s usually done by advertising and PR firms to make a product sound all sciencey or mediciney, something like, “Research shows that …”. Then deep in the fine print is a reference to a single scientific paper. When you actually look at the article in question, the “research” is weak or horribly biased.

Cherry picking is also common amongst organisations with a barrow to push, or websites like Natural Wellness Care (http://www.naturalwellnesscare.com/stress-statistics.html), which push a bunch of statistics to magnify a problem so they can sell or promote their “solution”.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Cherry picking is one of her favourite tricks. Her teaching from the pulpit is littered with the phrase, “Research says …”, without ever mentioning where the research came from. You just have to take her word for it.

Dr Leaf cherry picks extensively through her published work. There are too many examples to list them all, but her use of the quantum physics term, “quantum Zeno effect” is a prime example [1: p108, 2: ch13].

Another great example of cherry picking is Dr Leaf’s theory of the “Heart as a mini-brain” [2: ch11, 3: p40]. Dr Leaf exclusively relies on the information published by a group called HeartMath (http://www.heartmath.org), who themselves cherry pick extensively. HeartMath list reams of citations as evidence that the heart is a little brain, but even a basic understanding of routine clinical tests like an ECG shows that their ground breaking discoveries are little more than pseudoscience [see also Ref 2: ch11].

Dr Leaf then selectively uses certain studies from HeartMath to back up various claims she makes. A case in point is her claim that, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [1: p111]

This is cherry picking in its purest form. Despite the study being over 20 years old, and so badly designed that even alternative scientific journals wouldn’t publish it, Dr Leaf claimed it as proof that emotions and intentions can alter DNA [Chapter 13 of my book, Ref 2 outlines why the study is so poor].

In her social media feed today, Dr Leaf quoted Peace Pilgrim, a silver haired mystic who walked across America for 28 years, owning nothing but the clothes on her back, all in the name of peace. The quote Dr Leaf republished was, “If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” This was taken from a radio talk that Peace Pilgrim gave in 1964 (http://www.peacepilgrim.com/steps1.htm). Peace Pilgrim’s quote is interesting, even inspirational, but not scientific. Inspiring quotes from half a century ago are fine, but only if you’re a motivational speaker or a B-grade life coach.

Dr Leaf says she’s a cognitive neuroscientist. Real cognitive neuroscientists don’t cherry pick whichever quotes or studies fit with their prevailing theory. They look for the truth by synthesising all the evidence into an accurate theory.

Dr Leaf may be trying to inspire people, but if she claims to be a scientist of any form, she has to adhere to a higher standard. She has to make sure that the words she uses are not just inspiring, but accurate as well, because facts and fruit are not the same. If you want a good Black Forest cake, then cherry pick all you want, but if you want the truth, consider all the facts first.

Like to read more about Dr Leaf’s teaching and how it compares to current science? Download the free eBook HOLD THAT THOUGHT, Reappraising The Work Of Dr Caroline Leaf

References

  1. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  2. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848
  3. Leaf, C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. 2009, Inprov, Ltd, Southlake, TX, USA:

Dr Caroline Leaf and the case of the killer reactions

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Stress! Believe the media and seemingly every disease known to man is in some way linked to it. Heart disease = stress. Cancer = stress. Flatulence = stress.

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, has been of a similar opinion for the last couple of decades. Dr Leaf must have been kind enough to read my book, because after teaching for the last fifteen years that stress is toxic, a subtle shifting under the weight of evidence has appeared.

In her 2009 book [1], Dr Leaf wrote,
“The result of toxic thinking translates into stress in your body.” (p15)
“Stress is a global term for the extreme strain on your body’s systems as a result of toxic thinking.” (p15)
“Stress is a direct result of toxic thinking.” (p29)
“These stages of stress are scientifically significant because they illustrate how a single toxic thought causes extreme reactions in so many of our systems.” (p39)

In 2013, her position on stress hadn’t really changed that much: “Even a little bit of these negative levels of stress from a little bit of toxic thinking has far-reaching consequences for mental and physical health”, and “The association between stress and disease is a colossal 85 percent.” [2: p36-37]

Again in her 2009 book [1], Dr Leaf devotes an entire chapter to the alleged effects of the toxic stress pathway on our body (chapter 4, p39-43).

Now in her latest social media update, tucked in amongst the gratuitous selfies and holiday snaps, comes something that’s actually about mental health: “Stress does not kill… is good for us! Its our negative reactions to stressful events that pushes into negative stress…and this is what kills! Sistas 2014 NZ”

The problem for Dr Leaf is that any stress, whether it’s caused by our “negative” reactions or not, doesn’t actually kill us.

There is a phrase used in science, “Correlation does not equal causation”. This simply means that just because two things occur together, one doesn’t necessarily cause the other. For example, do my red watery eyes cause my hives? They always appear together, but they don’t cause each other. The common element that causes both of them is actually the cat that I’ve just patted.

Just because stress is correlated with certain illnesses does not mean that stress causes or contributes to those illnesses. In fact, one of Dr Leafs own pivotal references, an article by Cohen and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2007, discussed the weakness of assuming that stress causes most diseases. As they say, “Although stressors are often associated with illness, the majority of individuals confronted with traumatic events and chronic serious problems remain disease-free.” [3]

Even if it were true that it how we react to stress contributes to the outcome of that stress, Dr Leaf’s statement about our killer reactions incorrectly presumes that both how we cope with stress, and the physical outcome of stress are the result of our choices.

Our levels of stress, and the way we cope with our stress, is mostly caused by our genetics. Some people will be naturally less stressed, and some people will be naturally better at coping with stress (see chapter 5 of my book [4] for a full discussion on the science of resilience). Just because you’re more prone to stress doesn’t mean that it’s all down to your bad choices. Assumptions like these only add to your already high levels of stress.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a way to improve our responses. For those of us at the stressed end of the spectrum, successful psychological therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy will help to improve our coping, and certainly have been shown to improve (not cure) mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and other chronic conditions like chronic pain (see [5] for a review).

ACT and other modern psychological therapies recognise that trying to change our thoughts doesn’t make any difference to how we cope. So like I said before, it’s partly true that how we react to normal life experience will help us live full and productive lives, but it’s not about fighting or changing our thoughts. It’s about being mentally flexible enough to make room for our thoughts and fears and move forward towards meaningful action. I’m sure that the ladies at ‘Sistas 2014′ wouldn’t be hearing that from Dr Leaf.

Anyways, I’m glad that Dr Leaf is changing her tune on stress, but there’s still more room for change before she meets up with current scientific understanding.

For an in-depth review of the teachings of Dr Leaf, visit http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848 where you can download a free copy of “Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf.

References

  1. Leaf, C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. 2009, Inprov, Ltd, Southlake, TX, USA:
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  3. Cohen, S., et al., Psychological stress and disease. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association, 2007. 298(14): 1685-7
  4. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848
  5. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf

‘Vagina’, and other ‘offensive’ medical terms

Back in my university days, I emceed a 21st birthday party for a friend of mine. One of the games I got everyone to play was the peg game.

The premise is simple enough. Everyone gets a clothes peg at the beginning of the party, and whoever had the most pegs at the end of the party was declared the winner. In order to get other people’s pegs, you had to catch them saying certain words that I arbitrarily chose to be forbidden. The words I banned just happened to be “Happy”, “Birthday” and “Craig”, the name of the party boy. It made singing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the night more challenging, but everyone still had a great time.

The peg game on a cultural scale is the modern scourge of political correctness. Terms like ‘manhole’ are replaced by ‘personal access units’ to avoid upsetting women, while ‘baba black sheep’ has been changed to ‘baba rainbow sheep’ in some schools, in case the nursery rhythm could be deemed racist. Meanwhile, ‘brainstorming’ is unacceptable because it may offend epileptics.

Proving that the centuries-old terminology of medicine is not immune from the PC plague, the Journal of Sexual Medicine has published an article in which the authors declare that the term ‘vulvovaginal atrophy’ should no longer be used because the word ‘vagina’ is not publicly acceptable [1].

Perhaps I’m just old and inflexible now, but to me this smacks of puerility and paternalism (sorry … authoritarianism, just in case I offended fathers). Lets face it, lots of medical terms have stigma attached to them, or are in some way publicly unacceptable. Lets rename herpes for a start … how about ‘Blistering of the Reproductive Parts’ or BoRP for short, unless someone is offended by the term ‘reproductive’. Maybe, ‘Blistering of ones bits’ … damn it, that’s shortened to BooB, which is an offensive reference to mammary glands. ‘Blistering of bits’ … but then that’s shortened to BoB which is offensive to people named Robert. I guess we’re stuck with ‘herpes’ then. In the end, it doesn’t matter what term you use, because the connotation or stigma is in the meaning of the word, not the word itself.

And how childish is it to be offended by the word ‘vagina’ in the first place. Half the planet has one for goodness sake. Refer to it by any other word, and no one cares. Va-jay-jay, flower, pussy, muffin, her ‘Downton Abbey’ … there are too many euphemisms to list. To me, they all sound like they belong in either the playground of a kindergarten, or a high school boys locker room (depending on the term, of course). And yet somehow the neutral, anatomical term is apparently less acceptable.

What really worries me is the example this sets for our children. I went to great pains to teach my children the anatomically correct words for their body parts from an early age, and answer their questions about their ‘private parts’ openly without embarrassment. Why? Not just because I’m a doctor, but because they’ll grow up to view their bodies as normal and natural, not shameful or taboo. This is beneficial for their health and for protection from child-sex predators. From The Atlantic magazine, “Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.” [2]

What sort of example does it set when, as has happened in the US, a biology teacher was suspended because he said ‘vagina’ in class, or a Michigan State politician was removed from their parliament because she said ‘vagina’ on the floor of the chamber? What sort of example does it set when major medical journals are advocating that neutral, anatomical words are considered offensive? A poor one, I’d wager. All it achieves is to further stigmatise our bodies while impeding good communication, “reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.”

Rather than stop using the word, we just need to get over it. I’m not suggesting that we go around yelling ‘vagina’ at the top of our lungs, or gratuitously slip it into conversation at every opportunity. Lets be mature adults instead. Lets talk about any parts of our body in an appropriate context, without shame or condemnation. That’s how we protect our most vulnerable, and live in a truly progressive society.

References

  1. Portman, D.J., et al., Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause: New Terminology for Vulvovaginal Atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health and The North American Menopause Society. J Sex Med, 2014 doi: 10.1111/jsm.12686
  2. Buni, C., The Case for Teaching Kids ‘Vagina,’ ‘Penis,’ and ‘Vulva’. The Atlantic, 2013, Atlantic Monthly Group, Washington USA