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 the Mixed Message Memes

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If you were talking to your doctor, and she said, “Smoking is bad for you”, while lighting a cigarette for herself, would you be confused? Bit of a mixed message, don’t you think?

When I got back to Facebook last night, I found this interesting post from Dr Leaf: “If you have just spoken or done something … It means you have the physical root thought in your brain.” Perhaps not interesting in an I-never-knew-that sort of way … more interesting in a yet-another-mixed-message sort of way.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. She has a habit of posting fluffy pseudoscientific memes to her social media feeds, which sound plausible at face value, but look a little closer, and they crumble like a sand castle at high tide.

Her current post is actually a bit sturdier than usual. We do use information we’ve learned to guide our ultimate behaviour, which include our words and our actions. But that’s not the whole story.

Our brain is an amazing organ. It processes a torrent of incoming information, compares it to previous experience stored in memory, and then delivers real-time instructions to the rest of the body, whilst updating the memory systems with the new information received. However, the brain also has a limited amount of energy that it can utilise – the brain only runs on about 40 watts of power [1: p7] (the same as a low power light bulb). In order to use this limited energy efficiently, the brain automates certain actions, like skills or habits, while retaining the flexibility to handle situations or to perform different actions than the skills or habits that we have developed.

The brain achieves this feat of brilliance by having a number of different types of memory [2] – procedural memory, priming, classical conditioning and non-associative learning make up implicit memory (memory not available to conscious awareness). Declarative memory is the fifth type of memory, which has two sub-components: episodic memory, which is the recallable memory of specific events (that you had coffee and eggs for breakfast), which itself is heavily dependent on semantic memory, the recallable memory for concepts (the abstract concepts of coffee, eggs, and breakfast) [3].

The storage of memories within declarative memory is also done piecemeal, by breaking down the information stored into chunks. Byrne notes, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored). But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers. The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [4] Retrieving the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [5]. What the memory systems lose in accuracy of recall is more than made up for by the flexibility of the information stored in memory to plan current action, and to imagine possible future scenarios.

Each time the brain decides on an action, it subconsciously performs five different steps to determine the best action to take, although the best way to consider the process is simply to say that “voluntary” action is a flexible and intelligent interaction with the subject’s current and historical context (present situation and past experience) [6].

In a new situation, the brain takes the information from the senses (sight, hearing etc) and compares it with the necessary pieces of information recalled from memory, including previous actions taken in similar situations and their outcome. It then decides on the best course of action, plans what to move, when to move, how to move, and then performs one more final check before proceeding. If the situation is familiar, and the brain has a previous script to follow, like a skill or a habit, it will perform those actions preferentially because it’s more efficient in terms of brain energy used, but if there is no previous script, the brain will plan a novel set of actions appropriate to the situation.

The best example of this is driving a car. I learnt to drive in my parents’ 1970-something, 4-to-the-floor Chrysler Galant. The skills required to handle a manual transmission car with an old clutch was challenging to learn, but once those skills were mastered and road rules learnt, I could drive successfully. But I didn’t need to learn evasive maneuvers. When confronted with an emergency situation for the first time, my brain moved my body very quickly to control the car in ways I’d not practiced, before my conscious mind had a chance to process the incident. So my brain used skills I had learnt in ways that I had not learnt, independent of my conscious will.

Dr Leaf’s underlying assumption is that we are in full control of our thoughts and actions. Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, neuroscience proves that predictable brain activity occurs several seconds before a person is aware of their intention to act [7, 8], which runs counter to her presupposition. To try and patch the enormous hole in her argument, she contends that the brain activity that occurs before we are consciously aware of our intentions is just our non-conscious brain accessing our stored, previously conscious thoughts (see also [9], page 42). The implication is that anything you do is still a choice that you made in either the present, or your past. As she said in the Facebook post, “Everything you say and do is first a thought that you have built in your brain.”

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, cognitive neuroscience disproves her folk-science. It’s way oversimplified to suggest that everything we do is based on our thought life. There are many chunks of our memory that don’t come from a willful, conscious input of information (acquired fear is one example). And the brain can use chunks of memory, often from memory systems not accessible by our conscious awareness, to produce complex actions that are completely new, without needing our conscious input.

Even though cognitive neuroscience disproves her meme, which is embarrassing enough for a woman who calls herself a cognitive neuroscientist, the bigger problem for this meme is that Dr Leaf is again contradicting herself.

About a month ago, Dr Leaf published on her social media feeds, “Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!” Now she says that your words and actions are the result of a hardwired “physical root thought”, so your decisions and actions ARE the result of your physical brain. Which is it Dr Leaf? For the sake of her followers, her clarification would be welcome. After all, the more she contradicts herself, the more doubt she casts over the validity of the rest of her writing and teaching. Is she accurately interpreting research, and drawing valid conclusions? Dr Leaf is welcome to comment.

But one thing’s for sure; her mixed message memes are certainly not doing her any favours.

References

  1. Berns, G., Iconoclast : a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently. 2008, Harvard Business School Press, Boston:
  2. Squire, L.R. and Zola, S.M., Structure and function of declarative and nondeclarative memory systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1996. 93(24): 13515-22 http://www.pnas.org/content/93/24/13515.abstract
  3. Binder, J.R. and Desai, R.H., The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(11): 527-36 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.001
  4. Byrne, J.H. Learning and Memory (Section 4, Chapter 7). Neuroscience Online – an electronic textbook for the neurosciences 2013 [cited 2014, Jan 3]; Available from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.
  5. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  6. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  7. Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
  8. Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
  9. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

(PS: And happy Independence Day, USA! #4thofjuly )

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Blameless Brain

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When I came back to Facebook this morning, I found this from Dr Leaf on my feed,

“Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. Her post follows her theme of the last couple of weeks, the premise that the mind is the dominant cognitive force, controlling the physical brain, and indeed, all matter. I have written about the Myth of Mind Domination in a previous blog. But Dr Leaf’s latest offering here deserves special attention.

Lets think about her statement in more detail:

“Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions.”

What Dr Leaf is really saying is that the physical brain has no role in your choices or behaviour whatsoever, because if your physical brain had a role in the decisions and actions you make, it would also carry some blame for your poor decisions and actions.

“You control your brain.”

The question to ask here is, “Which part of ‘you’ controls your brain?” Her answer would be, “Your mind”, although she never says where the mind is. Certainly not in the physical brain or even in our physical body, since “Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around.” [1: p33].

So an ethereal, disembodied force is in full control of our physical body, such that our brain has no role in the decisions we make or actions we take. Even at this stage of analysis, Dr Leaf’s statement is ludicrous. But wait, there’s more.

Dr Leaf’s statement puts her at odds with real Cognitive Neuroscientists. Professor Patrick Haggard is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London. He has authored or co-authored over 350 peer-reviewed articles on the neuroscience of making choices. He writes, “Modern neuroscience rejects the traditional dualist view of volition as a causal chain from the conscious mind or ‘soul’ to the brain and body. Rather, volition involves brain networks making a series of complex, open decisions between alternative actions.” [2] Strike one for Dr Leaf.

Dr Leaf’s statement puts her at odds with herself. Two weeks ago when misinterpreting James 1:21, Dr Leaf wrote, “How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions.” Perception is classically defined in neurobiology as conscious sensory experience [3: p8] although the work of cognitive neuroscientists has shown that perception can also be non-conscious [4, 5]. Either way, perception is based entirely on processing within the brain [3: p6-11]. So one week, Dr Leaf is saying that our brain determines how we behave, and then ten days later, she is telling us that our brain does not determine how we behave. Which is it? Strike two for Dr Leaf.

Finally, Dr Leaf’s statement is borderline insulting to the sufferers of congenital or acquired brain disorders. Would you tell a stroke patient that they shouldn’t blame their physical brain for their immobility, because they’re mind is in control of their brain? What about a child with Cerebral Palsy? Would you tell a mother of a child with Downs Syndrome that their child is having recurrent seizures because they aren’t using their mind properly to control their brain? Dr Leaf is doing exactly that. I find it incredible that she could be so insensitive, given her background as a speech pathologist working with patients with Acquired Brain Injury.

I imagine that her defence would be something along the lines of, “What I meant was, ‘don’t blame your normal physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your functional brain.’” That sort of explanation would be less insulting to people with strokes or brain injuries, but it then undermines her whole premise. The hierarchy of the brain and the mind doesn’t change just because a part of the brain is damaged.

Besides, changes to brain function at any level can change the way a person thinks and behaves. The classic example was Phineas Gage, who in 1848, accidentally blasted an iron rod through his skull, damaging his left frontal lobe. History records that Gage’s well-mannered, pleasant demeanour changed suddenly into a fitful, irreverent, obstinate and capricious man whose workmates could no longer stand him [6]. Medical science has documented numerous cases of damage to the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex causing acquired sociopathy [7]. How can the mind be in control of the brain when an injury to the brain causes a sudden change in thought pattern and behaviour? Clearly one CAN blame the physical brain for one’s decisions and actions. Strike three. You’re out.

Dr Leaf is welcome to comment here. Perhaps she meant something completely different by her post, although there’s only so many ways that such a statement can be interpreted.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf’s love of posting pithy memes of dubious quality is now getting embarrassing. Being so far behind the knowledge of a subject in which she claims expertise is ignominious. Undermining her own premise and contradicting herself is just plain embarrassing. But to be so insensitive to some of the most vulnerable is poor form. I think she’d be well served by re-examining her facts and adjusting her teaching.

References

  1. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  3. Goldstein, E.B., Sensation and perception. 8th ed. 2010, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA:
  4. Kouider, S. and Dehaene, S., Levels of processing during non-conscious perception: a critical review of visual masking. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2007. 362(1481): 857-75 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2007.2093
  5. Tamietto, M. and de Gelder, B., Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2010. 11(10): 697-709 doi: 10.1038/nrn2889
  6. Fumagalli, M. and Priori, A., Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality. Brain, 2012. 135(Pt 7): 2006-21 doi: 10.1093/brain/awr334
  7. Mendez, M.F., The neurobiology of moral behavior: review and neuropsychiatric implications. CNS Spectr, 2009. 14(11): 608-20 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20173686