Dr Caroline Leaf, behaviour and genetic destiny

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Today on her Facebook feed, Caroline Leaf posted a quote which said, “Your behavior can and does dictate your genetic destiny”. Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. In isolation, it sounds like she has found confirmation of her view that our thoughts and behaviour control the physical properties of our DNA (Leaf, 2013, p35).

However, I wanted to look at the quote in a broader context, because in the broader context, the quote still doesn’t confirm Dr Leaf’s teaching.

The quote comes from an American doctor, Sharon Moalem. Dr Moalem is obviously a smart man. According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Moalem is an expert in the fields of rare diseases, neurogenetics, and biotechnology. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book ‘Survival of the Sickest’ and ‘How Sex Works’. Moalem has cofounded two biotechnology companies and is the recipient of 19 patents for his inventions in biotechnology and human health.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Moalem)

It’s not that Dr Moalem’s quote is wrong. In the book from which the quote is taken, Dr Moalem discusses the expression of genes (Moalem, 2014). There is no doubt that our behaviour affects the expression of genes. For example, when the body encounters a high level of dietary iron (ie: we eat a big juicy steak), a series of steps activates a gene to promote the production of ferritin, a protein that helps to carry iron in the blood stream (Strachan and Read, 2011, p375-6). These changes in genetic expression are mostly protective (for example, ferritin is used to keep toxic elemental iron from damaging our tissues). There are some behaviours that will override the body’s protection, for example, excessive exposure to UV radiation will eventually lead to skin cancer. But overall, the changes in genetic expression that our behaviour causes are protective, and do not adversely affect our health.

Unlike Dr Leaf, Dr Moalem does not promote the notion that our behaviour changes the genes themselves. Neither does he promote that our behaviour, in isolation, is the only modifier of our genetic expression. The quote that Dr Leaf used came from the second chapter of Dr Moalem’s book, “Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives, and Our Lives Change Our Genes”. Really, the title says it all. Our behaviour influences our genetic destiny, but our genes influence our behaviour just as much, if not more.

For example, small variations in the genes that code for our smell sensors or the processing of smells can change our preferences for certain foods just as much as cultural exposure. Our appreciation for music is often changed subtly between individuals because of changes in the structure of our ears or the nerves that we use to process the sounds. The genetic structure of the melanin pigment in our skin changes our interaction with our environment because of the amount of exposure to the sun we can handle. Our genetic destiny is also largely influenced by our environment, most of which is also beyond our choice (Lobo and Shaw, 2008).

So your behaviour can and does influence your genetic destiny, but your genetic destiny is more influenced by our genes themselves, and the environment that is beyond our control.

Dr Leaf’s quote doesn’t look quite so supportive after all.


Leaf, C.M., (2013) Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Lobo, I. & Shaw, K. (2008) Phenotypic range of gene expression: Environmental influence. Nature Education 1(1):12

Moalem, S., (2014) Inheritance: How our genes change our lives and our lives change our genes, Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Strachan, T. and Read, A., (2011) Human Molecular Genetics. 4th ed. Garland Science, New York.

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.


  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