The Prospering Soul – Christians and Anxiety

When you say the word “anxiety”, it can mean different things to different people. To a lot of people, anxiety is the same as being a little frightened. To others, it’s being really scared, but with good reason (like if you have to give a speech and you’re afraid of public speaking).

Medically speaking, anxiety isn’t just being frightened or stressed. After all, it’s normal to be frightened or stressed. God made us so that we could experience fear, because a little bit of fear is actually protective. There are dangers all around us, and if we had no fear at all, we’d end up becoming lunch for a wild animal, or road-kill. So there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of anxiety – in the right amount, for the right reason.

But anxiety in the wrong amount or for the wrong reason, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. That’s the anxiety that we’ll be talking about today.

The official description of anxiety reflects this idea of the wrong amount of anxiety about the wrong things: “… marked symptoms of anxiety accompanied by either general apprehension (i.e. ‘free-floating anxiety’) or worry focused on multiple everyday events, most often concerning family, health, finances, and school or work, together with additional symptoms such as muscular tension or motor restlessness, sympathetic autonomic over-activity, subjective experience of nervousness, difficulty maintaining concentration, irritability, or sleep disturbance. The symptoms are present more days than not for at least several months and result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (This is taken from the beta-version of the latest WHO diagnostic guidelines, the ICD-11, but has yet to be formally ratified).

There are six main disorders that come under the “anxiety disorders” umbrella, reflecting either an abnormal focus of anxiety or an abnormal intensity:
1. Panic Disorder (abnormally intense anxiety episodes)
2. Social Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of social interactions)
3. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (abnormally intense episodes of anxiety following trauma)
4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (abnormally intense and abnormally focussed anxiety resulting in compulsive behaviours)
5. Specific phobias (abnormally focussed anxiety on one particular trigger), and
6. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of everything)

The common underlying theme of anxiety is uncertainty. Grupe and Nitschke wrote, “Anxiety is a future-orientated emotion, and anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain.” [1]

The dysfunctional approach to uncertainty that underlies anxiety is in turn related to genetic changes which affect the structure and function of the brain, primarily in the regions of the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, which then alters the processing of our brain in five different areas:
> Inflated estimates of threat cost and probability
> Hypervigilance
> Deficient safety learning
> Behavioural and cognitive avoidance
> Heightened reactivity to threat uncertainty

In simpler language:
> the brain thinks that threats are more likely and will be worse than they are
> the brain spends more time looking for possible threats
> the brain fails to learn what conditions are safe, which is aggravated by
> the brain over-using avoidance as a coping mechanism, and
> the brain assumes that unavoidable uncertainty is more likely to be bad.

It’s important to understand at this point that anxiety disorders aren’t the result of poor personal choices. They are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [2].

The other way of looking at it is that some people are blessed with amazing tools for resilience [3, 4].

It’s not to say that our choices have no impact at all, but we need to be realistic about this. Everyone will experience stressful situations at some point in their lives, and everyone will also make dumb choices in their lives. Some people are naturally better equipped to handle this, whereas some people have genes that make them more vulnerable. It’s wrong to blame yourself, or allow other people to blame you, for experiencing anxiety, just as it’s wrong for other people to assume that if one person can cope with the same level of stress, then everyone else should too.

It’s not to say that you shouldn’t fight back though. Just because your facing a mountain doesn’t mean to say you can’t climb it. It will be hard work, and you’ll need good training and support, but you can still climb that mountain.

Managing anxiety is very similar to managing depression like we discussed in a previous post. Following the tap model, there’s overflow when there is too much going into the system, the system is too small to handle it, and the processing of the input is too slow. So managing anxiety involves reducing the amount of stress going into the system, increasing the systems capacity through learning resilience and coping skills, and sometimes by improving the systems processing power with medications.

Reducing the input – stress management

Sometimes the best way of coping with anxiety is to reduce the stress that’s fanning the flames. It mightn’t seem to come naturally, but as we discussed in the last chapter, there are a few basic skills that are common to all stress management techniques that can form the platform of ongoing better skills in this area.

Engaging the “vagal brake” as proposed by the “Polyvagal Theory” [5] is as important in anxiety as it is in depression. By performing these techniques, the activity of the vagus nerve on the heart via the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system is increased, which not only slows down the heart, but enhances the activity of other automatic parts of our metabolism. Some of the techniques allow a relaxed body to have a relaxed brain which can cope better with whatever is confronting it. The full list will be a blog for another time, but the simplest technique is to breathe!

It’s really simple. Sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

Increasing capacity – coping and resilience

Like with depression, anxiety responds well to psychological therapies which help to increase coping skills and enhance our innate capacity for resilience. And like depression, anxiety improves with CBT and ACT [6, 7], which enhance the activity of the pre-frontal regions of the brain [8]. For anxiety, CBT teaches new skills to handle uncertain situations, and to re-evaluate the chances of bad things happening and what would happen if they do. ACT puts the train of anxious thoughts and feelings in their place, and teaches engagement with the present moment, and a future focusing on values, and accepting the discomfort of uncertainty by removing the distress associated with it.

Practicing each of these skill sets is like practicing any other skill. Eventually, with enough practice, they start to become more like a reflex, and we start to cope with stress and anxiety better automatically.

Increased processing – Medications

Sometimes, to achieve long-term successful management of anxiety, a little extras help is needed in the form of medication. Like depression, the main group of medications used are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRI’s for short). Medications appear to reduce the over-activity of a number of brain regions collectively called the limbic system [8], which are involved with many innate and automatic functions, but in its simplest form, the limbic system controls many of our emotions and motivations, including fear, anger and certain aspects of pleasure-seeking [9]. So essentially, SSRI’s help the anxious brain to make better sense of the incoming signals.

There are other medications commonly used for anxiety treatment, collectively called benzodiazepines. Most people wouldn’t have heard that term before, but would have heard of the most famous member of the benzo family, Valium. Benzos are like having a bit too much alcohol – they slow down the activity of the brain, and induce a feeling of relaxation. When used appropriately (i.e.: in low doses and in the short term), they can be helpful in taking the edge off quite distressing feelings of anxiety or panic. But benzos are not a cure, and after a while, the body builds a tolerance to them, where a higher dose is required to achieve the same effect. Continued long term use eventually creates dependence where a person finds it difficult to cope without them.

The final way to help manage anxiety is prayer. Like for depression, there is limited scientific information on the effects of prayer on, although a small randomised controlled trial did show that prayer with a prayer counsellor over a period of a number of weeks was more effective than no treatment [10].

Though given that anxiety is a future orientated emotion, excessively anticipating possible unwelcome scenarios and consequences, it’s easy to see why prayer should work well for anxiety. Trusting that God has the future in hand and knowing “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) means that the future is less uncertain. The Bible also encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) When we give the future to God, he will give us peace in return.

Again, like in the case of depression, it’s sometimes hard for Christians to understand how strong Christians can suffer from anxiety in the first place. After all, we’ve just read how God gives us peace. And the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

So when you’re filled with the opposite, when all you feel is overwhelming fear, it makes you feel like a faithless failure. Christians without anxiety assume that Christians with anxiety aren’t living in the Spirit. And it’s the logical conclusion to draw after all – if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, and you’re not filled with peace, then you mustn’t be full of the Spirit.

But like depression, when you look through the greatest heroes in the Bible, you see a pattern where at one point or another in their lives, they went through physical and emotional destitution, including mind-numbing fear … Moses argued with God about how weak and timid he was (Exodus 3 and 4), Elijah ran for his life in panic and asked God to kill him, twice, over the period of a couple of months after Queen Jezebel threatened him (1 Kings 18 and 19). Peter had spent three years with Jesus, the Messiah himself, hearing him speak and watching him perform miracle after miracle after miracle. But Peter denied his Messiah three times when he was confronted with possible arrest (John 18).

For the same pattern is also seen in King David, Gideon, and a number of other great leaders through the Bible. The take home message is this: it’s human nature to suffer from disease and dysfunction. Sometimes it’s physical dysfunction. Sometimes it’s emotional dysfunction. It’s not a personal or spiritual failure to have a physical illness. Why should mental illness be treated any different?

As the stories of Moses, Elijah and Peter testify, being a strong Christian doesn’t make you impervious to fear and anxiety. Hey, we’re all broken in some way, otherwise why would we need God’s strength and salvation? Having anxiety simply changes your capacity to experience God’s peace. As I said in the last chapter, closing your eyes doesn’t stop the light, it just stops you experiencing the light. Being anxious doesn’t stop God’s peace, it just makes it harder to experience God’s peace.

In summary some anxiety, at the right time and at the right intensity, is normal. It’s not unhealthy or sinful to experience some anxiety. Anxiety at the wrong time or at the wrong intensity, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. Anxiety related to a dysfunctional approach to uncertainty, and is a future-orientated emotion because anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating.

Like depression, anxiety disorders can be managed in four main ways, by reducing the amount of stress coming in with stress management techniques, by increasing capacity to cope with psychological therapies like CBT and ACT, and sometimes by using medications, which help the brain to process the uncertainty of each situation more effectively. Prayer is can also useful to helping to manage anxiety.

Christians are not immune from anxiety disorders, and it’s important for the church to understand that Christians who suffer from anxiety are not weak, backsliding or faith-deficient. Having anxiety is not because of making poor choices. Though if you have anxiety, trust in the promises of the Bible, that God has the future under control.


[1]        Grupe DW, Nitschke JB. Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2013 Jul;14(7):488-501.
[2]        Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2.
[3]        Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10.
[4]        Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84.
[5]        Porges SW. The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology 2007 Feb;74(2):116-43.
[6]        James AC, James G, Cowdrey FA, Soler A, Choke A. Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2013;6:CD004690.
[7]        Swain J, Hancock K, Hainsworth C, Bowman J. Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review 2013 Dec;33(8):965-78.
[8]        Quide Y, Witteveen AB, El-Hage W, Veltman DJ, Olff M. Differences between effects of psychological versus pharmacological treatments on functional and morphological brain alterations in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder: a systematic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2012 Jan;36(1):626-44.
[9]        Sokolowski K, Corbin JG. Wired for behaviors: from development to function of innate limbic system circuitry. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 2012;5:55.
[10]      Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med 2009;39(4):377-92.

If you’re suffering from anxiety or any other mental health difficulties and if you want help, see your GP or a psychologist, or if you’re in Australia, 24 hour telephone counselling is available through:

 Lifeline = 13 11 14 – or – Beyond Blue = 1300 22 4636

The significance of thoughts

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A few days ago, I posted a rebuttal to one of Dr Leaf’s favourite memes, “Thoughts are real and occupy mental real estate.”

In short, I wrote that thoughts are real, but the issue hasn’t ever been whether thoughts are real, but what thoughts really are. The conclusion was that thoughts are just a projection, a function of the brain. They are not independent of the brain and they do not control the brain.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf tried to refine her meme today, saying:

“Your thoughts produce proteins, which form real structures that change the landscape of your brain.”

So, is that true? Do thoughts produce proteins which change the structure of the brain? To answer that, we need to have a look at some basic neurobiology.

The brain is made of nerve cells. Nerve cells have three unique structures that help them do their job. First are dendrites, which are spiny branches that protrude from the main cell body, which receive the signals from other nerve cells. Leading away from the cell body is a long thin tube called an axon which helps carry electrical signal from the dendrites, down to the some tentacle-like processes that end in little pods. These pods, called the terminal buttons of the axon, and then convey the electrical signal to another nerve cell by directing a burst of chemicals towards the dendrites of the next nerve cell in the chain.

In order for the signal to be successfully passed from the first nerve cell to the second, it must successfully traverse a small space called the synapse.

Despite being very close to each other, no nerve cell touches another. Instead, the spray of chemicals that’s released from the terminal button of the axon floats across a space of about 20-40nM (a nanometre is one billionth of a metre).

Combining nerve cells and synapses together creates a nerve pathway, where the input signal is received by specialised nerve endings and is transmitted down the nerve cell across a synapse to the next nerve cell, across the next synapse to the next nerve cell, and on and on until the signal has reached the destination for the output of that signal.

And that’s it. The entire nervous system is just a combination of nerve cells and the synapses between them.

What gives the nervous system and brain the near-infinite flexibility, and air of mystery, is that there are eighty-six billion nerve cells in the average adult (male) brain. Each nerve cell has hundreds to thousands of synapses. It’s estimated that there are about 0.15 quadrillion (that’s 150,000,000,000,000) synapses throughout the average brain [1]. Each of these cells and synapses connect in multiple directions and levels, and transmit signals through the sum of the exciting or inhibiting influences they receive from, and pass on to, other nerve cells.

The brain is a highly plastic organ. When biologists talk about plasticity, they aren’t talking about the chemical plastic that we make everything out of, like plastic cups or bottles, but the ability for the cells, tissues or organs to change or adapt. And the brain does this all of the time. Every stimulus changes one or more of the billions of branches and synapses that the brain has. Branches can be pruned back, or new ones grown. Existing branches can be strengthened or weakened. Each change to the branches of the nerve cells helps the brain to adapt to the ever-changing internal and external stream of signals that the brain is required to process.

So returning to Dr Leaf’s statement: The key part of the meme is, “Your thoughts produce proteins”. This is where Dr Leaf’s statement is wrong. The error is deceptively subtle, but it’s still wrong. When changes are required, new branches are formed, which do indeed require new proteins. But most brain function, including our thoughts, is simply electrical current running along the pathways already formed by the branches of our nerve cells.

Even then, our stream of conscious thought is only a tiny fragment of the billions of nerve impulses our brains produce each and every second of our lives. As I described in my previous post, thought is not dominant. Our thoughts do not control our brains, it’s our brains that control our thoughts. Thoughts are real, but they’re real like an image on a screen is real, but isn’t the real thing.

Thoughts are only significant when they are considered for what they truly are. Our stream of consciousness is simply a selective place of refinement for highly salient parts of our non-conscious information that need further processing before further action is taken with that information. They are like the dials on your dashboard, which give selective important information about the car but they don’t control the car. Thoughts do not control our brains growth, or alter our brains architecture.

Dr Leaf should have said something along the lines of, “The landscape of the brain is created by real structures called neurons and synapses, which have many functions including our thoughts.”

As it is, Dr Leaf’s meme creates a false impression that our thoughts are the critical factor in determining our brains structure and function, when the reality is the exact opposite.


[1]        Sukel K. The Synapse – A Primer. 2013 [cited 2013 28/06/2013]; Available from:

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mental Monopoly Myth (Mark II)


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In my last post, I asked the question, “What’s more important to a person’s health and well being?” and I showed that Dr Caroline Leaf proposition that the mind dominates ones mental health and well-being is patently false.

Not to be outdone, Dr Leaf countered today with a tweak to her initial proposition: “Mind-action is actually THE predominant element in mental well-being.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She’s also started calling herself an expert in mental health, despite never having trained in medicine or psychology, or working in counselling.

Dr Leaf may have tightened up her wording from her previous statement, but her claim that mind-action is the predominant element in mental well-being is still wrong, because her fundamental assumption is wrong.

What fundamental assumption? That the brain doesn’t control the mind, but the mind controls the brain.

As I discussed in the last post, this idea of the mental monopoly dominates every one of Dr Leaf’s works, and most of her social media memes. Take her most recent meme for example, published just today, “The brain is not a chemical stew that is missing a key spice! The brain is hugely complicated and complex and is controlled by the even more hugely complex and eternal mind!”

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The premise that the mind controls the brain is wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. It is precisely the opposite of what science tells us. The mind is a function of the brain, just like breathing is a function of the lungs. No lungs, no breath. No brain, no mind. (see my posts here, here and here, and others for further discussion)


It’s been said, “Consistency: It’s only a virtue if you’re not a screwup.” Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but it does illustrate the point that just because you say something often enough, doesn’t make it true. So no matter how many times Dr Leaf repeats herself, the fact that the brain controls the mind isn’t going to change.

Even without appealing to the plethora of scientific information out there, Dr Leaf’s claim that mind-action dominates mental well-being is wrong, since mind-action is simply brain-action, which in turn, is influenced by the complex interplay of our genes, our physical health, our uncontrollable external environment, our social networks and our spirituality. Our mental well-being is no different to our general well-being in this regard. It is still part of the complex interplay that is represented by the biopsychosocial (and spiritual) model.

It’s time for Dr Leaf to update her teaching, and abandon her unscientific presuppositions and philosophies.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Better graphics, same content

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In the world of marketing, visual media is king. Humans are sight based creatures. About thirty percent of our brains cortex is dedicated to vision , compared to 8 percent for touch and 2 percent for hearing

It’s no wonder then that sites like Pinterest and Instagram have so rapidly become such dominant sites on the social media landscape. And why billions of dollars are invested in visual advertising on TV and billboards.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self titled cognitive neuroscientist. In the last few weeks, she’s gone for a new look for her Instagram and Facebook posts – gone are the simple lines, plain text and stand alone logo. Her posts have gone glam, with backgrounds of her photo treated with coloured layering and shading, overlaid with Dr Leafs favourite text. Sometimes the text is pretty easy to read. Other times it looks like a 4th grade class got to take turns picking the font and text size for each different word. But hey, it’s edgy, it’s happening, it’s so hot right now.

It’s a real shame that she only chose to update the look and not the actual content of her social media memes. Take today’s offering as an example: “The mind processes. The brain reflects this processing.” (The unsaid conclusion being that, “The mind controls the brain.”)

I’ve written about this meme a few times (here, here, here and here, as a small sample). But let’s relook at it again, since Dr Leaf is unwilling to reconsider the statements lack of validity.

Does the mind really control the brain, or does the brain control the mind? Well, if the mind was separate from the brain and controlled the brain, then the mind would be able to function independently of the brain. And also, if the mind was separate to the brain, then changes to the brain would not influence the function of the mind.

It’s difficult to show that a person has a mind without a brain. You can’t really remove someone’s brain and then put it back again, so not many people are keen to volunteer for that study. But anecdotally, have you ever heard of a person who has woken from a coma having spend all that time in deep thought?

What IS much easier to study, and has been proven over the course of centuries, is the change to our cognitive function when our brain is changed, physically or functionally.

The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by medications.
The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by illicit drugs.
The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by electrical stimulation.
The mind changes then the structure of the brain is changed by tumours or injuries.

In 1848, a man named Phineas Gage was packing gunpowder in some rock when an accidental detonation blasted a foot-long iron rod through the left face and forehead, severely damaging the left frontal lobe of his brain. History records that his personality changed from polite, well mannered, and well spoken to fitful, irreverent, impatient of restraint or advice, obstinate and capricious [1].

Whilst Phineas Gage was is most famous, other brain injuries can also change the way in which someone thinks. For example, lesions of the parietal lobe of the brain changes the way people see their own bodies. Baars writes, “Patients suffering from right parietal neglect can have disturbing alien experiences of their own bodies, especially of the left arm and leg. Such patients sometimes believe that their left leg belongs to someone else (often a relative), and can desperately try to throw it out of bed. Thus, parietal regions seem to shape contextually both the experience of the visual world and of one’s own body.” [2]

Some might argue that the mechanism of injury might be the variable that could change someone’s personality. After all, if an iron rod was blasted through my skull, I might be a little antsy too. But other structural change to the brain, not associated with a sudden traumatic event, can also result in personality changes – it’s well recognised that personality changes can be the first presenting symptom of brain tumours, for example.

Though the brain doesn’t have to be horribly distorted for the mind to change. In the last couple of decades, a tool has been developed called TMS – short for transcranial magnetic stimulation. A magnetic pulse is delivered over a part of the skull, passing through the bone to reach the brain, causing changes to the electrical current running through the nerve cells. Stimulation of different intensities can either turn off the nerve cells or excite them. TMS has become a great tool for studying cognitive neuroscience because it directly changes the function of the brain in a well localised and temporary manner. It’s also easy for scientists to blind the subjects to whether they’re receiving the treatment or a sham treatment, so the results are reliable. Research shows that when the frontal lobes of the brain are changed by the electrical signals, their executive function also changes [3].

Changes to the function of the brain are known to change the function of the mind and have been known to do so for centuries. From religious hallucinogens to Woodstock hippies, drugs of various forms have been used to alter mood, thought, and perceptions of reality. But there’s a drug that’s much more common, that’s known for its ability to alter our brains thinking ability the world over, and even Dr Leaf enjoys it.

Like most people, my morning doesn’t really start until after my first cup of coffee. Sure, I’m functional, but barely. Fifteen minutes after the first short black is in my system, I find that I’m much more alert and my thinking is clearer.

What’s changed? Is it my mind changing the function of my brain, or is it the coffee, specifically the caffeine in it, that’s changing my brain which is in turn is making my mind clearer and sharper? I think the answer is obvious. Caffeine is the most commonly used recreational drug in the history of mankind, and every cup of java (real coffee that is, not the travesty that is decaf) is more proof against Dr Leaf’s dogmatic misrepresentation of basic science.

So, if the mind is changed by alterations to the structure and/or function of our physical brain, it follows that our mind must be a function of our brain. Therefore, the mind does not process, while the brain simply hangs on for the ride. Rather, the brain processes, and our mind reflects this processing.

Dr Leaf can tart up her memes all she likes, but until she changes the content of her memes to match some actual science, it’s all just smoke and mirrors. The truth doesn’t need visual pimping. It is simply the truth.


[1]        Fumagalli M, Priori A. Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality. Brain : a journal of neurology 2012 Jul;135(Pt 7):2006-21.
[2]        Baars BJ. Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research 2005;150:45-53.
[3]        Guse B, Falkai P, Wobrock T. Cognitive effects of high-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation: a systematic review. J Neural Transm 2010 Jan;117(1):105-22.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Contradicted by Dr Caroline Leaf

“Who am I?”

It’s one of life’s most fundamental questions. It’s such a quintessentially human question, one that speaks to the importance of our identity as individuals.

It’s a question that Dr Leaf thinks she has the answer to.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Recently she launched an on-line program called “Perfectly You”, based on her 2009 book, “The Gift In You” [1]. In “The Gift In You”, Dr Leaf promised that by using her program, you could enable your gift and increase your intelligence to the level that you desire. According to Dr Leaf, your gift is something that’s hardwired into your brain, which makes your gift uniquely yours. For example, she wrote:

“Your gift lies in something so profound yet so simple that we tend to overlook it: the combination of your life experiences with the measurable structure of how your brain has been wired to think and process information.” (p24)

“Neurologically, you are not wired for someone else’s gift. You can try as hard as you want. You can listen to as many teachings as you possibly can. You can buy all the books with an instant formula for a business mogul’s success. You can adopt all of the popular motivational sayings. But even then, you will never have someone else’s gift.” (p11-12)

“You were not built to struggle. Your brain is wired to function according to a specific sequence. When you discover that sequence, that structure, you unlock great potential.” (p13)

“When you know how your gift is structured, how your brain is uniquely wired, and how to achieve lasting success, you will unlock your truth-value – your gift.” (p17)

“The exciting result of this plasticity of the brain that we hold power over is that no two brains are alike: We are uniquely, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). There is diversity in brain structure and organisation and function, which results in the way we think and approach life.” (p18)

So according to Dr Leaf, our gifts are something that is uniquely hardwired into our brain, something that we cannot change even if we wanted to, and that brain structure gives rise to the way in which we think and the actions that we take.

Then, as I was rereading this book, I came across a sentence that I must have read before when I first got it, but which I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of until now.

On page 47, Dr Leaf said,

The mind is what the brain does, and we see the uniqueness of each mind through our gifts. This, in itself is delightful and, intriguing because, as you work out your gift and find out who you are, you will be developing your soul and spirit.” (Emphasis added)

This quote in and of itself isn’t actually that significant until we compare it to a quote from the first chapter of Dr Leaf’s 2013 book, “Switch On You Brain.” [2]

“The first argument proposes that thoughts come from your brain as though your brain is generating all aspects of your mental experience. People who hold this view are called materialists. They believe that it is the chemicals and neurons that create the mind and that relationships between your thoughts and what you do can just be ignored.
So essentially, their perspective is that the brain creates what you are doing and what you are thinking. The mind is what the brain does, they believe, and the ramifications are significant. Take for example, the treatment of depression. In this reductionist view, depression is a chemical imbalance problem of a machinelike brain; therefore, the treatment is to add in the missing chemicals.
This view is biblically and scientifically incorrect.” [2: p31-32] (Emphasis added)

So … Dr Leaf believes that the mind is not what the brain does. So our gifts aren’t uniquely hardwired into our brain, and we should be able to change our gifting if we want to, since it isn’t our brain structures that give rise to the way in which we think and the actions that we take, but it’s all related to our choices.

This must be really embarrassing for Dr Leaf, to so directly call your own beliefs biblically and scientifically incorrect, and then not to notice.

Now, we all make innocent mistakes. No one is perfectly congruent in everything they say. But this isn’t just getting some minor facts wrong. These statements form the foundation for Dr Leaf’s teaching, and are in print in two best selling books, from which she has used to present to countless churches and seminars around the globe.

Which makes her major self-contradiction important for three reasons:

  1. It calls her self-titled expertise as a cognitive neuroscientist into question.
  2. It calls her teaching into question.
  3. It calls her ministry into question.

Firstly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf shows desperately little basic knowledge about cognitive neuroscience. Even first year neuroscience students consistently know how the brain works, and are able to build on this to grow their knowledge about the brain. The fact that Dr Leaf can’t get her basic facts straight on something so fundamental as the relationship of the mind and the brain clearly demonstrates that she is not the expert in cognitive neuroscience that she claims to be.

Secondly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf undermines all of her teaching. If she can’t be trusted to consistently state basic facts on which she is supposed to have high level training, then how can she be trusted with anything more complicated scientifically. Indeed, how can she be trusted to interpret scripture, in which she has no formal training. Thus, her whole ministry is now thrown into doubt. Dr Leaf may get some facts right in the rest of her writing and in her teaching, but unless you’re an expert in the field, it would be impossible to know. And since she doesn’t reference her work properly, it makes it impossible for the average person to go back to her sources and validate her teaching.

Thirdly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf makes it very difficult for churches who have her ministering from their pulpits. Pastors aren’t experts in neuroscience or medicine. How are they supposed to have confidence that what Dr Leaf is saying? How can they be sure that what Dr Leaf is teaching to their congregations is factual or is contradicted by real scientists or her own teaching? How can they be sure that Dr Leaf is not causing some of their more vulnerable parishioners unnecessary harm because her teaching is contradicted by modern science and medicine?

Dr Leaf may believe that she has many answers, and is motivated by the best of intentions. However, to call your own beliefs “biblically and scientifically incorrect” does not instil confidence. Dr Leaf needs to take a serious look at her teaching and the quality of the science that undergirds it, and until that happens, the churches that have invited Dr Leaf to minister from their pulpits should seriously reconsider that decision.


  1. Leaf, C.M., The gift in you – discover new life through gifts hidden in your mind. 2009, Inprov, Inc, Texas, USA:
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Dr Caroline Leaf – Scientific heresy

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 7.54.04 pm

Imagine that this Easter, the guest speaker at your church stands up from the pulpit and calmly mentions during the sermon that Jesus wasn’t really buried in a tomb, but was kept by his disciples in a house until he recovered enough from his wounds to go on his merry way.

What would you think of that speaker? Would you smile and nod, or even shout an ‘amen!’, buy their book, and encourage your pastor that they should be invited back again?

One would hope that there would be a polite but resounding outcry. Even if the rest of the message was perfect, you wouldn’t want someone to come back to your pulpit if they couldn’t get the basics of their subject right, even if they were considered a popular speaker or self-declared expert.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf preaches every day from both physical pulpits all over the globe, and a virtual pulpit through the power of Instagram and Facebook.

Dr Leaf used her position of social media prominence today to share this little jewel, “The brain cannot change itself; you, with your love power and sound mind, change your brain.”

Um … that’s not true … at all … in any way.

For a start, the most prolific period for brain development is actually pre-birth, and then the first year of life. But foetal brains don’t have their own thoughts. It’s not like the movie “Look Who’s Talking” inside the average uterus. The brain of an unborn baby is growing and changing at an exponential rate without any thoughts to guide them [1].

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Number of synapses per constant volume of tissue as a function of pre- and postnatal age. (Stiles, J. and Jernigan, T.L., The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(4): 327-48 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4)


In our adult years, our brain still continues to develop. But that development isn’t dependant on our thought life. Significant consolidation of our brain’s neural pathways occur when we’re asleep [2], but our thought life isn’t active during sleep.

Model of sleep stage-specific potentiation and homeostatic scaling. Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224

Model of sleep stage-specific potentiation and homeostatic scaling. (Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224)

Indeed, real cognitive neuroscientists have shown that our stream of thought is simply a tiny fraction of our overall neural activity, a conscious glimpse of the brains overall function [3-5]. So you don’t change your brain at all. “You” can’t, because it’s your brain’s directed activity which causes the growth of new synaptic branches to support it, all of which is subconscious.

Therefore, suggesting that our brain can only change with our conscious control is patently false, and so clearly against the most fundamental principles of neuroscience that such a claim is the neuroscientific equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he just swooned.

Dr Leaf has committed scientific heresy.

At this point, supporters of Dr Leaf often suggest that she wasn’t speaking literally, but metaphorically. She didn’t really mean that the brain can’t change itself, just that our choices are really important.

Somehow I doubt that. Dr Leaf wasn’t being metaphorical when she claimed that her patients in her research projects grew their intelligence when they “applied their minds”:
“Now with a traumatic brain injury, basically IQ generally goes down around twenty points because of the kind of damage with traumatic brain injury. Well her IQ was 100 before the accident, it was 120 after the accident. So here with holes in her brain, and brain damage, she changed … she actually increased her intelligence. Now I’m pretty convinced at this stage, cause I’ve been working … besides her I’ve been working with lots and lots of other patients, seeing the same thing, when these students applied their mind, their brain was changing, their academic results were changing.” [6]

Dr Leaf believes that your mind can literally change your brain. It was the subject of her entire TEDx talk in February.

It sounds innocent enough until you consider the broader implications of this way of thinking – those with brain damage haven’t recovered fully because they just haven’t applied their minds enough. The same for those with learning disabilities or autism, ADHD, Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, or any other neurological disorder … because you only need to “apply your minds” to change your brain. “You have a powerful mind. You have a sound mind. You have a mind that is able to … to achieve what you’re dreams are. You are as intelligent as you want to be.” [6]

Or, in other words, don’t blame it on your brain if you’re intellectually disabled, mentally ill, or vacuous. You simply haven’t applied your brain well enough. Stop sitting around and think better.

As a church, we can, and should, be doing a lot better for those amongst us who suffer from neurological and mental disorders. It starts by being more judicious with who is allowed at that privileged position of the pulpit. We need to be eliminating scientific heresy from the pulpit, not clapping and shouting ‘amen!’


  1. Stiles, J. and Jernigan, T.L., The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(4): 327-48 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4
  2. Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224
  3. Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53
  4. Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., An architectural model of conscious and unconscious brain functions: Global Workspace Theory and IDA. Neural Netw, 2007. 20(9): 955-61 doi: 10.1016/j.neunet.2007.09.013
  5. Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22
  6. Leaf, C.M., Ridiculous | TEDx Oaks Christian School | 4 Feb 2015, 2015 TEDx, 20:03. https://

Gluten mad!

Tonight as I was browsing Facebook again, I came across an article a person had posted on gluten. The article claimed that gluten is connected to depression, and indeed, nearly every other neurological disorder for good measure.

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten also makes foods taste better and improves their texture, so it’s often added to everything else.

The “gluten is toxic” meme is a very catchy one that’s doing the rounds again. I first heard of the idea that gluten is the cause of nearly every disease when I was in medical school, when every person I knew who’d seen a naturopath was told they had gluten intolerance and were conned into an unappetising and restrictive diet which didn’t make any of them better.

The same meme is now making it’s way back around again now that the low-fat, sugar-free, zucchini broth-type diet fads are waning.

The proposed link between depression, anxiety and gluten is a new twist to the old story. But with depression becoming a preeminent disease in the 21st century, the link doesn’t surprise me.

So what does the evidence say? Is gluten the culprit behind the modern scourge of mental illness?

I certainly don’t think so, at least according to my interpretation of the medical literature. As far back as 2001, researchers studying the mental health of patients with coeliac disease noted that coeliac disease patients had much higher levels of anxiety and depression than healthy matched controls (up to about three to six times greater in one study), and after a year on a gluten free diet, there were no changes to the rates of anxiety and depression (Addolorato et al., 2001).

In more recent times, larger studies have been performed. Hauser, Janke, Klump, Gregor, and Hinz (2010) confirmed higher levels of anxiety in German female coeliac patients who were on a gluten free diet, compared to the normal controlled population. Mazzone et al. (2011) showed that children with coeliac disease on gluten-free diets for about 7 years on average still showed an increased rate of anxiety and depression symptoms and showed higher scores in “harm avoidance” and “somatic complaints” as compared to healthy control subjects.

A larger cross sectional survey was performed in the Netherlands in 2013, on 2265 adults with coeliac disease (van Hees, Van der Does, & Giltay, 2013). That survey showed that a significantly higher proportion of those with coeliac disease, despite being on a strict gluten free diet, reporting a higher rate of anxiety and depression compared to the general population. It also showed (albeit in a smaller subgroup of respondents) that poor adherence with a gluten free diet did not affect the likelihood of depressive symptoms.

To be fair, cross sectional surveys and longitudinal cohorts aren’t necessarily the strongest form of evidence, but it is the best we’ve currently got. There was a recent randomised controlled trial, a stronger form of evidence, looking at the effect the introduction of gluten had on depressive symptoms in people who did not have coeliac disease but reported gluten sensitivity and were controlled on a gluten free diet (Peters, Biesiekierski, Yelland, Muir, & Gibson, 2014). While this showed some worsening of depressive symptoms in those subjects given gluten, the exposure was short, the effect was moderate, and the results should be considered cautiously given the small number of subjects reduced the power of the study.

Given the weight of evidence, I can’t help but be sceptical of books touting the ‘gluten = depression’ theory, books like “Grain Brain”. It’s author, American neurologist Dr David Perlmutter, attests that more than 38 different diseases are caused by gluten, including autism and depression. If you believe the celebrity chiropractor who reviewed Perlmutter’s work (, increased intestinal permeability and intestinal dysbiosis (“leaky gut” and bad gut bacteria) combine to increase inflammation in the blood and in the brain, causing depression.

But correlation does not equal causation. Just because brain diseases, inflammation and gut problems tend to occur together does not prove that gut problems cause inflammation and brain problems. Rather, the evidence suggests that it’s the other way around, with all of the processes linked to genetics.

For example, autism is related to a number of genes that both reduce the proteins that help nerve cells grow branches (Won, Mah, & Kim, 2013), and at the same time, switch on a low grade form of inflammation (Onore, Careaga, & Ashwood, 2012). I believe it’s the pre-existing inflammation that adds to the cellular dysfunction of the brain and at the same time, promoting low grade inflammation of a number of organs, including the gut. It’s the pre-existing inflammation that causes the gut to become “leaky”, not the “leaky” gut causing the inflammation.

Because if gluten was the primary cause, then why do people with coeliac disease who do not eat gluten report more depressive and anxious symptoms than control groups who do eat gluten? Why would those with coeliac disease who are eating sporadic gluten be just as depressed as those patients who do not?

If you don’t have coeliac disease, then gluten free diets are just like Amway products. You really don’t need them, and you could probably do much better without them. All you’re really doing is just making someone else obscenely rich.

Not only are you wasting your money, but you might also be harming your health by eating gluten free foods, since most foods that are stripped of gluten are also stripped of most of their other nutrients.

As Nash and Slutzky (2014) summarise, “Every major change in our diet carries with it the possibility of unforeseen risks. Many readers — the general public, as well as medical professionals — accept what they read at first glance. Myths have been part of our medical lore for millennia. Those jumping on the gluten-free/high-fat bandwagon may be disappointed when their symptoms are not mitigated; more critically, they may be at increased risk for other, more dangerous ailments.”

If you really think you feel better off gluten, then talk to your doctor or registered dietician to make sure you remain healthy off it.


Addolorato, G., Capristo, E., Ghittoni, G., Valeri, C., Masciana, R., Ancona, C., & Gasbarrini, G. (2001). Anxiety but not depression decreases in coeliac patients after one-year gluten-free diet: a longitudinal study. Scand J Gastroenterol, 36(5), 502-506.

Hauser, W., Janke, K. H., Klump, B., Gregor, M., & Hinz, A. (2010). Anxiety and depression in adult patients with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet. World J Gastroenterol, 16(22), 2780-2787.

Mazzone, L., Reale, L., Spina, M., Guarnera, M., Lionetti, E., Martorana, S., & Mazzone, D. (2011). Compliant gluten-free children with celiac disease: an evaluation of psychological distress. BMC Pediatr, 11, 46. doi: 10.1186/1471-2431-11-46

Nash, D. T., & Slutzky, A. R. (2014). Gluten sensitivity: new epidemic or new myth? Every major change in our diet carries with it the possibility of unforeseen risks. Am J Cardiol, 114(10), 1621-1622. doi: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2014.08.024

Onore, C., Careaga, M., & Ashwood, P. (2012). The role of immune dysfunction in the pathophysiology of autism. Brain Behav Immun, 26(3), 383-392. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.08.007

Peters, S. L., Biesiekierski, J. R., Yelland, G. W., Muir, J. G., & Gibson, P. R. (2014). Randomised clinical trial: gluten may cause depression in subjects with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity – an exploratory clinical study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther, 39(10), 1104-1112. doi: 10.1111/apt.12730

van Hees, N. J., Van der Does, W., & Giltay, E. J. (2013). Coeliac disease, diet adherence and depressive symptoms. J Psychosom Res, 74(2), 155-160. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.11.007

Won, H., Mah, W., & Kim, E. (2013). Autism spectrum disorder causes, mechanisms, and treatments: focus on neuronal synapses. Front Mol Neurosci, 6, 19. doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2013.00019