Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis

Executive Summary

The idea that humans have an immaterial soul, separate to the body, has spanned history and culture. This idea is known as dualism. The concept of the spirit is fundamental to the Christian church. Christians are usually taught that humans are a spirit, having a soul and living in a body (the Triune Being Hypothesis). The concept permeates the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, forming the basis for her assumptions that our minds can control matter.

However, the Bible does not state that the spirit and soul are separate to the body, only that they are linked in the earthly and supernatural realms. Over the last few decades, cognitive neuroscience has demonstrated that definable neural networks within the human brain mediate the components of the traditional soul. Religious belief and spiritual experiences are also heavily reliant on the human brain.

These findings, along with a number of other philosophical objections, prove that dualism is not compatible with science or philosophy. Dr Leaf’s reliance on the concept of dualism creates an intellectual dissonance between her teaching and neuroscience.

The notion that the soul and the spirit are separate to the body is also incorrect. However, quantum physics, and String Theory in particular, suggest that other dimensions and other universes exist, which may provide a scientifically plausible explanation of both natural and supernatural realms. It may be that our earthly body houses our natural spirit and soul within the brain, but that these are translocated to the celestial realm upon death. The challenge for the Christian church now is to unite the evidence of cognitive neuroscience with the description of the spirit, soul and body from scripture and further delineate the doctrine of humans as triune beings.

(Word count: 7256, including references)

Introduction

Are we a body with a mind, or a mind with a body?

It sounds a bit like the age-old chicken and the egg conundrum. In Ancient Greece, Plato proposed that human beings have an immaterial soul distinct from the material body while Descartes reinvigorated the idea in the 17th century. But the idea of the distinct immaterial soul is also found throughout different religions, and seems to be interwoven through the Bible as well.

For Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, dualism is fundamental to her theory of “Mind over Matter”. In her 2013 book, “Switch On Your Brain”, Dr Leaf states that, “Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” [1: p33] She has also made several similar public statements via her social media feeds, such as, “Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!” (6/6/2014) and “Your mind is all powerful! Your brain simply captures what your mind dictates! 2 Timothy 1:7.” (11/5/2014)

I have previously blogged about the scriptural and scientific voracity of Dr Leaf’s various statements on the Mind-Body problem (see also “Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Blameless Brain“, and others). But when she published, “Your mind will adjust your body’s biology and behaviour to fit with your beliefs” (21/6/2014) I thought enough was enough. The concept of dualism not only permeates the teachings of Dr Leaf, but also significantly influences the current understanding of the Biblical principles of the soul and spirit. So, this topic deserves an in-depth review, to ensure that the thinking within the church aligns with both scripture and science.

The Triune Being Hypothesis

On the 9th of June 2014, Dr Leaf published another meme on her social media feeds, “We are triune beings designed to be lead by the Holy Spirit … who speaks to our spirit. Our spirit controls our soul/mind and our soul/mind controls our body.”

By virtue of growing up in a Christian family, going to a Christian school, and digesting thousands of sermons during my lifetime, I’m very familiar with the concept of humans as a triune being (“triune”, meaning “three in one”). The concept I’ve been taught is similar to Dr Leaf’s view: that humans consist of three separate but interlinked components, the ethereal spirit and soul, and the physical body. The soul, in turn, consists of the mind, will and emotions. The three-part design reflects the image of God who is, of course, a triune being (the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The hypothesis proposes that the body is just an earthly dwelling for a being that is fundamentally spirit in nature, the soul being the intermediary between the two.

In keeping with the theme, this essay will be in three parts! First, I review the Biblical evidence relating to the body, soul and spirit. Second, I review the scientific evidence relating to the spirit and soul. And finally, I discuss how the scriptural and scientific evidence relates to our current understanding of dualism, the triune being hypothesis and the implications for Dr Leaf and Christianity more broadly.

The Bible on the Triune Being Hypothesis

One of the fundamental arguments used by those who support the idea of man as a triune being is the way the Apostle Paul used distinct words to describe body, soul and spirit within the same sentence. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul wrote, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (emphasis added).

The three words used in ancient Greek were pneuma (‘spirit’), psyche (‘soul’) and soma (‘body’). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the words pneuma (‘spirit’) and psyche (‘soul’) were often used indiscriminately. So although the Apostle Paul distinctly used the word pneuma separately to the word psyche as in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, most of the other New Testament writers weren’t so precise.

James wrote that without the spirit (pneuma), the body (soma) would die (James 2:26). This also suggests that the spirit is different to the body, but still integral to the whole person, although given the interchangeable use of the terms, James may have also been referring to the soul.

However, Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10:28, “And fear not them which kill the body (soma), but are not able to kill the soul (psyche): but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul (psyche) and body (soma) in hell.” This suggests that both the soul and the body maybe found in hell, a post-death spiritual dimension (see also Luke 12:5). So it seems that at least in some form, our supernatural selves also possess a body and mind.

This idea seems to have some backing in the form of the description given in the Bible of the resurrected body of Jesus. After Jesus was crucified and buried, scripture describes the empty tomb, and the multiple sightings of Jesus by the disciples up until the time that he ascended into heaven (Luke 24). He walked along the road to Emmaus with two disciples, Cleopas and probably Cleopas’ wife Mary (see also John 19:25). He then appeared in the middle of the group of disciples within an instant. He still possessed the defects caused by the crucifixion. He ate some broiled fish and some honeycomb (see Luke 24:42-43). He said to the disciples at this meeting with them, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39) Not only did he have the same physical characteristics as his pre-resurrected body (same appearance, same gender etc), but he also had similar mental traits, such as self-awareness, memory of his pre-resurrection life, and emotions and connection to the people around him. However, he was not subject to the natural laws of physics, twice suddenly appearing in a closed room (John 20:19 and 26).

Therefore it appears that rather than being a spirit housed in a body and furnished with a soul, we are instead an inseparable combination of body, soul and spirit – three unique but indivisible parts – but in different dimensions depending on which side of eternity we currently reside.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 confirms, rather than precludes, this view. Reviewing the scripture again, Paul wrote, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul chooses to emphasize all three components of our triune being equally in his prayers and wishes. If only our spirit was to pass into the celestial realm, then Paul wouldn’t have needed to delineate the three parts of our triune composition, but could have instead written “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. By penning, “whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless”, Paul seems to treat all three parts as equally important to our future with Christ.

It follows that if we believe that our heavenly body is an integral part with our spirit and soul on the celestial side of eternity, then it should follow that our spirit and our soul are part of, and dependent on, our earthly body on this side of eternity.

This proposal differs from the conventional wisdom at two fundamental points:

1. I suggest that the spirit is integral to, and dependent on our earthly body whilst we live on the earth,
and
2. I suggest that the whole person is translated across from the earthly realm to the celestial, rather than just the spirit.

Such suggestions are compatible with current scientific understanding. There is ample evidence of spiritual neural networks that complement the emotional and moral parts of our brain (this will be discussed further in a future section).

String Theory provides a plausible explanation of other dimensions and worlds in parallel with our own which could very easily explain a spiritual dimension. String Theory is the theory that the very fabric of the cosmos is made up of tiny vibrating loops of energy, which physicists call “strings”. These strings are almost impossibly small. Physicist Brian Greene said that, “Each of these strings is unimaginably small. In fact, if an atom were enlarged to the size of the solar system, a string would only be as large as a tree!” [2] It’s the shape and vibrational pattern of each of these strings that gives subatomic particles their properties, which in turn combine to make up everything we see in the universe, including ourselves.

In order for these strings to vibrate and move the way they are predicted to, String Theory postulates that there are actually 11 dimensions of space. In one of these dimensions, a string could become stretched out into a membrane, or a “brane” for short. I’ll let Brian Greene and colleagues explain it further.

BRIAN GREENE: The existence of giant membranes and extra dimensions would open up a startling new possibility, that our whole universe is living on a membrane, inside a much larger, higher dimensional space. It’s almost as if we were living inside … a loaf of bread? Our universe might be like a slice of bread, just one slice, in a much larger loaf that physicists sometimes call the “bulk.” And if these ideas are right, the bulk may have other slices, other universes, that are right next to ours, in effect, “parallel” universes. Not only would our universe be nothing special, but we could have a lot of neighbours. Some of them could resemble our universe, they might have matter and planets and, who knows, maybe even beings of a sort. Others certainly would be a lot stranger. They might be ruled by completely different laws of physics. Now, all of these other universes would exist within the extra dimensions of M-theory, dimensions that are all around us. Some even say they might be right next to us, less than a millimetre away. But if that’s true, why can’t I see them or touch them?
BURT OVRUT: If you have a brane living in a higher dimensional space, and your particles, your atoms, cannot get off the brane, it’s like trying to reach out, but you can’t touch anything. It might as well be on the other end of the universe.
JOSEPH LYKKEN: It’s a very powerful idea because if it’s right it means that our whole picture of the universe is clouded by the fact that we’re trapped on just a tiny slice of the higher dimensional universe.” [3]

Although it sounds preposterous, String Theory isn’t a fantasy of a few physicists who have watched too many sci-fi shows. String Theory is mathematically proven, and accepted by the majority of scientists.

What if our physical reality was one brane, the supernatural realm was a different brane, and heaven was another? Angels could be all around us, in a different dimension of space that we cannot ordinarily perceive, but who have the ability to move into our dimension if required. When we die, it’s possible that our whole person is transformed into a different dimension – the supernatural or celestial brane. The physical body remains like a snakeskin left after the snake has shed it.

My theory is only one of many possible theories. Ultimately, they all remain scientifically unprovable. While String Theory is well accepted by physicists all over the world, and the predictions of extra dimensions and branes are mathematically robust, my hypothesis that the supernatural realm is a dimension of space on a brane is conjecture, and would be impossible to test mathematically or scientifically. The concept of extra dimensions and branes is one way of explaining the Bible’s description that our spirit, soul and body remain together, but in a different realm to the physical reality that we currently experience.

Science on the Triune Being Hypothesis

So if it’s possible that we can live as a whole person, spirit, soul and body, in a celestial dimension, what makes up our spirit, soul and body in the physical dimension?

Biological science and neuroscience have uncovered many of the previously mysterious qualities that define us as human beings, although there is still much more to be uncovered.

  1. THE BODY

The body is our physical selves – our flesh and blood, sealed by our coating of skin. The body is so ultimately universal, I don’t want to waste space justifying the case for the normal. The obvious physical separation makes each person easy to delineate, although there are rare exceptions that challenge the division of body and soul/spirit.

In May 2014, Faith and Hope Howie were born in Sydney (Australia) [4]. They were born with two separate faces and two brains which merged into one brain stem. They had one body. While they were considered to be conjoined twins, in the strictest medical sense, they had a condition called disrosopus, resulting from the over-expression of a protein involved in the formation of the cranial structures [5]. The condition is extremely rare, and most children with the condition are either stillborn, or don’t survive for more than 24 hours after birth. That Faith and Hope survived for 19 days is a miracle in itself.

Strictly speaking, Faith and Hope were one baby that developed two brains, rather than being twins who failed to adequately separate. So did they have two souls or one? I don’t propose to answer this question here, but it will be worth pondering as we review the concept of the soul.

  1. THE SOUL

The soul is traditionally considered to consist of the mind, will and emotions. In the earthly realm, there is overwhelming evidence that all the parts of the traditional soul are found in the human brain.

a. The Mind

The mind is considered to be “a person’s ability to think and reason; the intellect.” [6] As we will discuss in more detail later, dualism suggests that the mind is an ethereal force separate to the body. But modern neuroscience has accumulated decades of evidence to the contrary. Our stream of consciousness is linked to the function of our working memory [7, 8]. Working memory in turn is heavily dependent on the part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex and on a neurotransmitter called dopamine [9]. When dopamine-secreting nerve cells are damaged in the pre-frontal cortex, conditions involving disordered thought such as schizophrenia occur [9, 10]. Schizophrenia is best known for hallucinations, essentially hearing and/or seeing things that are not there. These symptoms are reversed by medications that enhance the dopamine response [11]. Lesions of the frontal lobe can also result in the loss of abstract thinking [9]. So it is fair to say that the function of the mind is dependent on the brain, specifically the pre-frontal cortex. If the function of the pre-frontal cortex is disrupted, either by damage to a group of cells, or by impairment of the signaling of those cells via disruption of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the patterns of thought change. These changes in the patterns of thought can be reversed if the impairment can be reversed. Therefore the mind is dependent on the brain. If the mind were independent of the brain, then the function of the mind would not be affected by damage or impairment to the physical brain.

Our stream of thought is a function of our working memory utilizing a wider area of the brains cortex to better process important information. Baars [7, 12] noted that the conscious broadcast comes into working memory which then engages a wider area of the cerebral cortex necessary to most efficiently process the information signal.

We perceive thought most commonly as either pictures or sounds in our head (“the inner monologue”), which corresponds to the slave systems of working memory. When you “see” an image in your mind, that’s the visuospatial sketchpad. When you listen to your inner monologue, that’s your phonological loop. When a song gets stuck in your head, that’s your phonological loop as well, but on repeat mode.

There is another slave system that Baddeley included in his model of working memory called the episodic buffer, “which binds together complex information from multiple sources and modalities. Together with the ability to create and manipulate novel representations, it creates a mental modeling space that enables the consideration of possible outcomes, hence providing the basis for planning future action.” [13]

Deep thinking is a projection from your brains executive systems (attention or the default mode network) to the central executive of working memory, which then recalls the relevant information from long-term memory and directs the information through the various parts of the slave systems of working memory to process the complex details involved. For example, visualizing a complex scene of a mountain stream in your mind would involve the executive brain directing the central executive of working memory to recall information about mountains and streams and associated details, and project them into the visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop and combine them via the episodic buffer. The episodic buffer could also manipulate the scene if required to create plans, or think about the scene in new or unexpected ways (like imagining an elephant riding a bicycle along the riverbank).

Even though the scene appears as one continuous episode, it is actually broken up into multiple cognitive cycles, in the same way that images in a movie appear to be moving, but are really just multiple still frames played in sequence.

So our mind, also called our stream of thought, is simply a projection of information from our working memory, broadcast to our cerebral cortex, and our consciousness, for extra processing power. It is dependent on our pre-frontal cortex. When the pre-frontal cortex is damaged, our mind can experience defective output, as is the case in thought disorders such as schizophrenia.

b. The Will

The second part of our soul is our will, “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” [6] Like our mind, the feeling that we have free will is a ubiquitous human trait. Haggard observed, “Most adult humans have a strong feeling of voluntary control over their actions, and of acting ‘as they choose’. The capacity for voluntary action is so fundamental to our existence that social constraints on it, such as imprisonment and prohibition of certain actions, are carefully justified and heavily regulated.” [14]

Again, like the mind, our feeling of our will comes from our brain. Over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable neural activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [15]. More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [16].  Haggard again, “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.” [14]

These brain networks initially involve the basal ganglia deep in the brain along with the dopamine rewards system, which provide a flexible interaction between the person’s current situation and the memory of previous similar situations. Also important are the frontal lobes in general, and the pre-Supplementary Motor Area (pre-SMA) in particular, which have crucial roles in keeping actions focused and ‘on task’, or in “binding intention and action”. Parts of the pre-SMA are also active in voluntary selection between alternative tasks and in switching between the selections. An area of the anterior frontomedian cortex, near the pre-SMA, was activated in veto trials more than in trials on which participants made an action. This brain activity might have a key role in self-control [14].

Damage to different areas of the frontal cortex and the other parts of the motor system can result in a number of different conditions, highlighting the role of the brain in our “voluntary” actions. For example, blockage of a small artery in the brain called the artery of Huebner may cause a stroke of the head of the Caudate Nucleus, resulting in the loss of voluntary movement, loss of motivation and loss of speech [17]. Psychosis and ADHD are also disorders of action output of the brain, both of which improve with medications that improve the function of the frontal lobes of the brain. In children with ADHD, the change can be dramatic in a short space of time, and research across the last few decades proves the effect is more than placebo [18, 19].

The feelings of intention and the sense of agency (planning to do or being about to do something, and the sense that one’s action has indeed caused a particular external event) are so fundamental to human experience that it’s hard to consider the alternative: that our ‘free will’ is by-and-large an illusion. Our brain has already reviewed a number of alternative actions for any particular situation, and by the time that our consciousness becomes aware of the decision our brain has made, our motor area of our brain has already primed the neuromuscular circuit in preparation to perform the action. At best, our ‘free will’ is more like a veto function rather than a full conscious control of our behaviour [20]. Multiple parts of our brain are involved in the planning and execution of our actions, especially the basal ganglia and the pre-SMA.

c. The Emotions

Emotions are a difficult concept to define. Despite being studied as a concept for more than a century, the definition of what constitutes an emotion remains elusive. Some academics and researchers believe that the term is so ambiguous that it’s useless to science and should be discarded [21]. I use a concept of emotions described by Dr Alan Watkins [22], which thinks of our emotional state as the sum total of the state of our different physiological systems, while feelings are the awareness, or the perception of our emotional state. However, I should stress that this is only one concept. Often the terms “emotion” and “feelings” are used interchangeably.

That said, neurobiology has still mapped specific feelings/emotions to different parts of the brain. The amygdala is often considered the seat of our fears, the anterior insula is responsible for the feeling of disgust, and the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex are involved in a broad range of different emotions [23].

Different moods have been linked to specific neurotransmitter systems in the physical brain. A predisposition to anxiety is often linked to variations in the genes for serotonin transport [24] while positive and negative affect (“joy / sadness”) are linked to the dopaminergic system [25].

What is clear is that scientifically speaking, our emotions and the perception of them is dependent on our physical brain.

Summarizing the Soul

Dualism’s view that the soul is an ethereal force separate to the body is redundant. The evidence from the scientific study of the brain makes it clear that every aspect of the traditional ‘soul’ – the mind, will and emotions – is housed in the brain.

3. THE SPIRIT

The scientific study of spirituality is on the leading edge of scientific progress.

Whether a spiritual realm exists is not something that can be tested scientifically. I’ve discussed the Biblical view of the triune being hypothesis earlier in this essay, and suggested that a spiritual realm is at least scientifically plausible depending on your interpretation of String Theory. Ultimately, it remains a matter of faith.

The existence of the spiritual realm may be debatable, but what’s well accepted is that human beings are fundamentally spiritual. Spiritual or mystical experiences are reported across all cultures [26], and throughout history, religions in various forms have spanned the globe, integral to civilizations and the forming of cultural identity. It’s therefore not surprising to find that the brain is a focal point for spiritual experience. Just as hunger, laughter, anger and many other characteristic human traits have their own unique pathways in the brain, so does the experience of the divine.

Spirituality can be defined as “an individual’s experience of and relationship with a fundamental, nonmaterial aspect of the universe that may be referred to in many ways – God, Higher Power, the Force, Mystery and the Transcendent and forms the way by which an individual finds meaning and relates to life, the universe and everything.” [27] On consideration, spirituality encompasses both episodic mystical experiences and ongoing religious beliefs.

Spiritual experiences involve multiple brain regions, and are mediated by a number of different neurotransmitters. In a study of Carmelite Nuns reliving a spiritual experience, Beauregard and Paquette observed activation of the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, the right medial prefrontal cortex, the right dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the right middle temporal cortex and the left superior and inferior parietal lobes [26]. There is also evidence that dopamine and serotonin are important neurotransmitters in the religious experience [27]. More recent work on the function and connectivity of the medial orbitofrontal cortex shows all of these brain regions have strong connections to each other [28], and that together they function to encode and determine the predicted and real values of our choices. In particular, the medial orbitofrontal cortex helps to encode the anticipated rewards of incoming stimuli. The anticipated and actual values for the perceived stimuli are compared to give a prediction error, which serves as a teaching signal that can be used to improve future value assignments at the time of decision-making [29]. This is intrinsically linked to the limbic rewards system via dopamine, which partially explains the increase in dopamine during intense religious experiences.

Yet spiritual experiences are more than the rewards processing of incoming stimuli. Intense religious experiences have been reported during the aura of temporal lobe epilepsy, especially on the right side [27, 30]. It maybe that the right temporal lobe is largely responsible for the sensed presence of a higher being, and for the more intense religious experiences. Some scientists even went so far as to claim that complex weak magnetic stimulation of the right temporal cortex produced intense religious experiences [31], although this maybe more related to the suggestibility of the subjects rather than the temporal lobe “stimulation” [32]. Therefore, while it is likely that the right temporal lobe is involved in experiences of spirituality, there is no lab-based repeatable evidence to confirm or delineate it.

However, the cognitive and neuroanatomical correlates of religious belief have been delineated. Kapogiannis and colleagues summarized their work by stating that, “religious belief engages well-known brain networks performing abstract semantic processing, imagery, and intent-related and emotional theory of mind, processes known to occur at both implicit and explicit levels. Moreover, the process of adopting religious beliefs depends on cognitive-emotional interactions within the anterior insulae, particularly among religious subjects. The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis.” [33]

If spirituality is indeed solely based on the structure and function of the human brain, what are the implications for organized religion?

To start with, it would mean that those with deficits in certain cognitive functions would experience spirituality to a lesser degree, or at least experience it to a different degree. In keeping with this hypothesis, Canadian researchers have shown that those people with mentalization deficits (reduction in the ability to understand the mental state of oneself and others which underlies overt behaviour), such as people on the Autism spectrum, are less likely to believe in a personal God [34]. On the flipside, other people would be naturally wired to the divine: intuitive and sensitive to the experience of the spiritual.

Moreover, even if a person is not naturally spiritual, one can train oneself to become more spiritual. The brain increases the neural connections within regions that are recurrently stimulated, which leads to expertise. For example, the mid-posterior hippocampus of London taxi drivers is much larger compared to London bus drivers. London taxi drivers are required to drive anywhere in London without maps, and so develop a much larger region of spatial knowledge than the bus drivers, who drive pre-determined routes [35]. Similarly, novices who meditate show increased growth of neural networks involved in the regulation of emotion [36]. It would follow that brain regions involved in the processing of spiritual experience would increase with regular spiritual practice, resulting in a greater sense of the presence of God and his joy.

On the other hand, if acceptance of God is dependent on the function of certain networks within our brain, then how does that affect the foundational principle of salvation? Is it justice if one is condemned to eternal damnation when one has less capacity to believe in the first place?

I cannot offer a definitive answer to that question. Maybe there is no definitive answer? Given that Jesus told Nicodemus, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17), and that Peter says about God, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), I trust that God will judge everyone fairly, but I’m not sure how the capacity of a person to accept salvation is judged. Perhaps that’s something that someone who’s theologically trained can comment on.

The Triune Being Hypothesis – A New Approach

In summary, while the Bible makes a distinction between body, soul and spirit, it maintains that they are inseparable parts of the same whole person. In the earthly realm, our spirit and the various aspects that traditionally constitute our soul are all enabled though various networks within our physical brain. The Bible also offers evidence that in the transition from the terrestrial to the celestial dimensions, the whole person is translocated and transformed, not just the spirit or soul. Like a reptile shedding its skin, our earthly body and brain remain after death but the person has been translocated into the celestial realm.

Dualism

Psychoneural or Cartesian dualism is the premise that matter and mind are distinct entities or substances; that the one can exist without the other; and that they may interact, but that neither can help explain the other.

Dualism appears self-evident. It seems to explain behavior; and it accounts for the survival of the soul after death. Our mind and our body also appear separate. We have direct knowledge of our mental states, but we do not have direct knowledge of our brain states, so by simple logic, our mental states are not identical with our brain states. Dualism seems to be the obvious model of choice.

Despite claiming to be a cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Leaf embraces dualism, expanding the original concept of a soul into the broader idea of the soul and spirit of the triune being hypothesis, complete with its own hierarchy, “We are triune beings designed to be lead by the Holy Spirit … who speaks to our spirit. Our spirit controls our soul/mind and our soul/mind controls our body.” (Dr Leaf social media post, 9/6/2014)

However, we know that executive functions, emotions and even spiritual experiences can be induced or improved by stimulating the responsible brain networks (electrically in the lab, or with medications). And pathological changes to the brain, such as tumours, strokes, or brain injuries, all have the capacity to change the emotional or cognitive function of the sufferer, depending on the location of the lesion within the brain. If the mind were truly separate to the brain, then changes to the physical brain would not influence the mind or soul. Therefore, medicine and cognitive neuroscience have shown that dualism is false.

Philosophically, dualism is also fatally flawed. According to Bunge [37], dualism fails on a number of counts:

1. Dualism is conceptually fuzzy: “the expression ‘mind-body interaction’ is an oxymoron because, by hypothesis, the immaterial mind is impregnable to physical stimuli, just as matter cannot be directly affected by thoughts or emotions. The very concept of an action is well defined only with reference to material things.”
2. Dualism is experimentally irrefutable: “since one cannot manipulate a nonmaterial thing, as the soul or mind is assumed to be, with material implements, such as lancets and pills.”
3. Dualism considers only the adult mind: “Hence it is inconsistent with developmental psychology, which shows how cognitive, emotional and social abilities develop (grow and decay) along with the brain and the individual’s social context.”
4. Dualism is inconsistent with cognitive ethology: “in particular primatology … comparative psychology and cognitive archaeology”.
5. Dualism violates physics: “in particular the law of conservation of energy. For instance, energy would be created if a decision to take a walk were an event in the nonmaterial soul. Moreover, dualism is inconsistent with the naturalistic ontology that underpins all of the factual sciences.”
6. Dualism confuses even investigators who are contributing to its demise: “in the cognitive, affective and social neuroscience literature one often reads sentences of the forms ‘N is the neural substratum (or correlate) of mental function M,’ and ‘Organ O subserves (or mediates, or instantiates) mental function M’ – as if functions were accidentally attached to organs, or were even prior to them, and organs were means in the service of functions … Why not say simply that the brain feels, emotes, cognizes, intends, plans, wills, and so on? Talk of substratum, correlate, subservience and mediation is just a relic of dualism, and it fosters the idea (functionalism) that what matters is function, which can be studied independently of stuff. But there is neither walking without legs nor breathing without lungs. In general, there is neither function without organ nor organ without functions.”
7. Dualism isolates psychology from most other disciplines: “insofar as none of them admits the stuff/function dichotomy.”
8. Dualism is barren at best, and counterproductive at worst, “In fact, it has spawn superstitions and pseudosciences galore … (and) has slowed down the progress of all the disciplines dealing with the mind.”

Bunge sums up the concept of dualism, “In short, psychoneural dualism is scientifically and philosophically untenable. Worse, it continues to be a major obstacle to the scientific investigation of the mind, as well as to the medical treatment of mental disorders.”

In short, dualism is dead.

Dualism and Dr Leaf

This damning evaluation of dualism poses significant ongoing problems for Dr Leaf and her teaching. Her proposition that “Our spirit controls our soul/mind and our soul/mind controls our body” is not supported by either science or by scripture. This significantly weakens her standing as a biblical and scientific authority, and highlights an intellectual dissonance between science, scripture, and her published work.

Unless Dr Leaf is prepared to review her position and change her teaching on the subject, the gap between her teaching and the accepted scientific position will only continue to widen, and her authority and respect will continue to weaken.

The New Triune Being Hypothesis and the Christian Church

For the Christian church, the Triune Being Hypothesis in its current form is now redundant. The review of the biblical evidence, and the current evidence from neuroscience, has disproven the triune being hypothesis insofar as there is no Biblical or scientific proof that the spirit, soul and body are separate entities. However, it’s reasonable to consider the spirit, soul and body as inseparable parts of the whole being, which are translocated together into the celestial realm upon death.

At the very least, the position of the Christian church on the nature of the soul/spirit requires review, and topic should be brought back to the table to be appropriately debated. It’s clear that the old, generally accepted hypothesis of the separate, immaterial soul/spirit is untenable with current scientific evidence. In this essay, I have proposed one theory which is at least plausible with current scientific understanding. However, there are many other theories that may be just as valid, and warrant consideration.

It’s my hope that with academic honesty and divine guidance, the truth of our triune nature can be further delineated.

References

  1. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  2. Greene, B. The Elegant Universe: Part 2. [Transcript] 2003 [cited 2013, November 4]; Available from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/elegant-universe.html – elegant-universe-string.
  3. Greene, B. The Elegant Universe: Part 3. [Transcript] 2003 [cited 2014, June 28]; Available from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/elegant-universe.html – elegant-universe-dimensions.
  4. Lyons, K. and Mills, D., ‘Gone to play with the angels': Conjoined twins Faith and Hope are laid to rest after family’s tearful memorial service in Sydney. Daily Mail, UK, 2014 June 2 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2645824/Gone-play-angels-Faith-trying-attention-Hope-happy-just-hold-finger-rest-Family-conjoined-twins-pay-tearful-tributes-Sydney-memorial-service.html
  5. Zaghloul, N.A. and Brugmann, S.A., The emerging face of primary cilia. Genesis, 2011. 49(4): 231-46 doi: 10.1002/dvg.20728
  6. Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition, 2010, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
  7. Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends Cogn Sci, 2003. 7(4): 166-72 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12691765 ; http://bit.ly/1a3ytQT
  8. Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22
  9. Arnsten, A.F., The neurobiology of thought: the groundbreaking discoveries of Patricia Goldman-Rakic 1937-2003. Cereb Cortex, 2013. 23(10): 2269-81 doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht195
  10. Goghari, V.M., et al., The functional neuroanatomy of symptom dimensions in schizophrenia: a qualitative and quantitative review of a persistent question. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2010. 34(3): 468-86 doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.09.004
  11. Melnik, T., et al., Efficacy and safety of atypical antipsychotic drugs (quetiapine, risperidone, aripiprazole and paliperidone) compared with placebo or typical antipsychotic drugs for treating refractory schizophrenia: overview of systematic reviews. Sao Paulo Medical Journal, 2010. 128: 141-66 http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1516-31802010000300007&nrm=iso
  12. Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53
  13. Repovs, G. and Baddeley, A., The multi-component model of working memory: explorations in experimental cognitive psychology. Neuroscience, 2006. 139(1): 5-21 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.12.061
  14. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. Espay, A.J. Frontal Lobe Syndromes. Medscape eMedicine 2012 [cited 2014, July 1]; Available from: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1135866-clinical – showall.
  18. Castells, X., et al., Amphetamines for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2011(6): CD007813 doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007813.pub2
  19. Hodgkins, P., et al., The Pharmacology and Clinical Outcomes of Amphetamines to Treat ADHD. CNS drugs, 2012. 26(3): 245-68
  20. 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
  21. Dixon, T., “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis. Emot Rev, 2012. 4(4): 338-44 doi: 10.1177/1754073912445814
  22. Watkins, A. Being brilliant every single day – Part 1. 2012 [cited 2 March 2012]; Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q06YIWCR2Js.
  23. 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
  24. Caspi, A., et al., Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 2010. 167(5): 509-27 doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452
  25. Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20
  26. Beauregard, M. and Paquette, V., Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neurosci Lett, 2006. 405(3): 186-90 doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060
  27. Mohandas, E., Neurobiology of spirituality. Mens Sana Monogr, 2008. 6(1): 63-80 doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.33001
  28. Kahnt, T., et al., Connectivity-based parcellation of the human orbitofrontal cortex. J Neurosci, 2012. 32(18): 6240-50 doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0257-12.2012
  29. Plassmann, H., et al., Appetitive and aversive goal values are encoded in the medial orbitofrontal cortex at the time of decision making. J Neurosci, 2010. 30(32): 10799-808 doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0788-10.2010
  30. Devinsky, O. and Lai, G., Spirituality and religion in epilepsy. Epilepsy Behav, 2008. 12(4): 636-43 doi: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2007.11.011
  31. Persinger, M.A., et al., The electromagnetic induction of mystical and altered states within the laboratory. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, 2010. 1(7)
  32. Granqvist, P., et al., Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields. Neurosci Lett, 2005. 379(1): 1-6 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15849873
  33. Kapogiannis, D., et al., Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009. 106(12): 4876-81 doi: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106
  34. Norenzayan, A., et al., Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal God. PLoS One, 2012. 7(5): e36880 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036880
  35. Maguire, E.A., et al., London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 2006. 16(12): 1091-101 doi: 10.1002/hipo.20233
  36. Holzel, B.K., et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res, 2011. 191(1): 36-43 doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
  37. Bunge, M., The Mind-Body Problem, in Matter and Mind. 2010, Springer Netherlands. p. 143-57.

Postscript: There is a lot more to String Theory, and anyone interested in knowing more would be well served by reviewing the transcripts or watching the PBS series “The Elegant Universe”, hosted by Brian Greene.

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

 

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Brain Changes Meme

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I swore on the Bible once.

One of my patients needed my testimony in a court case, and when I went to the lawyer’s offices to supply my statement, before they accepted it as official testimony, they asked me to swear on their Bible.  I’m not sure if the surprise I felt showed on my face.  I wasn’t expecting it, that’s for sure, since the only time I have seen people swear on the Bible was in cheesy American TV courtroom dramas.

It was a simple, but oddly surreal moment.  I placed my hand on the Bible and said, “I solemnly swear that I will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

We have heard it said so many times that we become blasé to the importance of those words.  But the truth is only true if it is, ”the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

When Dr Leaf published her latest meme this morning, she was telling the truth.  She said via social media,

“Your brain changes as a result of your decisions.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.  The on-going theme of her recent social media offerings is the “Mind over matter” meme: essentially our mind leads and our brain follows.  This was a fundamental argument in her most recent book too (see reference [1], pages 33 and 38).

The main problem for Dr Leaf is that real cognitive neuroscientists disagree, like Haggard,

“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]

But didn’t I say in the beginning of this blog that Dr Leaf was telling the truth?  Yes, I did say that.  And she is telling the truth … she’s just not telling the whole truth.

It’s true that our brains change as a result of our decisions.  But the brain changes as a result of hundreds of different inputs and signals.  Our brain is constantly changing – growing new branches and pruning others.  Most of these changes occur subconsciously.  Only the tiniest fraction would be due to our conscious decision-making.  The true limiting factor of our brains ability to change is genetics, specifically the genes that code for the proteins that are integral to the nerve cells ability to grow the branches it needs to make the right connections.

So while it’s not technically untrue, if you take Dr Leaf’s meme at face value, you would get the impression that the mind controls the brain, which was her intention.

In actual fact, our psychology is dependent on our biology, and the brain is in control of the mind, not the other way around.

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

Dr Caroline Leaf on James 1:21 – Redux

So, we’ve all heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”  Dr Leaf has certainly done that.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.  Not content to completely misinterpret James 1:21 only once, she posted on social media today, “James 1:21.  Our thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect on the cells of our body.”

If for nothing else, Dr Leaf at least gets points for persistence.  A week and a half ago, Dr Leaf again used James 1:21 to attempt to justify a meme on perception.  I’d love to know what version of the Bible that she’s using, because it seems that in her Bible, James 1:21 can be interpreted any way that one wants.

Lets recap: James 1:21 says,

“Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” (KJV)

There are too many big words there for my liking, so I went through an on-line, widely used Greek lexicon, to look at the meanings of the words.  Then I translated them into something more understandable, to make sure that I didn’t miss the bit about perception.

Using the Strong’s dictionary and concordance built in to the Blue Letter Bible site (http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jas&c=1&v=21&t=KJV#s=1147021) I was able to translate the original Greek into something more manageable.

“Therefore shed all the morally defiling wickedness and excess malice, and, with meekness, embrace the teaching that is implanted by your mentors, which has the power to rescue your eternal soul.”

Wait … where did James talk about perception, and how our cells react to our thoughts?  Reviewing the scripture and its translation the second time around didn’t change anything, because there is nothing in James 1:21 that is in any way remotely connected to perception, thinking and our cells biological functioning.

Scripture is the inspired word of God, and “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NIV)  What James is writing about is essential, and Christians need to embrace what he was teaching.

Which is why it is so important for Dr Leaf to interpret scripture correctly.  For the second time in two weeks, Dr Leaf has completely misapplied a scripture to one of her memes.  As if that isn’t concerning enough for a woman than regularly interprets scripture to audiences in the thousands every week, there isn’t any scientific evidence to back up her claim either.  As I have written about before, there is no evidence that the mind controls the brain.  Rather, our psychology is dependant on our biology.  More on this in future posts.  But the onus is on Dr Leaf to provide evidence to back up her claim.  I encourage her to publish specific evidence that she believes justifies her claims that our thoughts alter our cellular biology.

Otherwise, I think another popular phrase would better apply: “Quit while you’re ahead”.

UPDATE (17/6/2014)

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I was reviewing Dr Leaf’s posts tonight, and I came across this response that Dr Leaf posted on the 5th of June.  Clearly I wasn’t the only person who wondered exactly how James 1:21 applied to her meme.

Dr Leaf’s explained: “By ‘implanting the word of God your soul will be saved’ (James 1:21) – so by memorizing God’s Word we build healthy thoughts into our brain that improve the health of our cells.”

I’m sure that Dr Leaf thought she was climbing out of a hole, although I think she’s only dug herself deeper.

Firstly, while I’m not a trained theologian, I can read.  Dr Leaf reinterprets this long-suffering scripture again, “By ‘implanting the word of God your soul will be saved’.”  But that’s not what it says at all.  From the KJV which I originally quoted: ” … receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” (Emphasis added)  It’s a subtle but important difference.  My understanding is that salvation comes confession and repentance (Romans 10:9-10, 2 Corinthians 7:10).  The word of God is able to save souls, but as the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15) shows, it doesn’t always bear fruit.  Satan himself knows the Bible inside out, but he certainly isn’t saved.  Perhaps someone who is theologically trained can confirm the points here.  I’d certainly appreciate it.  But for now, I propose that Dr Leaf has misinterpreted this scripture again.

Dr Leaf goes on to claim that by memorizing scripture, “we build healthy thoughts in our brain that improve the health of our cells.”  Dr Leaf is really grasping at straws here.  The “soul” that James is referring to is psyche in the Greek, translated as “the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our heart, soul etc.); the (human) soul in so far as it is constituted that by the right use of the aids offered it by God it can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness, the soul regarded as a moral being designed for everlasting life; the soul as an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death (distinguished from other parts of the body)”. (http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5590&t=KJV)  So the word that James used has nothing to do with the body.

Dr Leaf has to apply her own set of assumptions to the scripture, that a saved soul must be healthy thoughts, and that healthy thoughts leads to healthy cells.  Its a myth that healthy thoughts lead to healthy cells (more on this in a future post).  To suggest that salvation and healthy thoughts are one and the same is also an assumption on Dr Leaf’s part, which I don’t think the scripture supports in any way.

So in short, Dr Leaf’s explanation really hasn’t helped her cause.  Her meme is still scripturally and scientifically baseless.

Dr Caroline Leaf on James 1:21

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What causes you to react to things the way you do? According to Dr Leaf, we react to things because of our perceptions, because James 1:21 says so.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. She posted on social media today that,

“James 1:21. How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions.”

Just like her other social media memes, we’re supposed to smile and nod, and accept that it must be right on face value alone. Remember, “Trust me, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist”.

Ironically, Dr Leaf is on the right track with her meme. Perception is very important to how our brains process incoming information, although it is only one small part in a much larger picture. But that is for a future post.

What made me scratch my head about her post was the scripture reference that she tags onto the meme, as if it gives her factoid some automatic level of credibility. I never knew that James made any reference to reacting to life circumstances, so I looked up the scripture.

James 1:21 says, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” (KJV)

There are too many big words there for my liking. But I also thought it would be a useful exercise to look at the meanings of the words to translate them into something more understandable, to make sure that I didn’t miss the bit about perception.

Using the Strong’s dictionary and concordance built in to the Blue Letter Bible site (http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jas&c=1&v=21&t=KJV#s=1147021) I was able to translate the original Greek into something more manageable.

“Therefore shed all the morally defiling wickedness and excess malice, and, with meekness, embrace the teaching that is implanted by your mentors, which has the power to rescue your eternal soul.”

Hmmm … perhaps I mistranslated, but I missed the part where James talked about perception, and how we react to circumstances.

Or more likely, it wasn’t in this scripture at all.

Scripture is the inspired word of God, and “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NIV) What James is writing about is essential, and Christians need to embrace what he was teaching.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her imprecise application of scripture doesn’t help anyone. It confuses her readers who look more deeply into either the scripture or the science, and are lost as to why they don’t meet up. Or it damages her reputation as a scientist or a teacher, since it isn’t clear exactly what she is trying to say or how she arrived at her conclusions.

I have not doubt that if Dr Leaf has something to share on social media many people that would like to hear it. But it has to be referenced properly if it is going to carry any weight.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Sound Mind Meme

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Caroline Leaf is a brave woman.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.  She regularly publishes memes on her social media sites like FaceBook and Instagram that are supposed to reinforce her main teaching.

Her recent post declared:

“Your mind is all-powerful.  Your brain simply captures what your mind dictates. 2 Timothy 1:7”

We’re supposed to smile and nod, and accept that it must be right on face value alone.  Like, “Trust me, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist”.

But if we peel away the thin veneer of trust that covers the surface of this meme, we see that there isn’t much in the way of substance that supports it.

For a start, the only reference that Dr Leaf supplies is the scripture from 2 Timothy 1:7. She’s used this scripture in her work before, stating in her 2013 book, “For now, rest in the assurance that what God has empowered you to do with your mind is more powerful and effective than any medication, any threat, any sickness, or any neurological challenge.  The scripture is clear on this: You do not have a spirit of fear but of love, power and a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7).” [1]

So, first things first: the scripture 2 Timothy 1:7 says: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”  (KJV)  But what does it actually mean?

Studying the full context and the original Greek reveals that this verse is not a reference to our mental health, but to the courage to perform the work that God has given us.

The Greek word for “fear” in this scripture refers to “timidity, fearfulness, cowardice”, not to anxiety or terror.  The Greek word that was translated “of a sound mind” refers to “self-control, moderation”, not to serenity.  So Paul is telling Timothy that God doesn’t make him timid, but full of power, love and self-control.  Paul teaches that through the Holy Spirit, we have all the tools: power, love and the control to use them, so we don’t have to be afraid.

In addition, looking at the verse in its context, and in a different translation, shows it in a completely different light to the way Dr Leaf promotes it.  From the NIV, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1:5-8)

The scripture doesn’t say that our minds are more powerful than medication, sickness or “neurological challenge”.  It clearly doesn’t say that our mind is all-powerful, and that our brains simply capture what our minds dictate.  This scripture doesn’t have anything to do with our mental health (nor is there any scientific evidence to suggest that our mind is all-powerful or that the brain captures what our mind dictates, although that is another blog entirely (see also: Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of Mind Domination)).

Scripture is the inspired word of God.  It’s poor form to knowingly misquote someone to support your position, but it’s a very brave person that would misquote scripture for the sake of their argument.  And the inaccuracy of Dr Leaf’s use of both scripture and science surely calls into question the accuracy of all of her other memes.  Perhaps those who follow Dr Leaf’s social media feeds should also start taking them with more than a pinch of salt.

References

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

(New Testament Greek lexicon used for the word search was the Blue Letter Bible Strongs Lexicon, Reference: Greek Lexicon: G1167 (KJV). Retrieved from http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1167&t=KJV and Greek Lexicon: G4995 (KJV). Retrieved from http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4995&t=KJV)

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of Mind Domination

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“You control your brain … your brain does not control you!”

So says Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.

You’d hope that Dr Leaf would know. She says on her website that “Since the early 1980‘s she has studied and researched the Mind-Brain connection.” And if you take what she says at face value, it sure sounds right. Of course we’re in control. My brain does what I tell it to do. Except that it actually doesn’t. Our brain has a lot more control over us than we realize.

First of all, our “free” will isn’t actually free at all, but constrained by a number of unseen, subconscious processes that are entirely dependent on our brain. It may seem like we’re in complete control of our choices, but our subconscious brain has already done most of the work for us. Even if we had complete freedom over our choices, our “free” will would still require an intact brain in order to carry out its wishes.

The “control” of our brain is very similar to our “control” when we drive a 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. The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control.

For example, there are a number of lesions of the parietal lobes within the brain that give rise to some unusual but intriguing conditions. One of which is a condition called “Alien Hand Syndrome”. Wegner describes two patients with Alien Hand Syndrome, a lady whose “left hand would tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby object, pick and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat during sleep … She slept with the arm tied to prevent nocturnal misbehavior”, and a man who, “While playing checkers on one occasion, the left hand made a move he did not wish to make, and he corrected the move with the right hand; however, the left hand, to the patient’s frustration, repeated the false move. On other occasions, he turned the pages of the book with one hand while the other tried to close it; he shaved with the right hand while the left one unzipped his jacket” [1]. Alien Hand Syndrome demonstrates that our decision-making and our action sequences are controlled by two separate systems in our brains.

There are other conditions that also show that our brains control us more than we control them. A more common example are the tic disorders, such as simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) and complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Even more common are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, sleep eating. One of my patients once drove her car while asleep (Honestly, that’s no exaggeration!).

So at best, we only have partial control of our brain. Our brain is driving, our mind just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much for that veneer of control that we think we possess.

The other way in which we appear to have control over our brain is through free will. Free will has been debated for years on philosophical grounds, but over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable and predictable brain activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2]. More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3]. As Bonn says, “the gist of these findings is that our feeling of having consciously willed an act is illusory in many ways. It seems that the conscious awareness of intention that we place so much weight upon, that we naively think of as causal, is, in fact, a narrative construction that is formed well after the train of causation has been set in motion.” [4]

The Oracle explained it to Neo, “… you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” (Matrix Reloaded, 2003)

Haggard concludes, “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.” [5]

This does not eliminate our capacity to choose, but frames it in a more realistic fashion. As Bonn points out, “Although we are not consciously aware of what is going on at every stage of the chain of neural events leading to action, there is room for a degree of conscious involvement if only to pull the emergency brake before it is too late. Thus, although it may not be the initial source of motivations and behavioral impulses, the part of the mind that is self-reflective; that can envision the self in causal and narrative contexts, may serve important monitoring and control functions.” [4]

Again, we have less control over our brain than we realize. We feel like we have made a choice, but more often than not, our brain already made the choice for us up to eight seconds beforehand, and the feeling of intention that we have is simply our conscious mind catching up – not making the choice, but finding a reason for why we made the choice.

It’s always nice when people who call themselves neuroscientists tell us what feels intuitively correct. In the cold, hard light of day, actual neuroscientists don’t tell us what’s intuitively correct, but what’s actually correct. It may seem like our mind is in control of our brain, but modern neuroscience confirms that our brain is the dominant force, while our mind just helps to steer a little.

References

  1. Wegner, D.M., Precis of the illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2004. 27(5): 649-59
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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 98 Percent Myth

Dr Caroline Leaf believes that nearly all our diseases come from our thoughts.

Dr Caroline Leaf believes that nearly all our diseases come from our thoughts.

In the hustle and bustle of daily life, most people wouldn’t stop to consider what makes people sick.  In my profession, I get a front row seat.

In the average week, I get to see a number of different things.  Mostly “coughs, colds and sore holes” as the saying goes, although there are some rarer things too.  And sometimes, people present with problems that aren’t for the faint of heart (or stomach – beware of nail guns is all I can say).

Normally, the statistics of who comes in with what doesn’t make it beyond the desk of the academic or health bureaucrat.  The numbers aren’t as important as the people they represent.

But to Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, the numbers are all important.  To support her theory of toxic thoughts, Dr Leaf has stated that “75 to 98% of mental and physical (and behavioural) illness comes from one’s thought life” [1: p37-38].  She has repeated that statement on her website, on Facebook, and at seminars.

As someone with a front row seat to the illnesses people have, I found such a statement perplexing.  In the average week, I don’t see anywhere near that number.  In general practices around Australia, the number of presentations for psychological illnesses is only about eight percent [2].

But Australian general practice is a small portion of medicine compared to the world’s total health burden.  Perhaps the global picture might be different?  The World Health Organization, the global authority on global health, published statistics in November 2013 on the global DALY statistics [3] (a DALY is a Disability Adjusted Life Year).  According to the WHO, all Mental and Behavioural Disorders accounted for only 7.2% of the global disease burden.

You don’t need a statistics degree to know that seven percent is a long way from seventy-five percent (and even further from 98%).

Perhaps a large portion of the other ninety-three percent of disease that was classified as physical disease was really caused by toxic thoughts?  Is that possible?  In short: No.

When considered in the global and historical context, the vast majority of illness is related to preventable diseases that are so rare in the modern western world because of generations of high quality public health and medical care.

In a recent peer-reviewed publication, Mara et al state, “At any given time close to half of the urban populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a disease associated with poor sanitation, hygiene, and water.” [4] Bartram and Cairncross write that “While rarely discussed alongside the ‘big three’ attention-seekers of the international public health community—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria—one disease alone kills more young children each year than all three combined. It is diarrhoea, and the key to its control is hygiene, sanitation, and water.” [5] Hunter et al state that, “diarrhoeal disease is the second most common contributor to the disease burden in developing countries (as measured by disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)), and poor-quality drinking water is an important risk factor for diarrhoea.” [6]

Diarrhoeal disease in the developing world – the second most common contributor to disease in these countries, afflicting half of their population – has nothing to do with thought.  It’s related to the provision of toilets and clean running water.

We live in a society that prevents half of our illnesses because of internal plumbing.  Thoughts seem to significantly contribute to disease because most of our potential illness is prevented by our clean water and sewerage systems.  Remove those factors and thought would no longer appear to be so significant.

In the same manner, modern medicine has become so good at preventing diseases that thought may seem to be a major contributor, when in actual fact, most of the work in keeping us all alive has nothing to do with our own thought processes.  Like sanitation and clean water, the population wide practices of vaccination, and health screening such as pap smears, have also significantly reduced the impact of preventable disease.

Around the world, “Recent estimates of the global incidence of disease suggest that communicable diseases account for approximately 19% of global deaths” and that “2.5 million deaths of children annually (are) from vaccine-preventable diseases.” [7] Again, that’s a lot of deaths that are not related to thought life.

Since 1932, vaccinations in Australia have reduced the death rate from vaccine-preventable diseases by 99% [8].  Epidemiological evidence shows that when vaccine rates increase, sickness from communicable diseases decrease [9: Fig 2, p52 & Fig 8, p67].

Population based screening has also lead to a reduction in disease and death, especially in the case of population screening by pap smears for cervical cancer.  Canadian public health has some of the best historical figures on pap smear screening and cervical cancer. In Canada, as the population rate of pap smear screening increased, the death rate of women from cervical cancer decreased.  Overall, pap smear screening decreased the death rate from cervical cancer by 83%, from a peak of 13.5/100,000 in 1952 to only 2.2/100,000 in 2006, despite an increase in the population and at-risk behaviours for HPV infection (the major risk factor for cervical cancer) [10].

And around the world, the other major cause of preventable death is death in childbirth.  The risk of a woman dying in childbirth is a staggering one in six for countries like Afghanistan [11] which is the same as your odds playing Russian Roulette.  That’s compared to a maternal death rate of one in 30,000 in countries like Sweden.  The marked disparity is not related to the thought life of Afghani women in labour.  Countries that have a low maternal death rate all have professional midwifery care at birth.  Further improvements occur because of better access to hospital care, use of antibiotics, better surgical techniques, and universal access to the health system [11].  Again, unless one’s thought life directly changes the odds of a midwife appearing to help you deliver your baby, toxic thoughts are irrelevant as a cause of illness and death.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her statement that “75 to 98 percent of mental, physical and behavioural illnesses come from toxic thoughts” is a myth, a gross exaggeration of the association of stress and illness.

In the global and historical context of human health, the majority of illness is caused by infectious disease, driven by a lack of infrastructure, public health programs and nursing and medical care.  To us in the wealthy, resource-rich western world, it may seem that our thought life has a significant effect on our health.  That’s only because we have midwives, hospitals, public health programs and internal plumbing, which stop the majority of death and disease before they have a chance to start.

Don’t worry about toxic thoughts.  Just be grateful for midwives and toilets.

References

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

2.         FMRC. Public BEACH data. 2010  [cited 16JUL13]; Available from: <http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/fmrc/beach/data-reports/public%3E.

3.         World Health Organization, GLOBAL HEALTH ESTIMATES SUMMARY TABLES: DALYs by cause, age and sex, GHE_DALY_Global_2000_2011.xls, Editor 2013, World Health Organization,: Geneva, Switzerland.

4.         Mara, D., et al., Sanitation and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000363 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000363

5.         Bartram, J. and Cairncross, S., Hygiene, sanitation, and water: forgotten foundations of health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000367 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000367

6.         Hunter, P.R., et al., Water supply and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000361 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000361

7.         De Cock, K.M., et al., The new global health. Emerg Infect Dis, 2013. 19(8): 1192-7 doi: 10.3201/eid1908.130121

8.         Burgess, M., Immunisation: A public health success. NSW Public Health Bulletin, 2003. 14(1-2): 1-5

9.         Immunise Australia, Myths and Realities. Responding to arguments against vaccination, A guide for providers. 5th ed. 2013, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra:

10.       Dickinson, J.A., et al., Reduced cervical cancer incidence and mortality in Canada: national data from 1932 to 2006. BMC Public Health, 2012. 12: 992 doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-992

11.       Ronsmans, C., et al., Maternal mortality: who, when, where, and why. Lancet, 2006. 368(9542): 1189-200 doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69380-X

Bad choices cause brain damage?

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Alexander Pope.

I’m not perfect.  At least, not the last time I checked.  And we’re all the same, aren’t we.  We all know through experience that we all stuff things up on a fairly regular basis.  We make bad choices.  We’re human!

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, believes that these bad choices literally cause brain damage.  Her fundamental assumption is that our thoughts control our brain [1: p33].  These thoughts can be healthy or they can be toxic.  Toxic thoughts “are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.” [2: p19]

Dr Leaf’s assumption is that thoughts and bad choices cause our brain cells to shrivel or die. “Once your body is truly in stress mode and the cortisol is flowing, dendrites start shrinking and even ‘falling off’” [2: p32].  She also says that, “We have two choices, we can let our thoughts become toxic and poisonous or we can detox our negative thoughts which will improve our emotional wholeness and even recover our physical health.” [2: p21]

It sounds a little extreme.  We all make bad choices, and we all experience stress.  When we’re stressed, do our memories really go missing, or the dendrites of nerve cells shake and fall like tree branches in a storm?  If we make a bad choice, do we really get brain damage?  Lets see what the scientific literature has to say.

Imagine walking along a path in a forest and you see a snake, only inches in front of you on the path.  What do you do? When faced with a high level of acute stress, the brain switches into a binary mode – fight/flight or freeze. Self-preservation has to kick in.  The only decision you have to make then and there is whether to run, to try and kill the snake before it kills you, or stop dead still and hope that the snake ignores you and slithers away.

At that point, most memory is redundant, as is a high-level analysis of snake species, or any other cognitive pursuit.  The brain doesn’t need them at that precise moment.  If they did engage, they would just get in the way.  Switching the thinking parts of your brain off focuses your attention on the immediate danger.  It’s an adaptive survival response.  Meantime, your memories and your theoretical knowledge about snakes don’t disappear.  They are still there, unchanged.  It is false to suggest that the memories “shrink”.

We’ve all experienced “mental block”.  Sometimes when we get into a situation, like an exam or a business meeting, our stress levels are high, and binary mode kicks in again, although this time it can be a hindrance.  This phenomenon of mental block under high stress was first proposed in 1908 and is currently known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a fundamental principle of the behavioural sciences [3].  Similar to the stress-productivity curve, Yerkes and Dodson proposed a U-shaped curve to represent the relationship between arousal (which could be either level of consciousness or stress) and behavioural performance.  At low arousal, there is poor performance.  At the mid-point of arousal, there is peak performance, and at high arousal, performance diminishes.

But again, our memories don’t shrink, and our nerve cell branches don’t fall off.  Once we reduce our level of arousal, we move away from the fight/flight/freeze mode, and everything is still there (and we perform better, according to Yerkes-Dodson).

Dr Leaf has a favourite analogy of “neurons as trees”.  And if neurons are trees, then the branches can “fall off”.  But neurons are not trees and dendrites are not tree branches.  The dendrites do not ‘fall off’ the neuron.  The neurons in the brain have mechanisms for ongoing brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to the challenges and changes in its internal and external environment that are constantly occurring.  If the brain needs to build a new circuit to encode a new piece of information, then it grows new dendrites and creates new synapses.  But the brain is limited by the amount of energy it can consume, and therefore the number of synapses it can maintain.  So the brain trims unnecessary dendrites, a process called “synaptic pruning”.

Synaptic pruning is a normal process. Chechik and Meilijson confirm that, “Human and animal studies show that mammalian brains undergoes massive synaptic pruning during childhood, removing about half of the synapses until puberty.” [4]

Synaptic pruning is not deleterious, but beneficial.  Chechik and Meilijson also note that, “synaptic overgrowth followed by judicial pruning along development improves the performance of an associative memory network with limited synaptic resources.” [4] So synaptic pruning is a normal physiological process, and occurs in all of us for many reasons, predominantly to improve the efficiency of our neural networks.  Perhaps synaptic pruning associated with the stress response is also an adaptive process?

Synaptic pruning also occurs in other physiological states that have nothing to do with stress or thought, such as the effects of oestrogen during the menstrual cycle and at menopause [5, 6].

A link between stress and dendrite loss has been discovered, but it is not consistent.  Some authors like Kopp and Rethelyi suggest that “severe stress for a prolonged period causes damage in hippocampal pyramidal neurons, especially in the CA3 and CA4 region and reductions in the length and arborization of their dendrites.” [7] However, Chen et al writes, “Whereas hippocampus-mediated memory deficits commonly were associated with—and perhaps result from—loss of synapse-bearing dendrites and dendritic spines, this association has not been universal so that the structure–function relationship underlying the effects of stress on hippocampal neurons has not been resolved.” [8]

It’s more accurate to think that chronic stress causes dendritic remodeling in animals [9], in which some nerve cells prune their synapses, which others grow them, and energy is diverted away from new nerve cell formation to the new synapses that are needed to cope with the stress.

A number of scientists have pointed out that patients with depression or anxiety, who normally have high levels of stress, have a smaller hippocampus and larger amygdala, so stress and depression must cause the smaller brain regions [9].  There may be some reduction in the number of synapses within the hippocampus and the frontal lobes of the brain, which may account for the change in size observed by a number of researchers.  But the modern thinking on these changes is that they are associated with depression, not caused by depression [10] (Correlation does not equal causation).

So, stress is associated with depression, but this is because genetic defects in one or multiple genes reduce the ability for the brain cells to produce synaptic branches.  It’s this decrease in the number of synapses that contributes to the typical changes in the brain seen at autopsy of patients who suffered from depression or anxiety [11].  The reduced ability of the nerve cells to grow synapses means that new branches can’t grow fast enough to process the stress signals properly [11, 12].  The poor signal transmission leads to a predisposition towards mood disorders like anxiety and depression [10, 11, 13-15], and less synaptic branches means both a smaller volume of the hippocampus, and an inability to process stress signals leads to a larger, overactive amygdala.

In summary, synaptic pruning is not due to toxic thinking or bad choices, unless every one of us engages in nothing but toxic thinking from early childhood to puberty, and menopause causes bad choices and toxic thoughts.  Stress doesn’t cause dendrites to fall off, but causes a reorganization of the dendrites to adapt to the new signals. The reduced capacity to form new dendrites makes those prone to mood disorders more vulnerable to stress, and depression or anxiety is the end result.

We are all bound to make bad choices and to have stress.  They don’t cause brain damage.  Which if you’re not perfect like me, is good news.

References

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

2.         Leaf, C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. 2009, Inprov, Ltd, Southlake, TX, USA:

3.         Cohen, R.A., Yerkes–Dodson Law, in Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology, Kreutzer, J.S., et al., Editors. 2011, Springer Science+Business Media LLC: New York ; London. p. 2737-8.

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