Dr Caroline Leaf – Better graphics, same content

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In the world of marketing, visual media is king. Humans are sight based creatures. About thirty percent of our brains cortex is dedicated to vision , compared to 8 percent for touch and 2 percent for hearing http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/brain-games/articles/brain-games-watch-this-perception-facts/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Dr Caroline Leaf – Still Contradicted by the Latest Evidence, Scripture and Herself

Leaf Cognitive Neuroscientist

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, world renowned author, public speaker, and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her influence continues to grow. She is regularly invited to speak at some of the world’s largest churches. She spoke at her first TEDx conference in February, and she’s about to host her own conference for the second time. She has more than 120,000 Facebook followers, with many more on Twitter and other social media platforms. And she continues to top the sales charts of Christian best sellers.

She is a self-marketing machine.

But there are cracks appearing. More and more, people are realizing that beneath the facade of her numerous Instagram posts, happy snaps, and the allure of popular success, Dr Leafs teachings on science and the Bible don’t match up with actual science and good theology. While many in the church adorn themselves with her teaching, a growing minority are starting to realise that the Emperor has no clothes.

Almost two years ago to the day, I sat in the congregation of Kings Christian Church on the Gold Coast, and heard Dr Leaf speak live for the first time. What I heard troubled me, and I blogged about my concerns to open a dialogue on Dr Leaf and her teaching. Her husband, Mr Mac Leaf, dismissed my concerns out of hand, which only steeled me to take further action. Now, two years of intense research, dozens of posts and a book later, people are starting to take notice.

Not that Dr Leaf has changed her tune. Her fundamental teaching still relies on the idea that our thoughts control our physical and mental health, and toxic thinking causes disease because our thoughts change our DNA and the expression of our genes through epigenetics. And, if we ‘detox’ our thoughts, we will be restored to the health that God intended. Dr Leaf is also expanding her ministry to the subject of mental health and she plans to release a book on food in early 2016.

Dr Leaf can spruik whatever she likes, but her claims of expertise and her scientific and scriptural legitimacy are crumbling.

This post is a little longer than usual, but I’ve divided it up for easier reading:

  1. Dr Leaf is contradicted by her own qualifications
  2. Dr Leaf is contradicted by science
  3. Dr Leaf is contradicted by scripture
  4. Dr Leaf is contradicted by Dr Leaf

1. Dr Leaf is contradicted by her own qualifications

In her books, on TV, at churches, and in promotional material, Dr Leaf describes herself as a ‘cognitive neuroscientist’.

However, Dr Leaf does not have formal qualifications in neuroscience, has not worked at a university as a neuroscientist, has not worked in any neuroscience research labs, nor has she published any papers in neuroscience journals.

Actually, Dr Leaf is trained as a communication pathologist. A communication pathologist is an allied health professional which seems to be unique to South Africa where Dr Leaf trained. It’s a synthesis of audiology and speech pathology. It qualified her to work as a therapist, which Dr Leaf did for children with traumatic brain injuries. Dr Leaf also researched a narrow band of educational psychology as part of her PhD, and she also worked in a number of schools and for educational boards in South Africa. Dr Leaf hasn’t performed any university based research since her PhD was published in 1997.

In contrast, true cognitive neuroscientists actively carry out research into the biological basis of thoughts and behaviours – either mapping behaviours to certain brain regions using electrical currents from the brain, or with functional brain imaging like fMRI, or stimulating or suppressing the activity of a region of the brain and seeing how a person responds.

Simply having some training in neuroanatomy and psychology doesn’t make you a cognitive neuroscientist. Completing a PhD that involved a model for learning doesn’t make you a cognitive neuroscientist. Reading a lot of books on neuroscience doesn’t make you a neuroscientist either, just like reading the Bible doesn’t automatically make you a Pastor.

So no matter how much Dr Leaf may try to convince us that she’s an expert cognitive neuroscientist, truth be told, she is not.

Of more concern is that Dr Leaf is also trying to position herself as an expert in the fields of mental health and nutrition. But if she can’t get her facts right in an area in which she’s had some training, then it’s unlikely Dr Leaf’s teaching will be reliable in areas that she’s had no formal training or experience whatsoever.

I might add, Dr Leaf’s insistence that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist and an expert on mental health and nutrition is also quite insulting for real psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists whose opinions are ignored in favour of a self-titled expert whose only ‘authority’ comes by popular demand, not training or experience.

2. Dr Leaf is contradicted by science

There are so many examples of Dr Leaf being directly contradicted by the science that she claims expertise in that I don’t have room in this blog to outline them all. What I can do in this limited space is to outline Dr Leaf’s most egregious and ironic fallacies as a taster.

The 98 percent

One of Dr Leaf’s most fundamental assertions is that “75 to 98 percent of mental and physical illness comes from ones thought life” [1]. She uses this little factoid all the time to justify her belief in the power of thoughts.

However, her statement is completely wrong. When considered in the historical and global context [2], most of human 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.

For example, 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.” [3]

De Cock et al write, “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.” [4]

Routine screening with the much-maligned pap smear has decreased the death rate from cervical cancer in women by as much as 83% [5]. And having a competent midwife and obstetric support during childbirth can decrease the odds of dying in childbirth from 1 in 6 to less than 1 in 30,000 [6].

Midwives, vaccinations, pap smears, clean drinking water and internal plumbing have nothing to do with our individual thought life. We take all of this for granted in the first-world, so the impact of our thought life becomes artificially inflated. In reality, modern medicine and civil engineering, not our thought life, have everything to do with our good health..

Though what makes this meme such a good example of the weakness of Dr Leaf’s teaching is not just because it’s contradicted by actual science, but in trying to justify her conjecture, Dr Leaf has resorted to twisting, misquoting, and generally fudging information from her ‘sources’ in order to make them support her false conclusions.

For example, Dr Leaf quoted a source on genetics that was over thirty years old, from a time when genetic studies were still in the dark ages. She also misquotes her sources, significantly changing the meaning of the quotes in the process. One source didn’t even mention the figure she attributed to it. As if that’s not bad enough, Dr Leaf also cites biased sources, pseudoscientists, and other sources that directly contradict her assertion [7; Ch 10].

This pattern of relying on mistruths and factoids to paper over the gaping cracks in her irrational assertions is repeated throughout her teaching.

The heart is a mini-brain

Dr Leaf believes that the human heart acts as a mini-brain. She states that the heart has its own thought functions, is an electrophysiological regulator of every cell in the body, and is the source of the human conscience.

Such an assertion is ludicrous, and science proves it to be so – the “still small voice” comes from our brains [8-10], and everyday office-based medical tests prove that the electromagnetic signal from the heart is too small to have any meaningful influence on our body’s cells, let alone our thinking [7: Ch 11].

You control your DNA with your thoughts

Dr Leaf believes that our thinking can influence our DNA. She said this in her 2013 book [1: p35], and several times on her social media streams. The problem for Dr Leaf is that there is no credible scientific evidence that DNA is controlled by thoughts.

Her main evidence comes from a poster presentation at a 1993 psychotronics conference titled, “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA” [11]. She describes this paper as, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation (which) determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [1: p111]

Actually, the experiment was based on faulty assumptions, and so full of flaws in the methodology and analysis, that it could show nothing at all [7: Ch 13]. All it could prove was that Dr Leaf was so desperate to grasp hold of anything that seemed to support her theory that she was willing to use a twenty-year-old study from a group of pseudoscientists that also believe in occult practices like ESP and telekinesis (http://psychotronics.org).

On and on, the same pattern continues. She claims that our thoughts are powerful enough to control our DNA and our brain, except that the opposite is true – it’s our DNA code, with some influence from our environment, that creates our pattern of neurons responsible for our stream of thoughts. She teaches that thoughts cause stress, when again, the evidence is the opposite – psychological stress starts as a subconscious process which changes our stream of thoughts. Dr Leaf teaches that in order to improve our mental and physical health, we need to fight any ‘negative’ or ‘toxic’ thoughts, when studies show that cognitive therapy isn’t effective when compared to behavioural activation. (This is explained in more detail, and with the appropriate references, in my book [7]).

Dr Leaf even goes so far as to say that our thoughts can control physical matter! [1: p33,38]

Over and over again, Dr Leaf’s teaching conflicts with modern science. That Dr Leaf also regularly misquotes her sources and relies on unpublished opinion from pseudoscientists and new-age practitioners also brings her reputation as an expert scientist into disrepute.

3. Dr Leaf is contradicted by scripture

In her books and on social media, Dr Leaf often quotes scripture in an attempt to reinforce her reputation as some form of Biblical expert. Everything’s fine when she simply quotes scripture, but problems arise when she tries to interpret it. Like her use of science, Dr Leaf often misquotes or paraphrases scripture, or uses it out of context, in order to try and Biblically justify her tenuous hypotheses.

2 Timothy 1:7

One of Dr Leaf’s favourites is 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Dr Leaf interprets the phrases of “spirit of fear” and “a sound mind” as “anxiety” and “mental wholeness” respectively. For example, on the 12th of May 2014, she posted to her social media feeds, “Your mind is all-powerful. Your brain simply captures what your mind dictates. 2 Timothy 1:7” And in her book “Switch on your brain” [1], she said on page 33, “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).”

Simply checking the verse in its full 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 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 mental wholeness. So Paul is teaching Timothy that God doesn’t make him timid, but full of power, love and self-control. Paul is simply saying 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.

This scripture has nothing to do with our mental health. It certainly doesn’t say that our minds are “more powerful and effective than any medication, any threat, any sickness, or any neurological challenge”. Dr Leaf’s use of this scripture is misleading.

Proverbs 23:7

Another favourite of Dr Leaf’s is Proverbs 23:7, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”.

She used this scripture a number of times on her social media feeds, including on the 4/2/2015, “‘The more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will. Shawn Achor’ – ‘For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he …’ Proverbs 23:7”, and the 29/5/2015, “Mind In Action: ‘Genes cannot turn themselves on or off. In more scientific terms, genes are not ‘self-emergent’. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.’ Dr Bruce Lipton’ – That ‘something’ is your thoughts! Read Proverbs 23:7”. Dr Leaf also used the same scripture to try and explain how the woman with the issue of blood managed to obtain her healing [1: p111].

What’s interesting is how Dr Leaf only ever uses the first half of this verse. The whole verse (in the King James Version) reads, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.”

So what’s with the second half of the verse? What’s the eating and drinking half of the verse got to do with our thought life?

The explanation is that this verse has nothing to do with our thought life at all. Dr Leaf has simply been misquoting it for years, and no one checked to see if she’s right. According to the Pulpit commentary found on the Bible Hub website, “The verb here used is שָׁעַר (shaar), ‘to estimate … to calculate’, and the clause is best rendered, ‘For as one that calculates with himself, so is he’. The meaning is that this niggardly host watches every morsel which his guest eats, and grudges what he appears to offer so liberally … He professes to make you welcome, and with seeming cordiality invites you to partake of the food upon his table. But his heart is not with thee. He is not glad to see you enjoy yourself, and his pressing invitation is empty verbiage with no heart in it.” (http://goo.gl/nvSYUh)

Thus, the scripture does not prove that our thoughts define us as Dr Leaf would suggest. Dr Leaf’s use of this scripture is misleading.

James 1:21

Another example, on the 26 May 2014 on her social media feeds, Dr Leaf said, “James 1:21 How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions” and then a week later, “James 1:21 Our thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect of the cells of our body” (4/6/2014).

Except that James 1:21 actually says, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls”, and has absolutely nothing to do with our perceptions and our cellular biology.

The same pattern is repeated on social media and in her books. Dr Leaf finds scriptures where one version mentions words like “thinking” or “choice”, isolates them from their context and reinterprets them to suit her meaning, rather the actual meaning of the verse in the original language and the original context.

4. Dr Leaf is contradicted by Dr Leaf

Not only is Dr Leaf’s teaching contrary to science and scripture, but even her own teaching contradicts itself. Dr Leaf also makes claims about her research and achievements that aren’t backed up by her published papers.

To gift or not to gift …

In her 2009 book, “The gift in you” [12], Dr Leaf teaches about the gifts that we have, specifically, our gifts are something uniquely hardwired into our brain, something that we cannot change even if we wanted to, and that it’s our brain structure that gives rise to the way in which we think, the actions that we take, and the gifts we are given from God.

On page 47, Dr Leaf said,

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

This quote in and of itself isn’t actually that significant until we compare it to a quote from the first chapter of Dr Leaf’s 2013 book, “Switch on your brain.” [1]

“The first argument proposes that thoughts come from your brain as though your brain is generating all aspects of your mental experience. People who hold this view are called materialists. They believe that it is the chemicals and neurons that create the mind and that relationships between your thoughts and what you do can just be ignored.
So essentially, their perspective is that the brain creates what you are doing and what you are thinking. The mind is what the brain does, they believe, and the ramifications are significant. Take for example, the treatment of depression. In this reductionist view, depression is a chemical imbalance problem of a machinelike brain; therefore, the treatment is to add in the missing chemicals.
This view is biblically and scientifically incorrect.” [1: p31-32] (Emphasis added)

So … our gifts are hardwired into our brain and can’t be changed because our mind is what our brain does OR our brain is what our mind does, so our gifts aren’t uniquely hardwired into our brain, and we should be able to change our gifting if we want to, based on our choices. Which is it? It can’t be both. Dr Leaf’s fundamental philosophies are mutually exclusive.

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

To summarise, Dr Leaf has directly called her own beliefs and teaching “biblically and scientifically incorrect”, and not noticed. The confusion and embarrassment are palpable.

But wait, there’s more.

(Not) Making a Difference

From the pulpit, in her books, and in her promotional material, Dr Leaf refers to her ground-breaking research – how her “Switch On Your Brain 5 Step Learning Process” and the Geodesic Information Processing model (which underpins her program), have helped thousands of children to increase their learning and improve their academic results.

For example, Dr Leaf claims that, “The Switch On Your Brain with the 5-Step Learning Process® was assessed in a group of charter schools in the Dallas [sic]. The results showed that the students’ thinking, understanding and knowledge improved across the board. It was concluded that The Switch On Your Brain with the 5-Step Learning Process® positively changed the way the students and teachers thought and approached learning.” (http://drleaf.com/about/dr-leafs-research/ – Original emphasis)

In her TEDx talk, Dr Leaf stated, “I wasn’t sure if this was going to have the same impact cause until this point I’d been working one on one. Well I’m happy to tell you that we had the same kind of results … The minute that the teachers actually started applying the techniques, we altered the trend significantly.” and,
“I stand up here saying this with conviction because I have seen this over and over and over in so many different circumstances … in this country I worked in Dallas for three years in charter schools, and we found the same thing happening.” [13]

Though there is the minor problem of her research results not demonstrating any actual change.

In Dr Leaf’s first case, Dr Leaf herself admitted that the demonstrated improvement of her single patient was just as likely to be related to spontaneous improvement, and not Dr Leaf’s intervention. In Dr Leaf’s PhD thesis, the students improved almost as much in the year without Dr Leafs intervention as they did with her program. In the Dallas charter schools study, Dr Leaf’s intervention either disadvantaged the students or showed no significant difference. In academic circles, Dr Leaf’s research hasn’t so much as generated a stale whimper [14].

So while Dr Leaf may claim that her research has changed the learning and lives of thousands of students all over the world, but her own published research disputes her claims.

The Emperor has no clothes, but no one wants to say anything

In Hans Christian Andersen’s legendary tale, the Emperor was conned by two swindlers into believing that “they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

If you don’t know the story, you can read it here. In the end, the Emperor was duped so badly that he paraded in front of all his subjects au naturel, but “Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.”

My analogy here is not to suggest that Dr Leaf is deliberately conning the church. Rather, our natural instinct is to suppress our own judgement, even when it’s right, in favour of everyone else’s. We assume information to be true because others in authority tell us it is. We assume that the Emperor must be wearing something because the trusted ministers and noblemen are holding his imaginary train high in the air.

Likewise, it’s very natural for Christians to believe that Dr Leaf’s teaching must be ok because our pastors and leaders vouch for it. Our pastors and leaders vouch for Dr Leaf’s teaching because it’s been endorsed by world-renowned Christian leaders like Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer. And no one wants to say anything, because they don’t want to look sheepish (or be ostracised). Dr Leaf’s ministry may look like a complete success, but only until someone finally says, “But, the Emperor has no clothes …”

It’s time to call Dr Leaf’s ministry for what it is. In my humble opinion, I suggest that Dr Leaf’s ministry is not based on scientific acumen, but on popularity and reputation. And her reputation, in turn, is based on slick self-promotion and an availability cascade (a self-reinforcing process by which an idea gains plausibility through repetition).

Dr Leaf’s teachings are not supported by science, nor by scripture. Her own fundamental philosophies contradict each other. Her assertions about her title and the results of her work are in conflict with her own official data.

Our church leaders need to come clean about why they publicly endorse Dr Leaf’s ministry. I can justify why I think Dr Leaf should not be preaching from our pulpits – in this and many other blog posts, and in my 68,000 word rebuttal to Dr Leaf’s published works. Can Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer, or churches such as Cottonwood Church or Hillsong Church, produce evidence where they performed due diligence on Dr Leaf’s scientific credibility before endorsing her ministry? I would be happy to publish any responses they may be willing to make, complete and unabridged.

If Dr Leaf is preaching at your church, politely ask your pastor to produce his or her evidence that Dr Leaf’s teaching is scientifically and scripturally sound. If your church leaders can’t show that Dr Leaf’s teachings are scientifically and scripturally accurate, then politely ask them why she’s been invited to preach from their pulpit or to sell her wares in your church? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Critics and sceptics love to use any opportunity they can to embarrass the church, but by parading our own naivety, we’re simply embarrassing ourselves.

It’s time we dressed ourselves in God’s glory, not our own ignorance and ignominy.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        World Health Organization. GLOBAL HEALTH ESTIMATES SUMMARY TABLES: DALYs by cause, age and sex. In: GHE_DALY_Global_2000_2011.xls, editor. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization,, 2013.
[3]        Hunter PR, MacDonald AM, Carter RC. Water supply and health. PLoS medicine 2010;7(11):e1000361.
[4]        De Cock KM, Simone PM, Davison V, Slutsker L. The new global health. Emerging infectious diseases 2013 Aug;19(8):1192-7.
[5]        Dickinson JA, Stankiewicz A, Popadiuk C, Pogany L, Onysko J, Miller AB. Reduced cervical cancer incidence and mortality in Canada: national data from 1932 to 2006. BMC public health 2012;12:992.
[6]        Ronsmans C, Graham WJ, Lancet Maternal Survival Series steering g. Maternal mortality: who, when, where, and why. Lancet 2006 Sep 30;368(9542):1189-200.
[7]        Pitt CE. Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. 1st ed. Brisbane, Australia: Pitt Medical Trust, 2014.
[8]        Mendez MF. The neurobiology of moral behavior: review and neuropsychiatric implications. CNS spectrums 2009 Nov;14(11):608-20.
[9]        Zysset S, Huber O, Ferstl E, von Cramon DY. The anterior frontomedian cortex and evaluative judgment: an fMRI study. NeuroImage 2002 Apr;15(4):983-91.
[10]      Glascher J, Adolphs R, Damasio H, et al. Lesion mapping of cognitive control and value-based decision making in the prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012 Sep 4;109(36):14681-6.
[11]      Rein G, McCraty R. Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA. Proc Joint USPA/IAPR Psychotronics Conf, Milwaukee, WI; 1993; 1993.
[12]      Leaf CM. The gift in you – discover new life through gifts hidden in your mind. Texas, USA: Inprov, Inc, 2009.
[13]      Leaf CM. Ridiculous | TEDx Oaks Christian School | 4 Feb 2015. YouTube: TEDx, 2015;20:03.
[14]      Pitt CE, The TEDx Users Guide to Dr Caroline Leaf, cedwardpittcom; 2015   Mar 26, http://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 7. Create social networks – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

7. Create social networks

Before 2004, everyone knew what social networks were. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook. It seems like virtual social networking has been around forever, whereas in contrast, real social networking actually has.

We know this, because we’re wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, and there are neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has also shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding – babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli, for example [1].

People who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, some estimate by an extra 50% [2]. Certainly it appears that the opposite is true. Loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict mortality [3].

So what is loneliness, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks [3] and their on-line equivalents [4]. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships” [3].

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who’s friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face to face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

What is it about other people that makes us more likely to be their friends? Connection between friends is often the result of attraction to individuals of similar personalities or skills, although recent research suggests that friendship may be related to a much deeper level. Brent et al notes that “Humans are especially predisposed toward homophily, with recent evidence suggesting this even extends to the genetic level; people are more likely to be friends if they have similar genotypes. Taken together, these findings advocate the need to consider not only an individual’s genome, but also their metagenome, when asking questions about the causes of friendship biases … Unrelated friends are more likely to be genetically similar, equivalent to the level of fourth cousins, compared to unrelated strangers.” [1]

As Christians, we’re encouraged to engage with other Christians on a regular basis, which in our modern world, is through regular church attendance. As the Bible says in Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” But as the research has shown, it’s not just being part of the crowd, but connecting with those in the church in a meaningful way. It’s very easy to be lonely in a crowded church.

Always remember: “Befriend, and be a friend” – that’s how you’ll find benefit to your spirit, soul and body.

References

[1]        Brent LJ, Chang SW, Gariepy JF, Platt ML. The neuroethology of friendship. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2014 May;1316:1-17.
[2]        Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine 2010 Jul;7(7):e1000316.
[3]        Luo Y, Hawkley LC, Waite LJ, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: a national longitudinal study. Social science & medicine 2012 Mar;74(6):907-14.
[4]        Oh HJ, Ozkaya E, LaRose R. How does online social networking enhance life satisfaction? The relationships among online supportive interaction, affect, perceived social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior 2014;30:69-78.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the tongues trivia tall tales trifecta

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I saw a Facebook factoid from Caroline Leaf today that said, “When we speak in tongues, research shows that the areas involved in discernment in the brain increase in activity, which means we increase in wisdom.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She has also proclaimed herself as an expert on science and the Bible.

In the opening of her “Scientific Philosophy”, for example, Dr Leaf says that, “God is the Creator of the Universe and is the Author of Science. Since God is the Author of the Bible, the Bible is therefore the ultimate authority in any scientific matters. The study of Science is therefore the study of God’s handiwork and is a way of admiring His Creation. God, the Creator, is the One to be worshipped, not the Creation. The Creation, however, reflects the Glory of God and points to His Divine attributes.”

In order to prove that the Bible is the ultimate scientific authority, Dr Leaf attempts to find scientific studies which support Biblical concepts. One example of this is her teaching on Glossolalia, the scientific term for the Biblical concept ‘speaking in tongues’.

Dr Leaf’s Facebook factoid on the neuroscience of speaking in tongues is at least the second time she has posted it. In November when I first saw Dr Leaf’s proclamation on the science of speaking in tongues, I was fascinated. I went to find the research for myself to see if the areas involved in discernment in the brain really increase in activity when speaking in tongues. As it turns out, there isn’t any.

The only study that I could find about brain functioning during speaking in tongues was by Newberg [1]. As I wrote in my previous blog, the study by Newberg showed the part of the brain that’s involved in both speaking in tongues and discernment, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, decreases in activity when praying in tongues, not increases, in direct contradiction to Dr Leaf’s meme.

In November, I concluded, “there are really only two reasonable explanations as to why the research contradicts Dr Leaf; either there is another piece of research which supports Dr Leaf’s assertion, or Dr Leaf is simply wrong.”

Today on Facebook, Dr Leaf demonstrated that she can not be swayed from her entrenched idea that speaking in tongues increases discernment … or can she? Her meme and her discussion on glossolalia in her ‘Scientific Philosophy’ seem contradictory.

For example, she writes in her scientific philosophy manifesto, “In 2006 Dr. Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, using single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT), found that the frontal lobe of individuals who spoke in tongues was less active. This brain profile was in contrast to Franciscan nuns in contemplative prayer and Buddhist monks in meditation, in which frontal lobe activity is increased. Since the frontal lobe activity is increased when we are focused on what we are saying, this finding confirms self-reports of what people who spoke in tongues experienced, implying that the words spoken in glossolalia originate from a source other than the mind of the individual speaking in tongues.”

In this paragraph, Dr Leaf confirms that frontal lobe activity decreases when speaking in tongues, in keeping with her anecdotal evidence of “self-reports of what people who spoke in tongues experienced, implying that the words spoken in glossolalia originate from a source other than the mind of the individual speaking in tongues.” But this is in direct contrast with her social media meme, which suggests that speaking in tongues increases frontal lobe activity – the area of the brain common to glossolalia and discernment is the vmPFC, which decreases with glossolalia and increases with discernment.

Dr Leaf is a confusing enigma. She posts social media memes that are clearly wrong, even disagreeing with the scientific papers she has written about and her own conclusions in her own manifesto.

This only discounts her legitimacy. You can’t continue to contradict your own evidence. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot, or digging your own grave. What’s worse, Dr Leaf teaches this from real pulpits, not just on social media. How is her audience supposed to feel when they hear what she has to say and find it disagrees with her own scientific philosophy?

I sound like a broken record, but Dr Leaf desperately needs to review her teaching and social media memes. It’s bad enough to be contradicted by scientific evidence, but to be in disagreement with your own teaching is embarrassing, and does nothing to preserve trust with your audience.

References

[1]        Newberg AB, Wintering NA, Morgan D, Waldman MR. The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: a preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry research 2006 Nov 22;148(1):67-71.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Manhandling scriptures again

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I recently heard a great quote, “If you take the text out of context, all you’re left with is a con.” It’s a quote that seems to describe Dr Leaf’s social media pings quite nicely over the last twenty-four hours.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is also a self-titled theologian.

Today she posted, “3 John 2 = Mental Health ‘Beloved, I wish above all things that thou may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.’ Everything relies on your soul, which is your mind, prospering” (original emphasis).

Except that her statement is blatantly false. The soul isn’t just the mind. A simple search of an on-line Bible dictionary reveals that there are a number of ways in which the word ‘soul’ is used, but more specifically to the meaning in 3 John 2, “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”. (http://goo.gl/AjhvNO)

It should also be noted that the two words used in ancient Greek that referred to our inner reality were pneuma (‘spirit’) and psyche (‘soul’). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the words pneuma (‘spirit’) and psyche (‘soul’) were often used indiscriminately. The Apostle Paul distinctly used the word pneuma separately to the word psyche in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, but nearly every other New Testament writer wasn’t so precise.

Thus, John wasn’t referring to the mind at all, but probably our spirit, or at the very least, our generic soul, not specifically to our mental faculties or our thoughts. The scripture in 3 John 2 doesn’t have anything to do with our mental health.

Yesterday, Dr Leaf tried to merge one of her favourite authors views with scripture. She posted a quote from Dr Bruce Lipton, “Genes cannot turn themselves on or off. In more scientific terms, genes are not ‘self-emergent’. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.” Dr Leaf added, “That ‘something’ is your thoughts! Read Proverbs 23:7”.

So I did.   Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.”

So what is it with the second half of the verse? If this scripture is all about our thought life, then what’s the eating and drinking half of the verse got to do with our thought life?

The explanation is that this verse has nothing to do with our thought life at all. Dr Leaf has simply been misquoting it for years, and no one checked to see if she’s right. According to the Pulpit commentary found on the Bible Hub website, “The verb here used is שָׁעַר (shaar), ‘to estimate … to calculate’, and the clause is best rendered, ‘For as one that calculates with himself, so is he’. The meaning is that this niggardly host watches every morsel which his guest eats, and grudges what he appears to offer so liberally … He professes to make you welcome, and with seeming cordiality invites you to partake of the food upon his table. But his heart is not with thee. He is not glad to see you enjoy yourself, and his pressing invitation is empty verbiage with no heart in it.” (http://goo.gl/nvSYUh)

The other half of her meme comes from Dr Bruce Lipton, an agnostic pseudoscientist who was a cell biologist before he flamed out, and now teaches chiropractic in New Zealand. He believes that there is a metaphysical link between our thoughts and our cell function [1]. He’s ignored by real scientists (http://goo.gl/cX7Aeg).

As for his quote, it’s a misdirection. Sure, genes aren’t self-emergent – they don’t think for themselves. DNA is just a long chemical string which just carries a code, the biological equivalent to your DVD discs. Like a DVD, DNA isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t have a machine to read it. In every cell, there are hundreds of proteins that read and translate DNA. Those machines respond to the external environment, but they also respond to the cells internal environment, and to other genes themselves. Simply put, DNA is decoded by intracellular proteins, but intracellular proteins are only made by the expression of DNA, which happens all the time. A single-celled embryo becomes a baby because of DNA self-copying and expression that happens a trillion times over by the end of pregnancy. So while a single gene can’t turn itself on and off, the genome as a whole is essentially self-controlling, only being partly modulated by the external environment. Genes are turned on and off all the time by other genes through the proteins those genes make. Lipton’s assertion that “something in the environment has to trigger gene activity” is simply nonsense.

So Dr Leaf uses a flawed quote from a pseudoscientist to try and back up her specious interpretation of an out-of-context verse of scripture.

Somewhat poor from an “expert” theologian and cognitive neuroscientist really.

These memes speak to the issues of trust and legitimacy. Dr Leaf can call herself whatever she likes, but how can church leaders continue to endorse her to their congregations as an expert when she consistently misinterprets science and scripture? Can they honestly look their parishioners in the eye and say that Dr Leaf’s teaching is accurate? Can they stand at their pulpits and confidently support her book sales at their back of their churches?

Dr Leaf needs to re-evaluate. She needs to re-evaluate her claims to be an expert in cognitive neuroscience and the Bible. She needs to re-evaluate the quality of information that she relies on. She needs to re-evaluate what she’s trying to achieve in posting to social media, and re-evaluate the accuracy of her memes.

Because ultimately it’s the truth that sets people free, not errant opinions and misinterpretations.

References

[1]        Lipton BH. The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles: Hay House, Inc, 2008.

Addit: Dr Leaf’s social media post in between the two memes mentioned above was also a doozy. A repeat offender, as it were, since she has posted it several times before, and I have blogged about it here.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread

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After a day-trip to Movie World, and then a slight distraction by Eurovision, I had a quick look at Facebook before going about my evening chores. Upon reading Dr Leaf’s latest social media meme, I was aghast!

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Hiding in amongst her “Scientific Philosophy” was this juicy factoid: “Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.” This is, apparently, also proof that prayer can change physical matter.

I actually thought it was God that changed physical matter if He agreed with our prayer requests, and not our prayers themselves, because if it was simply our prayer, then we wouldn’t need God. That’s probably a blog for another time. Still, it was her last statement that caught my attention. Intentional thought can change the properties of laser! I’d never heard that before! I had to find the references.

It turns out that the paper Dr Leaf is referring to is, “Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge” [1]. In this experiment, Dr Dean Radin, a paranormal researcher, took 5 “experienced meditators” and 5 normal control subjects, and asked them to mentally interfere with a laser beam pointed at a light-reading CCD sensor inside a sealed box. He averaged out the intensity of the light pattern that was read by the CCD. He believed he found a difference in the amount of light that was read by the sensor when the meditators “blocked” the laser light compared to non-meditators and control runs.

In his original paper, Radin published the following graph of his results.

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The length of the bars represent a statistical value based on the results, not the actual results of the experiments. The simplest explanation is that the further down the bar goes, the greater the degree of interference to the laser light. Radin believed the effect was caused by the meditators literally interfering with the quantum mechanics of the photons in the laser beam, “observing” them from outside of the box, thus causing their wave function to collapse and stopping them from reaching the sensor.

However, notice that the first few experiments show a large effect, but that this diminishes as the experiments go along, and towards the end, the control groups and the meditator group is actually about the same, with no interference to the laser light at all. This effect is called the Decline Effect, and is common problem amongst studies of the paranormal. It’s a result of a phenomenon called ‘regression to the mean’, or in other words, the more times you perform an experiment, the more likely the results will line up with the true average. I think in Radin’s case, it also had a lot to do with his own expectations.

Radin himself was honest enough to discuss the effect in his paper. In his own words, “Although I had employed numerous design features to avoid artifacts (sic), and only four of the 10 control sessions conducted to that point had gone in the predicted direction, I still found it difficult to believe that the experimental effect was as easily repeatable as the results were suggesting. I knew that if I had trouble believing it, I could hardly expect anyone else to accept these results. So I found that my intentions for the experiment changed – I no longer hoped to observe results solely in the predicted direction, but rather I found myself hoping that some of the remaining sessions would go against the prediction, to validate that the methodology was not biased.” [1]

So, Radin probably caused the effect by wanting to see it. He excluded data that didn’t suit his hypothesis, citing a technical issue with the equipment, and instead focussed on the data set that still seemed to fit. He also performed the analysis of the data, which he biased with his own pre-conceived notions.

The other nail in the coffin for this paper is that it was a pilot study that was done by one researcher, which no one has since tried, or succeeded in, replicating. Indeed, the methodology for this research was based on a series of experiments done by a real physicist with better equipment, Professor Stanley Jeffers, a professor of physics at York University in Toronto, Canada, who performed the experiment about 74 times and found no effect [2].

So, Dr Leaf has cited this isolated, error prone, biased and unconfirmed paper of Radin’s as proof of the ability of thought to change physical matter, and indeed, as prayer’s ability to change physical matter.

This is simply more proof that Dr Leaf is prone to rush in where angels fear to tread, and latch on to any “research” that supports her ideas, no matter how tenuous or unscientific. She did the same thing when she cited a conference poster from a paranormal conference in the early 90’s, and claimed it was definitive proof that our thoughts can change our DNA. In actual fact, the paper was so full of flaws [3: Ch 13, The “ingenuous” experiment] that the only thing it could show was how desperate Dr Leaf is to try and justify her unscientific pet theories.

This tendency for Dr Leaf to rely on such poor science, and link it to fundamental Biblical concepts, dishonours science, the truth of the Bible, and her audience.

I think Dr Leaf would be wise to review her scientific philosophy and the “research” that she uses to justify it, rather than continuing to utilise tenuous and inaccurate articles from studies of the paranormal.

References

[1]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore 2008 Jan-Feb;4(1):25-35.

[2]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

[3]        Pitt CE. Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. 1st ed. Brisbane, Australia: Pitt Medical Trust, 2014.

Aspartame. Is it more ‘Die’ than ‘Diet’?

A link came around tonight on my Facebook feed about aspartame: “Aspartame is linked to Leukemia and Lymphoma in new Landmark Study on Humans” (http://worldtruth.tv/aspartame-is-linked-to-leukemia-and-lymphoma-in-new-landmark-study-on-humans/)

I’ve seen these sorts of articles come around on social media before, usually in the form of an alternative health website hysterically exaggerating an irrelevant or pseudoscientific study, trying to prove some point about the evils of western medicine or society, or get more internet traffic through sensationalist click-bait.

And I’d heard the whole aspartame-causes-cancer thing before. I’d heard that there was maybe some evidence in animal studies, but that there was no definitive link in humans.

So just from the title, before I’d even read the article, my sceptical mind was primed to expect the opposite of the articles eye-catching headline.  I started searching the literature to see if there was any evidence to prove me right.

The first research article I came across that wasn’t on rats was from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012, “Consumption of artificial sweetener – and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women” [1]. It was an impressive study in terms of its numbers and its quality. It was drawn from the data of the Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which were both prospective studies (which follow a large number of subjects over a long time to see who gets the disease in question, rather than starting with who has the disease in question and trying to work backwards trying to ascertain causes, which is much less reliable). Both studies also had a large number of subjects which increased their statistical power, and made their findings more robust.

The results didn’t look very good for aspartame. There was a clear-cut increase in the risk of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma for men who consumed two or more serves per day of diet drinks containing aspartame (Relative Risk: 1.69; 95% Confidence Interval: 1.17, 2.45; P-trend = 0.02) and Multiple Myeloma for men who consumed one or more serve per day of diet drinks containing aspartame (RR: 2.02; 95% CI: 1.20, 3.40). However, there was no change in the risks for women who consumed aspartame.

The results certainly caught me a little off guard. Perhaps there was some truth to the alternative website’s assertions after all. Interestingly enough, the study that the worldtruth.tv site reviewed was the same article I’d found. I was guilty of making a snap judgement, and I had to remind myself not to always jump to conclusions.

Still, even though the article wasn’t sensationalist click-bait, some unanswered questions remained. Why was the risk only found in men? Was there a real association, and if so, why the difference. Should we extrapolate this finding like worldtruth.tv did and justifiably ask “will future, high-quality studies uncover links to the other cancers in which aspartame has been implicated (brain, breast, prostate, etc.)?”

In terms of the gender difference, the authors of the original study did have a theory: “We hypothesized that the sex differences we observed may have been due to the recognized higher enzymatic activity of alcohol dehydrogenase type I (ADH) in men, which possibly induced higher conversion rates from methanol to the carcinogenic substrate formaldehyde.” In support of this theory, they looked at the risk of leukaemia and lymphoma in those aspartame users who were drinkers vs the aspartame users who weren’t. Ethanol stops the metabolic conversion of aspartame to formaldehyde, so if their theory was on the right track, those aspartame users who also drank alcohol would have a lower risk. As it turns out, their data was supportive, with aspartame non-drinkers having an increased risk for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (RR: 2.34; 95% CI: 1.46, 3.76; P-trend = 0.004) compared with aspartame users who also drank (RR: 0.96; 95% CI: 0.48, 1.90; P-trend = 0.99) [1].

However, despite the findings of Schernhammer et al, a more recent large prospective trial published in the Journal of Nutrition last year found there was no association between soft-drinks of any variety and blood cancers, including those containing aspartame [2].

So the jury is still out on aspartame. Based on what we currently know, if you’re a woman, then there’s no risk of developing leukaemia or lymphoma from drinking diet drinks. If you’re a man, there’s also probably no risk, but a glass or two of alcohol a day would probably make sure of that. Although the best advice is probably to not bother drinking diet drinks at all. The best diet drink is still plain old water, which has virtually no associated risks, is much cheaper, and probably tastes a whole lot better.

References

  1. Schernhammer, E.S., et al., Consumption of artificial sweetener- and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr, 2012. 96(6): 1419-28 doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.030833
  2. McCullough, M.L., et al., Artificially and sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage consumption is not associated with risk of lymphoid neoplasms in older men and women. J Nutr, 2014. 144(12): 2041-9 doi: 10.3945/jn.114.197475