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


Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 9.27.19 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 9.26.07 pm

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


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

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

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

Dr Caroline Leaf – Better graphics, same content

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 2.08.15 pm

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.


[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 – Manhandling scriptures again

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 7.49.02 pm Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 7.50.30 pm

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.


[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 – Contradicted by Dr Caroline Leaf

“Who am I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On page 47, Dr Leaf said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dr Caroline Leaf and dualism revisited

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 9.05.13 pm

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

This may sound like a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum, but it’s a deep philosophical question. The concept of the separation of the mind from the body is known as dualism, and has been debated for centuries because the answer to that question then guides a lot of other philosophies and theories.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She believes that the body and brain are separate from the mind, which significantly influences her teaching. Take, for example, her social media meme-of-the-day today. She posted that, “The brain does not change itself… our MIND changes the brain”. If one assumes that the mind is separate from our brain, then its plausible that the mind influences the brain.

Except that it doesn’t. Our mind is a product of our brain, not a separate entity. Neurological damage from injuries or tumours, electrical stimulation of the brain in the lab, the effect of illicit drugs on the brain like LSD or marijuana, and everyday examples like the changes to our thinking under the influence of caffeine or alcohol, all prove that changes to the structure and function of the brain change thought patterns. It isn’t the other way around. Every brain changes itself too – the brain of an embryo or foetus undergoes massive changes but foetuses don’t have streams of conscious thought. Dr Leaf’s meme is scientifically misguided.

Perhaps what is more worrying is Dr Leaf’s use of scripture to try and justify her view that the mind and the brain are separate. To introduce her meme, Dr Leaf wrote, “Read Luke 16:19-31 to see that the mind is separate from the brain – this is God’s divine design.”

There are a number of scriptures that theologians use to discuss the biblical basis for the separation of the body and soul, but Luke 16:19-31 isn’t one of them. That passage is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

It says:

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
‘The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
‘But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
‘He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
‘Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
‘“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
‘He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:19-31, NIV)

I’m not sure exactly where the convincing proof of the separation of our mind and our body is found in this passage. This is a description of the afterlife, and in this parable, the rich man was very specific about memories (“I have five brothers …”) as well as physical sensations (“I am in agony in this fire”) and even parts of the body (Lazarus’s finger, his tongue). Jesus isn’t telling a story of how the mind is separate to the body, but of a different dimension in which the body and the mind are still together. This passage isn’t proof for the concept of dualism, but against it.

Dualism also has a number of fatal scientific and philosophical flaws, in particular that dualism is conceptually fuzzy, experimentally irrefutable, considers only the adult mind, and violates physics, in particular the law of conservation of energy.

So Dr Leaf bases her teaching on a scientifically and philosophically untenable concept and then attempts to use a scripture which refutes dualism in her attempt to support it. That’s audacious, but then to claim that it’s God’s divine design is, at best, a little brazen.

Dualism may be one of her fundamental philosophies, but I think Dr Leaf should review the basis for it, and possibly reconsider her reliance on it.

For a more in-depth discussion on Dr Leaf and dualism, please see my essay: Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis

Going green – why envy is an adaptive process

The Bible says, in Job 5:2, “For wrath kills a foolish man, And envy slays a simple one.”

A German proverb goes, “Envy eats nothing, but its own heart.”

Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, posted today on her social media feeds, “Jealousy and envy creates damage in the brain … but … celebrating others protects the brain!”

Yes, sometimes envy isn’t good for us. Emotions guide our thought process, and like all emotions that are out of balance, too much envy can cloud our better rational judgement and bias our perception of the world. Thankfully, envy doesn’t literally eat out our hearts or literally cause brain damage.

If anything, envy when experienced in a balanced way can actually improve our brain functioning. According to real cognitive neuroscientists, envy and regret are emotions that help us because they both fulfil the role of effectively evaluating our past actions, which improves our choices in the future. As Coricelli and Rustichini noted, “envy and regret, as well as their positive counterparts, share the common nature that is hypothesized in the functional role explanation: they are affective responses to the counterfactual evaluation of what we could have gotten had we made a different choice. Envy has, like regret, a functional explanation in adaptive learning.” [1]

When it comes to the human psyche, there is no black or white, good vs evil distinction between different feelings or emotions. B-grade life coaches and slick pseudoscience salespeople dumb down our emotions into a false dichotomy because it helps sell their message (and their books). Every emotion can be either helpful or unhelpful depending on their context in each individual.

As Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck wrote, “Emotion is integral to all phases of the coping process, from vigilance, detection, and appraisals of threat to action readiness and coordinating responses during stressful encounters. However, adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of emotional reactions. In fact, emotions like anger have important adaptive functions, such as readying a person to sweep away an obstacle, as well communicating these intentions to others. Adaptive coping profits from flexible access to a range of genuine emotions as well as the ongoing cooperation of emotions with other components of the action system.” [2]

If you find your thoughts and feelings tinged by the greenish hue of envy, don’t worry, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your heart isn’t going to consume itself and you won’t sustain any brain damage. Use envy or regret as tools of learning, tools to help you evaluate your choices so that you make a better choice next time. Having balanced emotions is the key to learning and growing, coping with whatever obstacles life throws at us.


  1. Coricelli, G. and Rustichini, A., Counterfactual thinking and emotions: regret and envy learning. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2010. 365(1538): 241-7 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0159
  2. Skinner, E.A. and Zimmer-Gembeck, M.J., The development of coping. Annu Rev Psychol, 2007. 58: 119-44 doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085705

Don’t stress about stress, part 2


In the last blog post, we looked at some of the different ways of looking at stress outside of the medical field – the stress on a guitar string, the power band of the car engine, and the action of gravity on our bodies. In this post, I want to expand on those metaphors, using them to help us understand how we can respond to stress, and why stress isn’t our enemy, but it actually brings out our best if managed in the right way.

One of the reasons why gravity gives you strong muscles and bones, and zero gravity gives you weak muscles and bones, is because of resistance.

Movement involves work. We do “work” everyday in simple everyday activities, because our muscles and bones have to apply a certain amount of force in order to overcome gravity. Our muscles adapt by growing the muscle fibres to provide that force, and bones remodel themselves to provide the maximum resistance to the loads that gravity and the muscles put through them. We’re not aware of this day-to-day because we never experience prolonged changes in our gravitational fields.

But when we need to do more work than our muscles are accustomed to, our muscle fibres increase in strength, first as the nerve networks that supply the muscles become more efficient, after about two weeks of ongoing training, the fibres themselves increase in size [1, 2]. The growth in muscle fibres is caused by three related factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress [2]. Mechanical tension involves “force generation and stretch”. In other words, the muscle fibres are stretched just beyond their usual capacity, and they actively fight against the resistance. This damages the weaker muscle fibres, which are repaired. The remaining muscle fibres are forced to adapt by growing larger because of the stimulation of growth factors [2].

One of my favorite “Demotivator” posters says, “That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable” [3]. Of course, the phrase that they’ve parodied is, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Why is there truth to that idiom? Adversity occurs when life circumstances come against us. In other words, adversity resists us. In the arm wrestle between adversity and overcoming, work is involved. We have to fight back.

In a similar way, we grow when adversity pushes us just beyond what we have done before, stretching us. We may sustain some damage in the process, but that helps to reduce our weaknesses, and forces us into growth as we heal. When we push back against adversity, the “cells” of our character grow.

Of course, we all know examples where muscles fail under intense or prolonged loads. I vividly remember the pictures of the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, succumbing to the grueling hills and scorching Athens heat with only four miles left in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. Muscle failure from excessive stretch or excessive endurance parallels the allostatic load response, which is what people commonly referred to as ‘stress’.

Scientific evidence that stress is positive

There have been recent studies in animals that demonstrate that stress is physically as well as mentally enhancing.

Neurogenesis is the process of new nerve cell formation. Studies of rodents placed under intermittent predictable stressors showed an increase in neurogenesis within the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain related to learning and memory. Along with this enhancement of neurogenesis, the function of the hippocampus increased, specifically hippocampal-dependent memory, with a reduction in depression and anxiety-like behaviours.

As Petrik et al noted in their review, “Contrary to stress always being ‘bad’, it has long been appreciated that stress has an important biological role, and recent research supports that some amount of stress at the right time is actually useful for learning and memory.” [4]

Lessons from stress

So what can we learn from stress? How do we use the stress that we are exposed to every day to make us grow strong and durable?

Firstly, like the guitar string, we need to learn when we are in tune, at the peak of our productivity. Or like the car engine, what it feels like to be in the power band. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

The other life principle to be gained from the car engine analogy is that not all of us are high performance engines. I would love to think that I’m a F1 racing engine – highly tuned, supreme power – but I recognise my limitations. I would even settle for a 5-litre V8, but I know that I’m probably more like a well-tuned V6. We are what we are. Sometimes we apply the most stress to ourselves when we try to drive in the power band of someone else’s engine. We need to accept who we are.

It seems logical that if too much stress is bad for us, then having little or no stress is good for us. But like the new guitar string, minimal stress makes us unproductive. Like zero gravity on the body, little or no stress makes us weak.

And we need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. But without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. In the muscle analogy, at the stretch at which peak growth occurs, muscle fibres tear and the lactic acid build up in the remaining cells can be very uncomfortable. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

Once we understand our own individual points of maximum productivity and growth, we can use them as guides to our personal growth and achievement. Actually, I should specify that these are our starting points, since as we face challenges and experience growth, the points will change slightly. We can remap those points and continue in our pattern of growth and development.

Pushing ourselves into just enough stress to achieve growth, then pulling back to rest and restore, is a pattern of growth that is seen in many facets of the natural world and the human body. Body builders and athletes use this method all the time in their training. They push themselves with more repetitions and heavier weights, or longer or faster runs, then they pull back to consolidate their gains. During our adolescence, our bodies naturally go through growth spurts – periods of rapid growth followed by a plateau, before the next burst of growth hormone hits us again. Even tree rings demonstrate that growth and consolidation occur all the way through the natural world.

This is the Stressed-Rest cycle. The studies in animals on neurogenesis strengthen the theory, because it was the animals that experienced bursts of stress that showed enhanced neurogenesis, memory and reduced depression/anxiety behaviours.

If you want maximum personal growth, constant stress does not help. There has to be times of rest. Some people think that rest time is wasted time, reducing productivity. But as explained, without rest time, productivity rapidly falls away. Without rest, stress goes bad, leading to allostatic overload.

So in summary, excessive stress is bad. But if all stress were bad, then we would all crumple any time that something became difficult. So stress is not a force for evil. Stress is part of our normal everyday lives, and is vital if we are to see ongoing personal growth.

We know from living life that we all don’t fall in a heap when things go wrong. We have in-built ways of coping that help us to absorb troubles and adversities and like emotional photosynthesis – turn them into fuel for growth.

This is the science of resilience, the counterbalance to the forces of stress that help us cope and adapt in a rapidly changing natural and social environment, the Yang to allostatic overload’s Yin. A discussion on the science of stress is not complete without a discussion of resilience, which I’ll discuss in the next blog in this series.


  1. Hortobagyi, T. and Maffiuletti, N.A., Neural adaptations to electrical stimulation strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(10): 2439-49 doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2012-2
  2. Schoenfeld, B.J., The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(10): 2857-72 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
  3. Adversity. Demotivators [cited July 2013]; Available from: http://www.despair.com/adversity.html.
  4. Petrik, D., et al., The neurogenesis hypothesis of affective and anxiety disorders: are we mistaking the scaffolding for the building? Neuropharmacology, 2012. 62(1): 21-34 doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.09.003