Dr Caroline Leaf’s war on drugs

Today, Dr Leaf posted this on her social media feeds.  It’s clearly meant to shock and enrage her followers.

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Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She’s also cast herself as an expert on mental health.

To the detriment of her followers, and sadly, to the rest of the Christian church, most people believe her.

Her most recent book, and her social media memes for the last couple of months, have made it clear that Dr Leaf is pursuing her own personal war on drugs … but prescription psychiatric drugs not the illicit kind.

Unfortunately, her attacks on prescription psychiatric drugs have amounted to nothing more than a hysterically illogical smear campaign under the guise of her concern for public safety.

Today’s offering follows the same pattern of narrow-minded hysteria.

Her main quote from was from Robert Whitaker, “Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every fifteen Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness’.”

Whitaker, like Dr Leaf, is an outspoken critic of modern psychiatric treatment with a poor understanding of how psychiatric medications actually work.  The statement that Dr Leaf quotes is remarkable for it’s poor logic.  The quote implies that the rise in childhood mental health is because of the rise in psychotropic medication use in children.  But correlation does not equal causation.  Even if one in fifteen Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness’, and twenty years ago our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, there’s no evidence that the psychiatric medications are actually causing the psychiatric problems.

Then there’s Dr Leaf’s emotionally charged statement that “They are even prescribing these psychoactive substances to infants!”

The New York Times article that she linked to discusses the case of Andrew Rios, a child suffering from severe epilepsy, having his first seizure at 5 months.  Though it’s clearly more complicated than just “simple” epilepsy – he’s pictured wearing a helmet which suggests that he has myoclonic epilepsy which is clearly uncontrolled. It’s also clear from the article that the child was having mood swings and violent behaviour before the anti-psychotic was given. The history of early seizures with ongoing poor control and violent behavior means that this unfortunate young boy likely has a severe and complicated neurological syndrome, quite possibly because of an underlying abnormality of his brain. And the symptoms he had which the mother claimed were from the antipsychotic were just as likely to have been night terrors, a common problem in two year olds.

In the end, who really knows?  But there’s certainly not enough in this article to clearly convict antipsychotics of being toxic or evil.

Neither is the use of antipsychotics for infants widespread.  20,000 prescriptions for antipsychotic medications sounds like a travesty, but according to the article, the real numbers are probably much less, or about 10,000, since not every prescription is filled.  Even 10,000 sounds like a lot, but that represents 0.0002% of all prescriptions in the US, and most of those scripts are not actually being taken by the child, but by their uninsured parent(s).

Indeed, as the article itself said, “In interviews, a dozen experts in child psychiatry and neurology said that they had never heard of a child younger than 3 receiving such medication, and struggled to explain it.”

So the prescribing of antipsychotics to infants is extremely rare, almost unheard of, and is only likely to be done in extreme cases where all other options have been exhausted.

That’s certainly not the impression you get from Dr Leaf’s post, which is just another misinformed smear against anti-psychotic medications.

Dr Leaf’s war against psychiatric medications is reckless.  When people who need psychiatric medications don’t take them, suffering increases, as do suicides.

It’s time Dr Leaf stopped spreading needless fear about these medications.  They help more people than they harm, people who already suffer from the stigma of having a severe mental illness.  They don’t need any more suffering stemming from Dr Leaf’s so-called “expertise”.

Dr Caroline Leaf – The mystery of he said/she said is no longer a mystery

This weeks edition of New Scientist magazine carried an article entitled “Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain” [1].  The article was inspired by a journal article published in the PNAS last month [2], which reviewed the scans of 1400 different people to see if there were specific differences in the neuroanatomy of the brains of men and women (i.e., are there ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, or are the commonly accepted male/female differences just a myth, or a cultural, not biological phenomenon?)

According to the article, there is an “extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed. Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the ‘maleness-femaleness’ continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features.” [2]

So essentially, there’s no strong biological basis for gender differences after all.  “This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. ‘There are not two types of brain,’ says Joel.” [1]

This news is a blow to one of Dr Leaf’s less renowned books, “Who switched off your brain? Solving the mystery of he said/she said” [3].

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her ‘he said/she said’ book is based on the idea that there are definitive characteristics of the male and female brain which define each gender.  From her conclusion on page 211,

“Men and women are different.  Both the physical anatomy and functional strategy of our brains are different.  We can’t attribute this to social engineering, cultural norms or our up-bringing.  We’ve been created different – it’s in our fundamental design.  Our parents, our communities, and the cultural context of our childhood and adolescence certainly have a prominent developmental role in each of our lives.  But your brain has been fashioned in a specific way that shapes your ‘true you’ long before any of these other factors have had the opportunity to exercise their influence on you.”

As a quick aside, this quote shows the confusion in Dr Leaf’s teaching.  As I’ve discussed before in other blogs, Dr Leaf contradicts herself by claiming that our brain determines our gifts and our behaviours in some books (like ‘He said/she said’ and ‘The gift in you’) but then claims that our thought life controls our brains and our physical reality in the rest of her teaching.  So which is it?

But this quote also sounds the death knell for her book, in light of the recent scientific evidence to the contrary.  Which is a shame, since out of all of her books, this one initially seemed the most scientifically robust.

Even though the book is based on a now defunct theory, I wonder if the thrust of her book still holds true to a point.  We’ve all been created to be different, and we should celebrate those differences and how they complement other people around us.  It just so happens that those differences aren’t inherent to our gender, but to us as individuals, uniquely designed by God “for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

So, yes, the mystery of he said/she said has been solved, but not quite as Dr Leaf envisaged.


[1]        Hamzelou J. Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain. New Scientist. 2015 Dec 5.
[2]        Joel D, Berman Z, Tavor I, et al. Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 Nov 30.
[3]        Leaf CM. Who swithced off your brain: Solving the mystery of he said/she said. Texas, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2011.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Me-Too approach to mental health

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Since her recent less-than-successful attempt at portraying herself as a mental health expert, Dr Leaf has been laying low on social media, sticking to bland, innocuous quotes or passages of scripture.

Today, she thought it was safe enough to pop her head up from the trenches to fire off another opinionated volley on mental well-being, with a quote from one of her favourite authors, Peter Kinderman:

“It’s our framework of understanding the world, not our brains and not even the events that happen to us – not nature and not nurture – that determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and, therefore, our mental health.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Without any training or professional experience in mental illness, she has also taken it upon herself to act as an expert on mental health within the Christian church.

Unfortunately, posting quotes like today’s offering only further destroys her flagging credibility among those with professional psychiatric experience, and adds to the confusion of the rest of the Christian church when it comes to understanding mental illness.

There are two main problems with Dr Leaf’s meme: the quote itself and it’s source.

The quote itself is wafer-thin, unable to stand up to even the most basic interrogation. For example, we know through basic common sense that the brain changes how we think, our moods, our emotions and our behaviours. We change our mood, our emotions and our alertness every time we have a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine. Hallucinogenic medications like LSD definitely change our framework of understanding the world. Coffee, alcohol, and illicit substances like LSD all change the mood or experience of the person using them because they all temporarily alter the function of the users brain.

Though it’s not just external substances that change how we experience our external and internal worlds, but our own internal hormonal ecosystem changes our emotions, our moods, our thoughts and our behaviours. This isn’t so obvious for most men as our hormones are fairly constant, though testicular failure is known to result in reduced energy, vitality, or stamina; depressed mood or diminished sense of well-being; increased irritability; and difficulty concentrating and other cognitive problems. For the female gender, monthly hormonal changes can sometimes result in sudden, marked changes in emotions, moods, thoughts and behaviours.

There are a lot of other reasons why the brain controls the mind, and our mental health, which I’ve also discussed numerous times in other blogs (here, here and here)

If you aren’t satisfied with a common sense approach, then consider the scientific evidence that personality, the name that we give to our inbuilt ‘framework of understanding the world’ is largely genetic, and dependent on the function of various neurotransmitter systems [1-4].

So to suggest that the brain is not responsible for our moods, our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviours isn’t supported by the weight of scientific evidence.

The quote by Kinderman doesn’t stop there, but suggests that “not even the events that happen to us … determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours”, something that also flies in the face of current scientific evidence. For example, the other forty percent of personality is determined by our environment (specifically the ‘non-shared’ environment, the environment outside of our parental influence) [5, 6]. And common psychiatric illnesses are associated with early childhood adversity, such as schizophrenia [7] and ADHD [8]. So again, the quote is unscientific.

Who then is this Kinderman guy, and why does he disagree with the scientific literature?

Peter Kinderman is a Professor of Psychology at University of Liverpool, and the President-elect of the British Psychological Society. He’s a highly outspoken critic of modern psychiatry and what he perceives to be the medicalisation of normal moods and emotions and overuse of medications to treat these non-existent diagnoses. Kinderman believes that it’s our learning history that shapes the paths that our lives take, and so if we simply understand our personal models of the world and how they were shaped by the events and experiences to which we’ve been exposed, we can simply think our way out of any disease process [9].

Kinderman has come out in favour of talking treatments for psychosis in schizophrenia instead of medication, when there’s no scientific proof of benefit for psychosocial therapies in schizophrenia [10, 11] (and here).

This, and his staunch opposition of the DSM5 as invalid, makes me concerned about his bias against modern psychiatry, despite it’s many advances, scientifically and clinically.

However, I’m surprised that Kinderman would make such a statement because it’s such an asinine argument, I find it hard to believe that it came from a professor of psychology. Kinderman would surely recognise the role of biology in our mental health and wellbeing, even if he doesn’t agree with how it’s managed. Perhaps there’s an alternative explanation. Perhaps Kinderman didn’t say what Dr Leaf has claimed?

The answer is, he does, and he doesn’t.

Dr Leaf has quoted Kinderman correctly. Today’s quote is taken directly out of Kindermans 2014 book, “The New Laws of Psychology” [9], on the penultimate page of his introduction. So he does say that our brains and our experiences aren’t relevant for our mental health. But then again, in a blog on the militant anti-psychiatry blog ‘Mad in America’, Kinderman wrote this:

“I’ve spent much of my professional life studying psychological aspects of mental health problems. Inevitably, this has also meant discussing the role of biology. I hope I’ve made some progress in understanding these issues, in working out how the two relate to each other, and the implications for services. That’s my academic day-job. But it’s not just academic for me. I’m probably not untypical of most people reading this; I can see clear examples of how my experiences may have affected my own mental health, but I can also see reasons to suspect biological, heritable, traits. As in all aspects of human behaviour, both nature and nurture are involved and they have been intimately entwined in a complex interactive dance throughout my childhood and adult life.” http://www.madinamerica.com/2015/03/brain-baked-beans/

So he seems confused, both recognising that biological traits influence psychiatric illness, then denying it.

Personally, I disagree with the quote from his book, although I’m just a suburban GP from Australia, so what would I know, right? Though I think the evidence I’ve cited is on my side, and Kinderman is not without his critics who are more than his academic equal.

It also concerns me because the logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that psychiatric illnesses have no biological basis, and therefore psychiatric medications have no place in treatment of them. But as I outlined previously, there is good evidence for the beneficial effects of medications for schizophrenia and ADHD amongst other mental health disorders.

Dr Leaf continues to ignore the scientific evidence for the biological basis for mental ill-health, medications for their treatment, and even the most basic of all that our mind is a product of our brain. Instead, she’s nailed her colours to her mast and aligned herself with outspoken authors on the fringe of modern neuroscience. Rather than addressing the science behind her opposition to modern psychiatry and neuroscience, she has resorted to hiding behind their quotes, a ‘me-too’ commentator, rather than an actual expert.

Of more importance is the confusion that this brings to the vulnerable Christians who follow her social media “fan sites”. The more Dr Leaf criticises psychiatric medications and condemns their prescription and usage, the more likely it is that someone will come to serious harm when they inappropriately cease their medications. And if Dr Leaf won’t come to her senses, our church leaders are going to have to take action, before it’s too late.


[1]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[2]        Chen C, Chen C, Moyzis R, et al. Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PloS one 2011;6(7):e21636.
[3]        Caspi A, Hariri AR, Holmes A, Uher R, Moffitt TE. Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. The American journal of psychiatry 2010 May;167(5):509-27.
[4]        Felten A, Montag C, Markett S, Walter NT, Reuter M. Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain and behavior 2011 Nov;1(2):109-18.
[5]        Krueger RF, South S, Johnson W, Iacono W. The heritability of personality is not always 50%: gene-environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting. Journal of personality 2008 Dec;76(6):1485-522.
[6]        Johnson W, Turkheimer E, Gottesman, II, Bouchard TJ, Jr. Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current directions in psychological science 2010 Aug 1;18(4):217-20.
[7]        Howes OD, Murray RM. Schizophrenia: an integrated sociodevelopmental-cognitive model. Lancet 2014 May 10;383(9929):1677-87.
[8]        Thapar A, Cooper M, Eyre O, Langley K. What have we learnt about the causes of ADHD? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines 2013 Jan;54(1):3-16.
[9]        Kinderman P. The New Laws of Psychology: Why Nature and Nurture Alone Can’t Explain Human Behaviour: Robinson, 2014.
[10]      Buckley LA, Maayan N, Soares-Weiser K, Adams CE. Supportive therapy for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2015;4:CD004716.
[11]      Jones C, Hacker D, Cormac I, Meaden A, Irving CB. Cognitive behaviour therapy versus other psychosocial treatments for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2012;4:CD008712.

The Prospering Soul – Christians and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing the input – stress management

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

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

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

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

Increasing capacity – coping and resilience

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

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

Increased processing – Medications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Chemical Imbalance Myth

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There are lots of medical myths that people believe.

“I have acne because I eat too much chocolate, or my face isn’t clean enough”

“Stomach ulcers are because of stress”

“I coughed up some yellow phlegm, so I must need antibiotics right?”

“My baby’s fevers are because of teething.”

Is the “chemical imbalance” theory one of them?

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. A couple of weeks ago she opened a proverbial can of worms by quoting the out-spoken Peter Gøtzsche, claiming that psychiatric drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. This did not go down well, and Dr Leaf had to issue three separate statements on social media to try and justify herself and attempt to rescue her rapidly deteriorating credibility.

Not that she issued an apology, mind you, or retracted her statement.

Today, Dr Leaf published a blog on psychiatric medications … but again, not to apologise but to further justify why she’s right, and nearly every other doctor and scientist in the world is not. Worse than that, she went so far as to accuse doctors of deliberately prescribing “clearly dangerous” drugs, which she claims have no therapeutic effects, just because of some overcooked drug-company sponsored dinner and a few pens. More on that later.

Her post is a defiant deflection, a logically flawed and factually inaccurate criticism of modern psychiatry and psychopharmacology – not fueled by research, but largely based on the books of disgruntled fringe psychiatrists and researchers with an axe to grind.

Dr Leaf doesn’t discuss the actual science of the medications that she’s so against, but simply tries to create a smokescreen of distrust.

A good example of all that is wrong with this post is contained in the opening paragraph.

Today, it has become commonplace to say that people have chemical imbalances in their brain, most notably a disruption in the proper production of dopamine (for “diseases” like ADHD) and serotonin (for “diseases” like depression). These people, it is supposed, need drugs to “cure” these chemical imbalances, hence the terms “antipsychotics” or “antidepressants”.

The first thing to note is how Dr Leaf uses the term “cure”. No doctor ever uses the word “cure”, especially when talking about complex diseases. This is a pejorative term implying that modern medicine is only interested in permanently fixing things. But it’s a straw man fallacy, a false premise that Dr Leaf then uses to cast the medical model as impotent and futile. Nice try, but no one in medicine ever promises cure, and no doctor in their right mind would ever be so narrow-minded as to suggest that drugs are the only treatment for every condition. That doesn’t mean that drugs aren’t useful, nor that the medical model is broken. As we’ll discuss soon, medications are extremely helpful for certain conditions, when used carefully, as are non-drug treatments like CBT.

Dr Leaf also puts inverted commas around the word “diseases” as if to suggest that ADHD and depression aren’t diseases, an act which smacks of petulance and willful ignorance, and is insulting to those who have or who have ever suffered from ADHD and depression.   Last week, Dr Leaf was happy to share that her eldest daughter suffered from bulimia and depression, but now she’s suggesting that depression isn’t really a disease. So what is it then? Malingering? Personal weakness? Bad parenting?

It’s really surprising that someone claiming to be a cognitive neuroscientist would ignore strong scientific evidence.  For example, ADHD is associated with dopamine dysfunction as well as the dysfunction a number of other neurotransmitters [1-3]. And depression is associated with a decrease in the growth factor BDNF, (known as the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression) [4-6]. Schizophrenia, which Dr Leaf conveniently failed to mention, is clearly related to dopamine dysfunction in nerve cells of the pre-frontal cortex and the striatum, two parts of the brain that are incredibly important for how your brain processes incoming and outgoing signals [7-9].

There’s nothing to suppose here .. there’s ample evidence that psychiatric diseases are related to dysfunction within the brain, commonly with the function of neurotransmitters among other things. Call it whatever you like, the truth doesn’t change. “Chemical imbalance” is just an easy phrase for the general public to remember.

Dr Leaf then tries to suggest that psychiatric drugs don’t fix chemical imbalances but create them, citing the 1950’s observations of French researchers Deniker and Delay who noted that the first anti-psychotic, chlorpromazine, caused symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. And indeed it did, but this wasn’t a new disease, just evidence that it worked.

Psychosis, a pathological state involving hallucinations and delusions, is because of an excess of the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s used by the nerve cells deep in the brain in a part called the basal ganglia, which acts like a central mail delivery centre for incoming and outgoing signals from other parts of the brain. The function of the nerves in one part of the basal ganglia are responsible for sending sensory signals to the frontal lobes of the brain. In another part, the signals are important for smooth movements of our muscles. Proper function depends on just the right amount of dopamine – too much and you get psychosis. Not enough and you get Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

The French researchers were simply noting the side-effects of too much medication blocking the action of dopamine in the basal ganglia – the psychosis had improved, but the blockade of dopamine was just too much in some patients, who had the opposite symptoms.

Again, Dr Leaf’s position is diametrically opposed to the published science [10, 11], and if anything, her claim contradicts her fundamental argument. After all, if chemical imbalances are myths, then how can chlorpromazine create a “new neurological syndrome” because of a chemical imbalance?

Dr Leaf then launches into a discussion on the history of the DSM and psychiatric medications. This is just the first in her ad hominem attacks on the medical profession –  playing the man, not the ball if you will. If she can discredit the doctors that prescribe the medication, then she indirectly discredits the medications.  This appears desperate and ultimately serves to weaken her case.

“It was just assumed that since these drugs affected brain chemistry in a certain way, the opposite reaction must be the result of the disease, notwithstanding the fact that this has never been adequately proven.”

The history of medicine is littered with cures being found without the disease being fully understood. Take Edward Jenner, for example, who is the founder of the modern technique of vaccination. He didn’t know why his smallpox vaccine worked, only that it did. Electron microscopes and a modern understanding of the immune system were centuries away, but Jenner saved billions of lives through his observation that prior vaccination with a small sample of cowpox virus would protect against smallpox [12].

When amphetamines, known to increase dopamine concentrations in the brain, caused psychotic symptoms and reserpine, a dopamine blocker, improved psychosis, it stood to reason that dopamine was a good candidate as a cause of psychosis and schizophrenia. Decades of research have gone on to further confirm and delineate the link [7]. Again, this is not “an overly simplistic explanation of chemical imbalances”. It is well proven, and rather complex.

Dr Leaf also makes the astounding accusation that psychiatrists inflicted suffering and caused “a public health disaster” by creating the DSM. The DSM, the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’ is an agreed-upon standard classification for psychiatric diagnoses. It is nothing more than a system of classification. It allows psychiatrists and researchers to speak a common language and attempt some coherence among their diagnoses.

Dr Leaf wrote, “… institutions like the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM would define what is normal, in turn telling us what it means to suffer and, essentially, what it means to be human. They medicalized misery, and today millions are suffering because of their actions, creating a public health disaster.”

That’s like saying that classifying the different types of cancer causes cancer. And that millions of people are suffering from cancer because doctors know to call it ‘cancer’. People have been suffering long before the DSM came along. The DSM doesn’t tell people they’re suffering, and it certainly doesn’t define what it is to be human. Such statements are disingenuous and melodramatic.

But wait, there’s more. “Today a psychiatrist can be praised for drugging a depressed person with mind-altering substances and, if these do not work, institutionalizing them and shocking their brain with ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). It is even an acceptable and commonplace practice to imprison mentally ill persons, drug them and lock them in solitary confinement, compelling them to live their days marinating in their own excrement.”

Dr Leaf is again playing to the fears of the public who have watched too many movies and only think of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Shutter Island’ or scenes from ’12 Monkeys’. There are more oversight boards and lawyers than there are psychiatric patients, and the only people who are institutionalised are those who are clearly a danger to themselves or others. And while institutionalised, they are not subjected to random bouts of electrical shock as if some doctor is wandering around with a medical grade cattle prod, zapping people and laughing maniacally. Nor is anyone locked in solitary confinement and forced “to live their days marinating in their own excrement”.

The paranoid accusations continue some more. Dr Leaf accuses all psychiatrists of ignorance, and then accuses primary care physicians of negligence, by claiming that we prescribe medications that we do not understand because of the bribes and a pretty smile from a pharmaceutical rep.

Again, Dr Leaf contradicts her own argument:

Despite the recognition amongst many psychiatrists and medical health professionals that the chemical imbalance theory is not valid, drug companies like Eli Lilly still claim that ‘antipsychotic medicines are believed to work by balancing the chemical found naturally in the brain’.

Except that antipsychotic medications DO balance the naturally occurring chemical in the brain (dopamine) as we discussed earlier. What the … a drug company telling doctors how their drug works! How dare they tell the truth!

I find it disturbing that Dr Leaf would stoop so low as to insult the entire medical profession, especially every GP and family physician the world over.

Hey, I’m not above criticism. It’s important to have a good long look at ourselves from time to time, to review our practice, and make sure we’re treating our patients in the best possible way. The RACGP, the peak body of Australian GP’s, invited Prof Gøtzsche to present his opinions on anti-depressant medications so that GP’s could decide for themselves if they should adjust their prescribing.

But to suggest that primary care physicians are stupid, ignorant, incompetent and money hungry … that we would sell our soul for a drug company branded pen … is insulting. Though the irony of her statement, “we do not ask ourselves if these doctors really understand all the implications of using these substances. Not even the psychiatrists understand these drugs” is clearly lost on Dr Leaf.  It’s certainly clear from the rest of her essay that Dr Leaf has no idea how these medications work or what benefits they have for those who suffer from mental ill-health.

There’s a lot more to discuss in response to Dr Leaf’s diatribe, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll try and discuss just a couple of other important themes.

Dr Leaf continues to try to make the medications sound useless and poisonous. She has several paragraphs on the placebo effect, making the false argument that the effect of the medications is just because someone tells you it will work. Of course, the placebo effect is part of the therapeutic effect, but that’s the same for all treatments, even Dr Leaf’s programs … “So, if the pastor or cell-group leader says that these programs are safe and will fix your toxic thinking, even though they get most of their information from the author, we believe wholeheartedly in what he or she may say and are more inclined to believe the program will work for us. These beliefs, which ignore actual scientific results, are buttressed by a flood of distorted and biased news reports, press releases and scientific journal articles on supposed toxic thoughts, and have transformed the theory into church dogma. So, obviously, if we experience negative side effects and do not feel the program is working, it must be something wrong with us, not the program.” Is that a fair statement?

Dr Leaf then plays the fear card again by listing all of the potential side effects from psychiatric medications. Dr Leaf is right in saying that psychiatric medications have serious proven long term side effects, and we should be careful.

For instance, if you knew that thrombocytopenia, anaphylaxis, cutaneous hypersensitivity reactions including skin rashes, angioedema and Stevens Johnson syndrome, bronchospasm and hepatic dysfunction were the potential side effects for a medication, would you take it? Most people wouldn’t.  Reading the list makes that drug sound really dangerous.  We should be up in arms about such a potentially harmful drug being put up for sale … except that this list of side effects isn’t a psychiatric drug at all, but’s actually the side effect profile of paracetamol (acetaminophen in the US). People take paracetamol all the time without even thinking about it.

Saying that we shouldn’t take medications because of potential side effects is a scarecrow argument, a scary sounding straw man fallacy. All drugs have serious proven long term side effects. Licencing and prescribing a medication depends on the overall balance of the good and the harm that a medication does. And no one has ever hidden these side effects from the public as if there is a giant conspiracy from the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies. They’re right there in the product information (here is the product information for fluoxetine. See for yourself).

Whilst it’s true that these side effects do happen, we know that they happen infrequently, just like we know that people win lotteries infrequently. Even so, the medications are not just doled out like sweets at a candy store. You require a minimum of ten years of university level education to be able to prescribe them.

Patients ALWAYS have a right to ask questions about possible benefits and side effects, and in my practice, I tell my patients the pros and the cons before prescribing, and I give them the choice of whether they want them or not. No one is ever forced into taking them.

Finally, Dr Leaf makes a number of irrational statements and flawed arguments in her final page of ranting. Let me quickly go through some of the honourable mentions:

* “Most people recover from depression without antidepressants” – true, because most cases of depression are mild. That doesn’t mean to say that antidepressants shouldn’t be used for severe depression, just like most people recover from upper respiratory infections without antibiotics, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use antibiotics for severe tonsillitis or pneumonia.
* “Antidepressants are no better than placebos” – It’s a controversial topic right now. There are many pushing the barrow that SSRI medications are no better than a sugar pill. But Dr Leaf has conveniently ignored several Cochrane reviews (the best of medical evidence) that shows anti-depressants work for a variety of disorders [13-15], but that psychological therapy might not [16].
* Equating antidepressants and antipsychotics with illicit drugs, and claiming that “more people die from overdoses of psychiatric drugs than illicit drugs” – This is Reductio ad absurdum – the logical conclusion from this argument is that illicit drugs are safer than psychiatric drugs. And therefore we should not give people psychiatric drugs since we don’t give people the ‘safer’ illicit drugs. But that conclusion is absurd, and when you think about it, the whole thing is based on hidden false premises – people rarely die of illicit drug overdoses because they’re illegal and are hard to come by. And also, people who use illicit drugs are not usually suicidal, whereas those given psychiatric medications sometimes are suicidal, and sometimes use them to try and commit suicide. But modern psychiatric drugs are much less dangerous in overdose than their old counterparts.  It should also be noted here that more overdose suicide attempts are with paracetamol or ibuprofen than with psychiatric medications [19], but I don’t see paracetamol or ibuprofen being demonised.
* Psychiatric medications are part of a neo-liberal capitalist plot to keep the rich, richer and the poor, poorer – To me, this looks like Dr Leaf clutching at straws. Her statement, “By emphasizing that the problem lies within an individual’s biology, we are less inclined to look at their experiences and the social context of why they are feeling the way they feel. We look at the mythical chemical imbalance instead of economic exploitation, violence and inept political structures” is false.   Schizophrenia is often seriously discussed in terms of neurodevelopment and not just ‘chemical imbalances’ [17, 18]. So it’s just plain wrong to suggest that researchers don’t look at the “economic exploitation, violence and inept political structures”. Oh, and Dr Leaf suggests that foster children are abused because they’re all forced to take psychiatric medication, and implies that ADHD children are abused by being force-fed Ritalin because they “move a lot in class”. Again, these are emotional over-generalisations that have no basis in reality.

Dr Leaf seems lost.  She’s ignored solid published medical and scientific evidence in coming to an opinion based on the discontented rumblings of a few vocal but outspoken critics. In order to make her arguments, she has had to resort to borderline-slanderous ad hominem attacks on scientists and the medical profession, and purely emotional arguments based on fear and mistrust.

And this was only part one.  If Dr Leaf’s promised second part is anything like the first, we’re in for a real treat.

Though as if that wasn’t enough, by suggesting that psychiatric drugs cause changes in your brain, cause chemical imbalances, and cause that slew of negative side effects, Dr Leaf is admitting that it’s your brain that changes your thought life, which directly contradicts her most recent teachings. After all, if thought was the dominant force in your neurology and your mind controlled your brain, then the medications would have no effect since they’re physical and aren’t connected to our mind.

So which is it? Because if the brain controls our mind, then her best-seller needs to be pulped and refunds offered to the hundred of thousands of people who bought it. But on the other hand, if the mind really does control the brain, then her entire argument against psychiatric medications implodes.

Dr Leaf has painted herself into a corner and there’s still part two to come.


[1]        Prince J. Catecholamine dysfunction in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: an update. J Clin Psychopharmacol 2008 Jun;28(3 Suppl 2):S39-45.
[2]        Del Campo N, Chamberlain SR, Sahakian BJ, Robbins TW. The roles of dopamine and noradrenaline in the pathophysiology and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Biological psychiatry 2011 Jun 15;69(12):e145-57.
[3]        Cortese S. The neurobiology and genetics of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): what every clinician should know. European journal of paediatric neurology : EJPN : official journal of the European Paediatric Neurology Society 2012 Sep;16(5):422-33.
[4]        Haase J, Brown E. Integrating the monoamine, neurotrophin and cytokine hypotheses of depression–a central role for the serotonin transporter? Pharmacol Ther 2015 Mar;147:1-11.
[5]        Bus BA, Molendijk ML, Tendolkar I, et al. Chronic depression is associated with a pronounced decrease in serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor over time. Molecular psychiatry 2015 May;20(5):602-8.
[6]        Sousa CN, Meneses LN, Vasconcelos GS, et al. Reversal of corticosterone-induced BDNF alterations by the natural antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid alone and combined with desvenlafaxine: Emphasis on the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression. Psychiatry research 2015 Sep 1.
[7]        Howes OD, Fusar-Poli P, Bloomfield M, Selvaraj S, McGuire P. From the prodrome to chronic schizophrenia: the neurobiology underlying psychotic symptoms and cognitive impairments. Curr Pharm Des 2012;18(4):459-65.
[8]        Williams GV, Castner SA. Under the curve: critical issues for elucidating D1 receptor function in working memory. Neuroscience 2006 Apr 28;139(1):263-76.
[9]        Der-Avakian A, Markou A. The neurobiology of anhedonia and other reward-related deficits. Trends Neurosci 2012 Jan;35(1):68-77.
[10]      Leucht S, Tardy M, Komossa K, et al. Antipsychotic drugs versus placebo for relapse prevention in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2012 Jun 2;379(9831):2063-71.
[11]      Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.
[12]      Riedel S. Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent) 2005 Jan;18(1):21-5.
[13]      Arroll B, Elley CR, Fishman T, et al. Antidepressants versus placebo for depression in primary care. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2009(3):CD007954.
[14]      Soomro GM, Altman D, Rajagopal S, Oakley-Browne M. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) versus placebo for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2008(1):CD001765.
[15]      Kapczinski F, Lima MS, Souza JS, Schmitt R. Antidepressants for generalized anxiety disorder. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2003(2):CD003592.
[16]      Jakobsen JC, Lindschou Hansen J, Storebo OJ, Simonsen E, Gluud C. The effects of cognitive therapy versus ‘treatment as usual’ in patients with major depressive disorder. PloS one 2011;6(8):e22890.
[17]      van Os J, Linscott RJ, Myin-Germeys I, Delespaul P, Krabbendam L. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the psychosis continuum: evidence for a psychosis proneness-persistence-impairment model of psychotic disorder. Psychological medicine 2009 Feb;39(2):179-95.
[18]      Howes OD, Murray RM. Schizophrenia: an integrated sociodevelopmental-cognitive model. Lancet 2014 May 10;383(9929):1677-87.
[19]     Prescott K, Stratton R, Freyer A, Hall I, Le Jeune I. Detailed analyses of self-poisoning episodes presenting to a large regional teaching hospital in the UK. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2009 Aug;68(2):260-8.


  1. Do not abruptly stop any medications that you are taking. Talk to your licenced physician first. They’re not all money-hungry, imbecilic drug-company bitches. Most of them actually know what they’re talking about.
  2. For the record, I declare that I have no connection with any pharmaceutical company. I do not accept gratuities of any form from any sales representative. I don’t eat their food, I don’t take their pens, and I don’t listen to their sales pitches

The significance of thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]        Sukel K. The Synapse – A Primer. 2013 [cited 2013 28/06/2013]; Available from: http://www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=31294

Dr Caroline Leaf – Thoughts are real. So what?

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Today’s meme from Dr Leaf is one of her favourite, often repeated phrases:

“Thoughts are real and occupy mental real estate.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her entire preaching empire rests on her assumption that our thinking is the driving force of not just our mental health but also our physical health, and even physical matter!

No one’s denying that thoughts are real. The key issue is not whether thoughts are real, but what thoughts really are.

Professor Bernard J. Baars is an Affiliate Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California. He is a real cognitive neuroscientist. In the late 1980’s, Professor Baars built on Baddeley’s model of working memory by proposed the Global Workspace theory [1]. Together with Professor Stan Franklin, also a real cognitive neuroscientist (and a mathematician and computer scientist) at the University of Memphis, they took the Global Workspace theory further with the Intelligent Distribution Agent model [2]. Central to this model is the “Cognitive Cycle”, a nine-step description of the underlying process from perception through to action. In the model, implicit neural information processing is considered to be a continuing stream of cognitive cycles, overlapping so they act in parallel. The conscious broadcast of our thought stream is limited to a single cognitive cycle at any given instant, so while these thought cycles run in in parallel, our awareness of them is in the serial, sometimes disparate, streams of words or pictures in our minds. Baars and Franklin suggests that about ten cycles could be running per second, and since working-memory tasks occur on the order of seconds, several cognitive cycles may be needed for any given working memory task, especially if it has conscious components such as mental rehearsal [2].

In recent years, the Global Workspace/Intelligent Distribution Agent hypothesis has been updated to help facilitate the quest to create different forms of artificial intelligence. The LIDA (“Learning Intelligent Distribution Agent”) model incorporates the Global Workspace theory with the concepts of memory formation to create a single, broad, systems-level model of the mind.

Franklin et al summarise the process, “During each cognitive cycle the LIDA agent first makes sense of its current situation as best as it can by updating its representation of its current situation, both external and internal. By a competitive process, as specified by Global Workspace Theory, it then decides what portion of the represented situation is the most salient, the most in need of attention. Broadcasting this portion, the current contents of consciousness, enables the agent to chose an appropriate action and execute it, completing the cycle.” [3]

Information within the cognitive cycle is broadcast to our consciousness in order to recruit a wider area of the brain to enhance the processing of that information [2, 4]. It’s the broadcasting of this portion of the information flow that renders it “conscious”.

So thought is nothing more than a broadcast of one part of a deeper flow of information. In the same way that a projection on a movie screen is a real series of images of a historical or fictional event, but not the actual event, so thoughts are a real but are just a projection of the deeper information stream within the brain.

This is very important, as it means that thought is not an instigator or a controlling force. It’s not a case of, “I think, therefore, I am”, but, “I am, therefore, I think.

So Dr Leaf is right, thoughts are real. So what? Thoughts are just a projection, a function of the brain. They are not independent of the brain and they do not control the brain. And they definitely don’t control physical matter.

In posting things like todays meme, Dr Leaf is proving just how far her assumptions are from the work of real cognitive neuroscientists, while misdirecting her audience, duping them into believing that her tenuous speculation is scientific fact.


[1]        Baars BJ. A cognitive theory of consciousness. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
[2]        Baars BJ, Franklin S. How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in cognitive sciences 2003 Apr;7(4):166-72.
[3]        Franklin S, Strain S, McCall R, Baars B. Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence 2013;4(2):1-22.
[4]        Baars BJ. Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research 2005;150:45-53.