Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Blameless Brain

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When I came back to Facebook this morning, I found this from Dr Leaf on my feed,

“Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. Her post follows her theme of the last couple of weeks, the premise that the mind is the dominant cognitive force, controlling the physical brain, and indeed, all matter. I have written about the Myth of Mind Domination in a previous blog. But Dr Leaf’s latest offering here deserves special attention.

Lets think about her statement in more detail:

“Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions.”

What Dr Leaf is really saying is that the physical brain has no role in your choices or behaviour whatsoever, because if your physical brain had a role in the decisions and actions you make, it would also carry some blame for your poor decisions and actions.

“You control your brain.”

The question to ask here is, “Which part of ‘you’ controls your brain?” Her answer would be, “Your mind”, although she never says where the mind is. Certainly not in the physical brain or even in our physical body, since “Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around.” [1: p33].

So an ethereal, disembodied force is in full control of our physical body, such that our brain has no role in the decisions we make or actions we take. Even at this stage of analysis, Dr Leaf’s statement is ludicrous. But wait, there’s more.

Dr Leaf’s statement puts her at odds with real Cognitive Neuroscientists. Professor Patrick Haggard is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London. He has authored or co-authored over 350 peer-reviewed articles on the neuroscience of making choices. He writes, “Modern neuroscience rejects the traditional dualist view of volition as a causal chain from the conscious mind or ‘soul’ to the brain and body. Rather, volition involves brain networks making a series of complex, open decisions between alternative actions.” [2] Strike one for Dr Leaf.

Dr Leaf’s statement puts her at odds with herself. Two weeks ago when misinterpreting James 1:21, Dr Leaf wrote, “How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions.” Perception is classically defined in neurobiology as conscious sensory experience [3: p8] although the work of cognitive neuroscientists has shown that perception can also be non-conscious [4, 5]. Either way, perception is based entirely on processing within the brain [3: p6-11]. So one week, Dr Leaf is saying that our brain determines how we behave, and then ten days later, she is telling us that our brain does not determine how we behave. Which is it? Strike two for Dr Leaf.

Finally, Dr Leaf’s statement is borderline insulting to the sufferers of congenital or acquired brain disorders. Would you tell a stroke patient that they shouldn’t blame their physical brain for their immobility, because they’re mind is in control of their brain? What about a child with Cerebral Palsy? Would you tell a mother of a child with Downs Syndrome that their child is having recurrent seizures because they aren’t using their mind properly to control their brain? Dr Leaf is doing exactly that. I find it incredible that she could be so insensitive, given her background as a speech pathologist working with patients with Acquired Brain Injury.

I imagine that her defence would be something along the lines of, “What I meant was, ‘don’t blame your normal physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your functional brain.’” That sort of explanation would be less insulting to people with strokes or brain injuries, but it then undermines her whole premise. The hierarchy of the brain and the mind doesn’t change just because a part of the brain is damaged.

Besides, changes to brain function at any level can change the way a person thinks and behaves. The classic example was Phineas Gage, who in 1848, accidentally blasted an iron rod through his skull, damaging his left frontal lobe. History records that Gage’s well-mannered, pleasant demeanour changed suddenly into a fitful, irreverent, obstinate and capricious man whose workmates could no longer stand him [6]. Medical science has documented numerous cases of damage to the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex causing acquired sociopathy [7]. How can the mind be in control of the brain when an injury to the brain causes a sudden change in thought pattern and behaviour? Clearly one CAN blame the physical brain for one’s decisions and actions. Strike three. You’re out.

Dr Leaf is welcome to comment here. Perhaps she meant something completely different by her post, although there’s only so many ways that such a statement can be interpreted.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf’s love of posting pithy memes of dubious quality is now getting embarrassing. Being so far behind the knowledge of a subject in which she claims expertise is ignominious. Undermining her own premise and contradicting herself is just plain embarrassing. But to be so insensitive to some of the most vulnerable is poor form. I think she’d be well served by re-examining her facts and adjusting her teaching.

References

  1. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  3. Goldstein, E.B., Sensation and perception. 8th ed. 2010, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA:
  4. Kouider, S. and Dehaene, S., Levels of processing during non-conscious perception: a critical review of visual masking. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2007. 362(1481): 857-75 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2007.2093
  5. Tamietto, M. and de Gelder, B., Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2010. 11(10): 697-709 doi: 10.1038/nrn2889
  6. Fumagalli, M. and Priori, A., Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality. Brain, 2012. 135(Pt 7): 2006-21 doi: 10.1093/brain/awr334
  7. Mendez, M.F., The neurobiology of moral behavior: review and neuropsychiatric implications. CNS Spectr, 2009. 14(11): 608-20 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20173686

 

Dr Caroline Leaf on James 1:21 – Redux

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

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

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

Lets recap: James 1:21 says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE (17/6/2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Caroline Leaf on James 1:21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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