Understanding Thought – Part 1

WHAT IS THOUGHT?

We’re all familiar with thought, to be sure, just like we’re familiar with our own bodies. But just because we know our own bodies doesn’t make us all doctors. In the same way, we might know our own thoughts well, but that doesn’t make us experts in the science of thought.

But understanding thought is important. If we don’t know what thoughts are, then it’s very easy to be conned into believing the myriad of myths about thought perpetuated about them by every pop-psychologist and B-grade life coach.

This series of blogs is taken from my book Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. We will look at some basic neurobiology first, then look at the neurobiology of thought itself. We’ll discuss some psychological models of our thought processing, and finally we’ll discuss the common brain states and functions that are usually confused with thought.

Neurobiology 101

The nerve cell

At the most fundamental level of our thought process is the nerve cell, also called a neuron. Nerve cells, like all cells in the body, have a nucleus containing the genetic material. The nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasm, a watery chemical soup that contains the functional proteins that make the cell run. A thin lipid layer called the cell membrane envelopes the nucleus and cytoplasm. The cell membrane contains important protein structures such as receptors that help the cell receive signals from other cells, and ion channels, which help the cell regulate its internal chemistry.

Compared to other 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.

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).

There are a number of different chemicals that traverse synapses, but each terminal button has its own particular one. The most well known are serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.

If the signal from the first nerve is strong enough, then a critical amount of the chemical is released and will make it across the gap to the dendrites of the second nerve cell on the other side. The chemical interacts with specific receptors on the new dendrites, which cause them to open up to certain salts like sodium and potassium. As sodium and potassium move in and out of the cell, a new electrical current if formed in the second nerve cell, passing the signal down the line.

To prevent the chemicals in the synapse from over-stimulating the second nerve cell, enzymes breakdown the chemicals to clear the space before the next signal comes past.

Nerve pathways

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]. And that’s not including the nerve cells and synapses in the spinal cord, autonomic nervous system and throughout the body. 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.

Single nerve cells may have the appearances of trees with their axon trunks and dendritic branches. But altogether, the billions of connections would more resemble a box of cobwebs.

Higher order brain structures

But unlike a box of cobwebs, the brain has precise organisation to the myriad of connections. These areas can be defined either by their structure, or by their function.

Structurally, there are areas in the brain that are dominated by nerve cell bodies, formed into a little cluster, called a nucleus (different from the nucleus of each cell). Then there are groups of axons bundled together, called a tract, which behave like a data cable for your computer. Nuclei process multiple sources of signal and refine them. The refined signals are sent into the appropriate tract to be transmitted to either another set of nuclei for further refinement, or to distant structures to carry out their effect. The axons of the nerve cells that make up the tracts are usually covered in a thick white material called myelin. Myelin acts like insulation on a wire, improving the speed and accuracy of the communicated signal. Parts of the brains with lots of myelinated cells are described as “white matter”. The nuclei and the cerebral cortex (the outer covering of the brain) are unmyelinated cells, and are referred to as “grey matter”.

On a functional level, the brain is divided into parts depending on what information is processed, and how it gets processed. For example, the cerebral cortex is divided into primary areas for the senses and for motor functions, secondary areas and tertiary association areas. The primary sensory areas detect specific sensations, whereas the secondary areas make sense out of the signals in the primary areas. Association areas receive and analyze signals simultaneously from multiple regions of both the motor and sensory areas, as well as from the deeper parts of the brain [2]. The frontal lobe, and specifically pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for higher brain functions such as working memory, planning, decision making, executive attention and inhibitory control [3].

Everything our senses detect is essentially deconstructed, processed then reconstructed by our brains. For example, when reading this page, the image is decoded by our retina and sent through a number of pathways to finally reach the primary visual cortex at the back of our brain. The primary visual cortex has 6 layers of nerve cells which simultaneously encode the various aspects of the image (especially colour, intensity and movement of the signals) and this information is sent to the secondary association areas that detect patterns, both basic (lines are straight, curved, angled) and complex (two diagonal intersecting lines form an ‘x’). One part of the secondary association areas in the visual cortex (the Angular Gyrus) processes these patterns further into the patterns of written words. The information on the various patterns that were discerned by the secondary association areas then get sent to the tertiary association area for the senses where those visual patterns are combined with patterns processed from other sensory areas (hearing, touch and internal body sensations) to form a complex pattern of multimodal association [2]. In the case of reading, the tertiary association area allows comprehension of the written words that were previously only recognised as words by the secondary association areas.

In the recent decades, with the widespread adoption of non-invasive methods of studying the active living brain such as PET scanning and fMRI, researchers have discovered that rather than discrete parts of the brain lighting up with a specific task, entire networks involving multiple brain regions are activated. This has lead to the paradigm of neurocognitive networks, in which the brain is made up of multiple interconnected networks that “are dynamic entities that exist and evolve on multiple temporal as well as spatial scales” and “by virtue of both their anatomical and functional architectures, as well as the dynamics manifested through these architectures, large-scale network function underlies all cognitive ability.” [4]

Emotions and feelings

Emotions are a difficult concept to define. Despite being studied as a concept for more than a century, the definition of what constitutes an emotion remains elusive. Some academics and researchers believe that the term is so ambiguous that it’s useless to science and should be discarded [5].

I’ll discuss emotions further in chapter 2, but for now, it’s easiest to think of our emotional state as the sum total of our different physiological systems, and feelings are the awareness, or the perception of our emotional state.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for the awareness of these feelings. The amygdala is often considered the seat of our fears, the anterior insula is responsible for the feeling of disgust, and the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex are involved in a broad range of different emotions [6].

Different emotional states are linked with different neurotransmitters within the brain. For example, a predisposition to anxiety is often linked to variations in the genes for serotonin transport [7] while positive and negative affect (“joy / sadness”) are linked to the dopaminergic system [8].

Memories

Memories, like thoughts, are something that we’re all familiar with in our own way.

Memory is quite complicated. For a start, there’s more than one form of memory. You’ve probably heard of short term and long term memory. Short term memory is further thought of as sensory memory and working memory. Long term memory is divided into semantic and episodic memory. Memory is also classified as either declarative memory, also called explicit memory, and nondeclarative memory, also called implicit memory.

Squire and Wixted explain, “Nondeclarative memory is neither true nor false. It is dispositional and is expressed through performance rather than recollection. These forms of memory provide for myriad unconscious ways of responding to the world. In no small part, by virtue of the unconscious status of the nondeclarative forms of memory, they create some of the mystery of human experience. Here arise the dispositions, habits, and preferences that are inaccessible to conscious recollection but that nevertheless are shaped by past events, influence our behavior and mental life, and are an important part of who we are.” [9]

On the other hand, declarative memory “is the kind of memory that is referred to when the term memory is used in everyday language. Declarative memory allows remembered material to be compared and contrasted. The stored representations are flexible, accessible to awareness, and can guide performance in a variety of contexts. Declarative memory is representational. It provides a way of modeling the external world, and it is either true or false.” [9]

Working memory is a central part of the memory model. Information from feelings, stored memories and actions all converge in working memory. The model of working memory initially proposed by Baddeley involves a central executive, “a control system of limited attentional capacity that is responsible for the manipulation of information within working memory and for controlling two subsidiary storage systems: a phonological loop and a visuospatial sketchpad.”[10] Baddeley later added a third subsidiary system, the episodic buffer, “a limited capacity store that is capable of multi-dimensional coding, and that allows the binding of information to create integrated episodes.” [10]

Working memory is known to be distinct from other longer term memories that are dependent on part of the brain called the hippocampus, because patients with severe damage to the hippocampus can remember a small amount of information for a short time, but are not able to push that information into longer term memory functions to retain that information. Information in working memory doesn’t last for any more than a few minutes [9].

So, there are many forms of memory that are important to our lives and influence our behaviour that are “inaccessible to conscious recollection”. But even declarative memory, which is accessible to thought, doesn’t actually make up the thought itself. Memories are stored representations.

When memories are formed or retrieved, the information is processed in chunks. As Byrne pointed out, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored). But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers. The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [11] Recalling the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes these pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [12]. This is why what we perceive and what we recall are often two different things entirely.

Why do we have memory then, if it’s so flawed at recalling information? Because memory is less about recalling the past, and more about imagining and planning the future. As Schacter writes, “The constructive episodic simulation hypothesis states that a critical function of a constructive memory system is to make information available in a flexible manner for simulation of future events. Specifically, the hypothesis holds that past and future events draw on similar information and rely on similar underlying processes, and that the episodic memory system supports the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event. While this adaptive function allows past information to be used flexibly when simulating alternative future scenarios, the flexibility of memory may also result in vulnerability to imagination-induced memory errors, where imaginary events are confused with actual events.” [13]

References

  1. Sukel, K. The Synapse – A Primer. 2013 [cited 2013, 28/06/2013]; Available from: http://www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=31294.
  2. Hall, J.E. and Guyton, A.C., Guyton and Hall textbook of medical physiology. 12th ed. 2011, Saunders/Elsevier, Philadelphia, Pa.:
  3. Stuss, D.T. and Knight, R.T., Principles of frontal lobe function. 2nd ed. 2013, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York:
  4. Meehan, T.P. and Bressler, S.L., Neurocognitive networks: findings, models, and theory. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2012. 36(10): 2232-47 doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.08.002
  5. Dixon, T., “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis. Emot Rev, 2012. 4(4): 338-44 doi: 10.1177/1754073912445814
  6. 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
  7. Caspi, A., et al., Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 2010. 167(5): 509-27 doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452
  8. Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20
  9. Squire, L.R. and Wixted, J.T., The cognitive neuroscience of human memory since H.M. Annu Rev Neurosci, 2011. 34: 259-88 doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-061010-113720
  10. Repovs, G. and Baddeley, A., The multi-component model of working memory: explorations in experimental cognitive psychology. Neuroscience, 2006. 139(1): 5-21 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.12.061
  11. Byrne, J.H. Learning and Memory (Section 4, Chapter 7). Neuroscience Online – an electronic textbook for the neurosciences 2013 [cited 2014, Jan 3]; Available from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.
  12. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  13. Schacter, D.L., et al., The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron, 2012. 76(4): 677-94 doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.11.001

Dr Caroline Leaf – Exacerbating the Stigma of Mental Illness

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It was late in the afternoon, you know, that time when the caffeine level has hit critical and the only way you can concentrate on the rest of the day is the promise you’ll be going home soon.

The person sitting in front of me was a new patient, a professional young woman in her late 20’s, of Pakistani descent. She wasn’t keen to discuss her problems, but she didn’t know what else to do. After talking to her for a few minutes, it was fairly obvious that she was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and I literally mean suffering. She was always fearful but without any reason to be so. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, her heart raced all the time.

I was actually really worried for her. She let me do some basic tests to rule out any physical cause that was contributing to her symptoms, but that was as far as she let me help her. Despite talking at length about her diagnosis, she could not accept the fact that she had a psychiatric condition, and did not accept any treatment for it. She chose not to follow up with me either. I only saw her twice.

Perhaps it was fear for her job, social isolation, or a cultural factor. Perhaps it was the anxiety itself. Whatever the reason, despite having severe ongoing symptoms, she could not accept that she was mentally ill. She was a victim twice over, suffering from both mental illness, and its stigma.

Unfortunately, this young lady is not an isolated case. Stigma follows mental illness like a shadow, an extra layer of unnecessary suffering, delaying proper diagnosis and treatment of diseases that respond best to early intervention.

What contributes to the stigma of mental illness? Fundamentally, the stigma of mental illness is based on ignorance. Ignorance breeds stereotypes, stereotypes give rise to prejudice, and prejudice results in discrimination. This ignorance usually takes three main forms; people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled; or they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character [1].

Poor information from people who claim to be experts doesn’t help either. For example, on her social media feed today, Dr Caroline Leaf said, “Psychiatric labels lock people into mental ill-health; recognizing the mind can lead us into trouble and that our mind is powerful enough to lead us out frees us! 2 Timothy1:7 Teaching on mental health @TrinaEJenkins 1st Baptist Glenardin.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. It’s disturbing enough that Dr Leaf, who did not train in cognitive neuroscience, medicine or psychology, can stand up in front of people and lecture as an “expert” in mental health. It’s even more disturbing when her views on mental health are antiquated and inane.

Today’s post, for example. Suggesting that psychiatric labels lock people in to mental ill-health is like saying that a medical diagnosis locks them into physical ill-health. It’s a nonsense. Does diagnosing someone with cancer lock them into cancer? It’s the opposite, isn’t it? Once the correct diagnosis is made, a person with cancer can receive the correct treatment. Failing to label the symptoms correctly simply allows the disease to continue unabated.

Mental illness is no different. A correct label opens the door to the correct treatment. Avoiding a label only results in an untreated illness, and more unnecessary suffering.

Dr Leaf’s suggestion that psychiatric labels lock people in to their illness is born out of a misguided belief about the power of words over our thoughts and our health in general, an echo of the pseudo-science of neuro-linguistic programming.

The second part of her post, that “recognizing the mind can lead us into trouble and that our mind is powerful enough to lead us out frees us” is also baseless. Her assumptions, that thought is the main driving force that controls our lives, and that fixing our thought patterns fixes our physical and psychological health, are fundamental to all of her teaching. I won’t go into it again here, but further information on how Dr Leaf’s theory of toxic thinking contradicts basic neuroscience can be found in a number of my blogs, and in the second half of my book [2].

I’ve also written on 2 Timothy 1:7 before, another of Dr Leaf’s favourite scriptures, a verse whose meaning has nothing to do with mental health, but seized upon by Dr Leaf because one English translation of the original Greek uses the words “a sound mind”.

So Dr Leaf believes that labelling someone as having a mental illness will lock them into that illness, an outdated, unscientific and purely illogical notion that is only going to increase the stigma of mental illness. If I were @TrinaEJenkins and the good parishioners of 1st Baptist Glenardin, I would be asking for my money back.

With due respect, and in all seriousness, the stigma of mental illness is already disproportionate. Mental illness can cause insurmountable suffering, and sometimes death, to those who are afflicted by it. The Christian church does not need misinformation compounding the suffering for those affected by poor mental health. Dr Leaf should not be lecturing anyone on mental health until she has been properly credentialed.

References

  1. Corrigan, P.W. and Watson, A.C., Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 2002. 1(1): 16-20 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16946807
  2. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848

Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of the myth of multitasking

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Can you successfully multitask?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, multi-tasking is a myth.

Actually, Dr Leaf isn’t completely wrong. Her factoid is so vague that there may be some truth in it somewhere. The problem with teaching via vague factoid is that no one can apply anything from it. If we were to take Dr Leaf’s statement as a specific teaching or advice, then we would be misled.

Why? Because it all comes down to how you define ‘multi-tasking’.

I have a couple of patients in a nursing home, two old ladies who sit on a balcony in the sun, knitting and talking at the same time. Isn’t that multi-tasking? Think of what you do every day. How often are you doing something menial while doing something requiring a bit more attention? How often do you have a conversation with your passenger while your driving? Isn’t that multi-tasking? When you get up in the morning and you are able to make a cup of tea and some breakfast at the same time, read some of the paper or your e-mails while you’re eating your breakfast at the same time, etc. Isn’t that multi-tasking?

We multi-task all the time. If we had to do everything in a linear, sequential fashion, we would never get anything done. We are able to multi-task because routine tasks have become largely habitualised by our brains and don’t need lots of processing power to complete. Hence why we can do something as complex a driving a car while still talking to our passenger or listening to music. Certain occupations, such as air-traffic control, involve high levels of multi-tasking [1].

When a task is new and/or complicated, our brains need to utilise our resources of attention to properly process the information required by the task. There is only so much that our working memory can handle. Our working memory uses tricks to handle larger amounts of information through a process called “chunking” [2] but there is still a finite limit. Performing two or more cognitively demanding tasks at the same time is difficult, and the brain can often cope by shifting tasks, although there is always a price to pay for this [3].

So it is true that there are some tasks that require more of the cognitive capacity of the brain to process. The higher the cognitive load, the more capacity needed, and the less likely that the brain will be able to multi-task with it. Thus, it’s reasonable to suggest that we can’t multi-task all of the time with every task we have to perform (although the more we do a task, the more habitual it becomes, thus reducing the cognitive load of the task, and increasing our ability to multi-task it).

However it’s misleading to say that we can’t multi-task at all. It’s a myth that multi-tasking is a myth. Dr Leaf’s comment that, “Paying attention to one task at a time is the correct way”, isn’t a summary of the neuroscience of attention, but a subjective statement based on her grandiose pretension. There is no objective evidence that “one task at a time” offers generally applicable benefit.

So don’t be afraid of multi-tasking. Just know your limits.

References

  1. Nelson, J.T., et al., Enhancing vigilance in operators with prefrontal cortex transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Neuroimage, 2014. 85 Pt 3: 909-17 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.11.061
  2. Bor, D. and Seth, A.K., Consciousness and the prefrontal parietal network: insights from attention, working memory, and chunking. Front Psychol, 2012. 3: 63 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00063
  3. Monsell, S., Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 2003. 7(3): 134-40

Dr Caroline Leaf and the cart-before-the-horse conundrum

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A chaotic mind filled with thoughts of anxiety, worry, etc. sends out the wrong signal right down to the level of our DNA

So says Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.

Her Facebook factoids have varied in their quality lately, ranging from the almost reasonable, down to the outright ridiculous. Today’s contribution rates an 8.5 out of 10 on the pseudoscience scale.

The reason why it rates so high is for the same reason why many of her factoids, and indeed nearly all her teaching, rates the same: Dr Leaf has the relationship between the brain and the mind back to front.  Dr Leaf squarely puts the proverbial cart before the horse.

One would think if you were going to claim to be a cognitive neuroscientist, you would at least get the basic facts right. But Dr Leaf’s teaching, from her first book through to her last, is based on this idea that it’s the mind that is in control of the brain, hence why she thinks that thoughts can be so toxic.

Dr Leaf’s entire teaching heavily rests on her fallacious assumption that the mind is in control of the brain. Thoughts are only important if the mind controls the brain. Toxic thoughts can only affect our health if the mind controls the body. Controlling toxic thoughts is only worthwhile if our mind can influence our brain and body in positive or negative ways.

The problem for Dr Leaf is that there is no credible scientific evidence that the mind controls the brain. The only evidence she does tend to proffer is based on the work of other pseudoscientists, or she misinterprets or misquotes real scientific data to fit her erroneous working theory. For example, Dr Leaf refers to a paper titled, “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA” [1]. She says that this paper is, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation (which) determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [2: p111] Actually, the experiment was based on faulty assumptions, and so full of flaws in their methodology and analysis, that it could show nothing at all [3]. All it could prove was that Dr Leaf was so desperate to grasp hold of anything that seemed to support her theory that she was willing to use a twenty-year-old study from a group of pseudoscientists that also believe in occult practices like ESP and telekinesis (http://psychotronics.org).

The concept that we have a soul that’s separate to, and controls our brain, is called dualism. Modern science gave up on dualism a long time ago. While psychological sciences have been slower to give up on the idea of our thoughts as influential, no credible scientist still holds on to the idea that we have an ethereal force that controls our biology. Dualism is untenable both scientifically and philosophically [4].

The reality is the exact opposite to what Dr Leaf teaches. Our brain is responsible for all of the functions that are traditionally associated with the mind/soul/spirit. For more in depth information, please see my essay: Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis. Therefore, a “chaotic mind filled with thoughts of anxiety, worry, etc” doesn’t send signals down to our DNA. It’s our DNA and the many steps in it’s expression, and the interaction of our biology and our environment, that then causes our minds to be worried, anxious, chaotic etc.

Dr Leaf is welcome to hold any view she likes, but she cannot claim to be a cognitive neuroscientist while holding a view that is directly contradicted by actual cognitive neuroscience. Nor should she be welcome to speak as an expert when she clearly is not one.

For the sake of her audiences and the Christian church as a whole, Dr Leaf needs to revise her teaching and bring it into line with the facts established by real cognitive neuroscientists.

References

  1. Rein, G. and McCraty, R. Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA. in Proc. Joint USPA/IAPR Psychotronics Conf., Milwaukee, WI. 1993.
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  3. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848
  4. Bunge, M., The Mind-Body Problem, in Matter and Mind. 2010, Springer Netherlands. p. 143-57.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the brain control misstatement

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“Always give credit where credit’s due.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist, and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Yesterday, Dr Leaf made a couple of carefully worded statements on her social media feeds, which given the quality of her previous couple of neuroscience-based factoids, is a definite improvement.

First, she said that, “Your brain is being continuously rewired throughout your life …”. Yep, I can’t disagree with that one. The brain is a very dynamic tissue, constantly remodelling the synaptic wiring to process the information it receives on a daily basis. That’s why the brain is referred to as ‘plastic’, reflecting the property of plastic to be moulded into any shape.

Her next offering sounds really good too. It’s full of encouragement, positivity and hope … the classic feel-good quote: “You can bring your brain under your control, on the path to a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life.” Whether it’s true or not depends on how literally you interpret it.

If you loosely interpret it, then it sounds ok. Sure, we have some control over how we act, and if we live our life in the direction dictated by our values, then we will have a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life. Modern psychological theory and therapies confirm this [1].

However, what Dr Leaf actually said was, “You can bring your brain under your control”. Having some control over our actions is entirely different to bringing our brain under our control. We can control some of our actions, but we don’t control our brain any more than we ‘control’ our car.

When we say that we’re ‘controlling’ the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control, tic disorders for example. These can range from simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) to complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Another common example are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, or sleep eating.

The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control. Our brain is driving, our stream of thought just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much to upset that veneer of control we think we possess.

Ultimately, our brain is still responsible for our action. We don’t have a separate soul that is able to control our brain. Any decisions that we make are the result of our brain deciding on the most appropriate course of action and enacting it [2] (and see also ‘Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis‘ for a more in-depth discussion on the subject of dualism). Therefore, we can’t ever bring our brain under control.

This is important because if we believe that we can bring our brain under control, then by simple logical extension, we can control everything our brain is responsible for – our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our memory, and every single action we make. This is Dr Leaf’s ultimate guiding philosophy, though it’s not how our neurobiology works. If we were to believe that we control our thoughts and feelings, we set up an unwinnable struggle against our very nature, like trying to fight the tides.

We are not in control of all our thoughts, feelings, emotions or all of our actions, and neither do we have to be. We just need to make room for our uncomfortable emotions, feelings and thoughts, and to move in the direction of those things we value.

So if you were to take Dr Leaf at her word, she still missed the mark with her post. It sounds ok in a very general sense, but closer inspection reveals a subtle but significant error.

Giving credit where credit’s due, Dr Leaf has tried to tighten up her social media statements. It’s commendable, but unfortunately she needs to bring her underlying philosophy closer to the accepted scientific position to further improve the quality of her teaching.

References

  1. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Profound Simplicity Paradox

It was a guy called Charles Bukowski that said once, ‘Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way’. It always grabs our attention when something is said that’s easy to understand, yet deeply meaningful. The simple yet profound juxtaposition draws our attention and exercises our cognition in a way that nothing else seems to match. Those that are able to utter pervasive truth in a few syllables are elevated to gurus, and their pearls of wisdom are endlessly reposted on Pinterest and Facebook.

Of course, for something to be profound, it doesn’t just need to be deep, but also true.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her social media feeds are littered with Pinterest profundities, and she adds her own sometimes for good measure. Today, she shared something which I’m sure she thinks is one of those strokes of genius that Charles Bukowski was talking about,

“What we say and do is based on what we have already built into our minds.”

Well, her statement is simple, but it’s certainly not profound. It’s a paint-by-numbers version of the neuroscience of behaviour, based on her underlying assumption that we are in full control of every thought and action that we ever have or do.

It’s nice story to tell. It seems to fit with our experience of our thoughts and of the attribution of every action we take with our feeling of conscious volition. It’s just that it’s not what real neuroscientists actually tell us is going on in our brain.

Our thoughts and our actions are based on a number of things, mostly beyond our conscious control. This is because our perception, physiological responses, and personalities are all strongly genetically determined, our memory systems are predominantly subconscious, and so is the vast majority of the processing our brain does on a second-by-second basis. Our thoughts and our feeling of our conscious ‘free will’ are the subconscious brain simply projecting a small sliver of that information stream to a wider area of the cerebral cortex for fine-tuning (I discuss this in much more detail in chapters 1, 2 and 6 of my book).

So what we say and do is not based on just based on what we have already built into our minds, because our actions are largely built on our genetics and our subconscious memories, which we don’t necessarily have control over either.

There will be some people who think that this sounds like a cop-out, just an excuse to avoid responsibility for our own actions. I would argue that this actually refines our responsibility to that which we can change, taking the focus away from those things that we cannot change. For example, there’s no point in suggesting that I’m a bad father because I can’t breastfeed my children. This is an extreme example of course, but chiding someone for not doing something that they can’t do because of their genetic predisposition is no different.

Rather than focusing unnecessary effort on trying to change what cannot be changed, we should look to work on the things that can be changed. Even then, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take a long time to learn something that another person might pick up straight away.

It’s also important for people to understand that not everything you struggle with is related to your poor choices. There’s no point in wrestling with something that isn’t going to move. All you do is tire yourself, sapping you of energy that you could be using to effect change on the things you do have power over.

So on the surface, Dr Leaf’s statement may be simple, but it’s ultimately erroneous. Instead of being liberating, it can actually be oppressing. Those who are looking for something profound would be better served looking somewhere else on Pinterest.

Reference:
Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848

Dr Caroline Leaf and Picking Cherries

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When it comes to fruit, I’m a bit picky. Cherries are one of my least favourite. It makes things difficult at times. I’m no good with Black Forest cake or with traditional Christmas goodies like Christmas pudding or rumballs. I guess that’s a good thing, one less thing to be tempted by.

Some fruit can be picked a little unripe, because it will still ripen after it’s picked. Cherries are a bit more delicate. Apparently when it comes to picking cherries, the key is to pick only the ripest fruit and leave the rest on the tree.

In science, “cherry picking” is a colloquial expression for the practice of selectively picking or presenting only the information that agrees with your personal theory, ignoring the rest. Richard Somerville put it well: “Choosing to make selective choices among competing evidence, so as to emphasize those results that support a given position, while ignoring or dismissing any findings that do not support it, is a practice known as ‘cherry picking’ and is a hallmark of poor science or pseudo-science.” (Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, March 8, 2011).

You can see cherry picking everywhere if you know what to look for. It’s usually done by advertising and PR firms to make a product sound all sciencey or mediciney, something like, “Research shows that …”. Then deep in the fine print is a reference to a single scientific paper. When you actually look at the article in question, the “research” is weak or horribly biased.

Cherry picking is also common amongst organisations with a barrow to push, or websites like Natural Wellness Care (http://www.naturalwellnesscare.com/stress-statistics.html), which push a bunch of statistics to magnify a problem so they can sell or promote their “solution”.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Cherry picking is one of her favourite tricks. Her teaching from the pulpit is littered with the phrase, “Research says …”, without ever mentioning where the research came from. You just have to take her word for it.

Dr Leaf cherry picks extensively through her published work. There are too many examples to list them all, but her use of the quantum physics term, “quantum Zeno effect” is a prime example [1: p108, 2: ch13].

Another great example of cherry picking is Dr Leaf’s theory of the “Heart as a mini-brain” [2: ch11, 3: p40]. Dr Leaf exclusively relies on the information published by a group called HeartMath (http://www.heartmath.org), who themselves cherry pick extensively. HeartMath list reams of citations as evidence that the heart is a little brain, but even a basic understanding of routine clinical tests like an ECG shows that their ground breaking discoveries are little more than pseudoscience [see also Ref 2: ch11].

Dr Leaf then selectively uses certain studies from HeartMath to back up various claims she makes. A case in point is her claim that, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [1: p111]

This is cherry picking in its purest form. Despite the study being over 20 years old, and so badly designed that even alternative scientific journals wouldn’t publish it, Dr Leaf claimed it as proof that emotions and intentions can alter DNA [Chapter 13 of my book, Ref 2 outlines why the study is so poor].

In her social media feed today, Dr Leaf quoted Peace Pilgrim, a silver haired mystic who walked across America for 28 years, owning nothing but the clothes on her back, all in the name of peace. The quote Dr Leaf republished was, “If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.” This was taken from a radio talk that Peace Pilgrim gave in 1964 (http://www.peacepilgrim.com/steps1.htm). Peace Pilgrim’s quote is interesting, even inspirational, but not scientific. Inspiring quotes from half a century ago are fine, but only if you’re a motivational speaker or a B-grade life coach.

Dr Leaf says she’s a cognitive neuroscientist. Real cognitive neuroscientists don’t cherry pick whichever quotes or studies fit with their prevailing theory. They look for the truth by synthesising all the evidence into an accurate theory.

Dr Leaf may be trying to inspire people, but if she claims to be a scientist of any form, she has to adhere to a higher standard. She has to make sure that the words she uses are not just inspiring, but accurate as well, because facts and fruit are not the same. If you want a good Black Forest cake, then cherry pick all you want, but if you want the truth, consider all the facts first.

Like to read more about Dr Leaf’s teaching and how it compares to current science? Download the free eBook HOLD THAT THOUGHT, Reappraising The Work Of Dr Caroline Leaf

References

  1. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  2. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848
  3. Leaf, C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. 2009, Inprov, Ltd, Southlake, TX, USA: