“You control your brain … your brain does not control you!”
So says Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.
You’d hope that Dr Leaf would know. She says on her website that “Since the early 1980‘s she has studied and researched the Mind-Brain connection.” And if you take what she says at face value, it sure sounds right. Of course we’re in control. My brain does what I tell it to do. Except that it actually doesn’t. Our brain has a lot more control over us than we realize.
First of all, our “free” will isn’t actually free at all, but constrained by a number of unseen, subconscious processes that are entirely dependent on our brain. It may seem like we’re in complete control of our choices, but our subconscious brain has already done most of the work for us. Even if we had complete freedom over our choices, our “free” will would still require an intact brain in order to carry out its wishes.
The “control” of our brain is very similar to our “control” when we drive a 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. The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control.
For example, there are a number of lesions of the parietal lobes within the brain that give rise to some unusual but intriguing conditions. One of which is a condition called “Alien Hand Syndrome”. Wegner describes two patients with Alien Hand Syndrome, a lady whose “left hand would tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby object, pick and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat during sleep … She slept with the arm tied to prevent nocturnal misbehavior”, and a man who, “While playing checkers on one occasion, the left hand made a move he did not wish to make, and he corrected the move with the right hand; however, the left hand, to the patient’s frustration, repeated the false move. On other occasions, he turned the pages of the book with one hand while the other tried to close it; he shaved with the right hand while the left one unzipped his jacket” . Alien Hand Syndrome demonstrates that our decision-making and our action sequences are controlled by two separate systems in our brains.
There are other conditions that also show that our brains control us more than we control them. A more common example are the tic disorders, such as simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) and complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Even more common are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, sleep eating. One of my patients once drove her car while asleep (Honestly, that’s no exaggeration!).
So at best, we only have partial control of our brain. Our brain is driving, our mind just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much for that veneer of control that we think we possess.
The other way in which we appear to have control over our brain is through free will. Free will has been debated for years on philosophical grounds, but over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable and predictable brain activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act . More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act . As Bonn says, “the gist of these findings is that our feeling of having consciously willed an act is illusory in many ways. It seems that the conscious awareness of intention that we place so much weight upon, that we naively think of as causal, is, in fact, a narrative construction that is formed well after the train of causation has been set in motion.” 
The Oracle explained it to Neo, “… you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” (Matrix Reloaded, 2003)
Haggard concludes, “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.” 
This does not eliminate our capacity to choose, but frames it in a more realistic fashion. As Bonn points out, “Although we are not consciously aware of what is going on at every stage of the chain of neural events leading to action, there is room for a degree of conscious involvement if only to pull the emergency brake before it is too late. Thus, although it may not be the initial source of motivations and behavioral impulses, the part of the mind that is self-reflective; that can envision the self in causal and narrative contexts, may serve important monitoring and control functions.” 
Again, we have less control over our brain than we realize. We feel like we have made a choice, but more often than not, our brain already made the choice for us up to eight seconds beforehand, and the feeling of intention that we have is simply our conscious mind catching up – not making the choice, but finding a reason for why we made the choice.
It’s always nice when people who call themselves neuroscientists tell us what feels intuitively correct. In the cold, hard light of day, actual neuroscientists don’t tell us what’s intuitively correct, but what’s actually correct. It may seem like our mind is in control of our brain, but modern neuroscience confirms that our brain is the dominant force, while our mind just helps to steer a little.
- Wegner, D.M., Precis of the illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2004. 27(5): 649-59
- Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
- Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
- 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
- Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and the Sound Mind Meme | Dr C. Edward Pitt
Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and the Brain Changes Meme | Dr C. Edward Pitt
Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Blameless Brain | Dr C. Edward Pitt
Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mixed Message Memes | Dr C. Edward Pitt
I have been appreciating reading your posts as an antidote to Dr Leaf. Watched a couple of her DVD’s and was concerned about the broad generalisations, rash claims and over simplification. Thank you. I do have a question about this topic however … Do you think that if the mind pulls the handbrake at the last minute enough times, that the brain will eventually start to suggest a different behavior? If this continues long enough won’t the brain start to conform with the minds desires? Isn’t this what happens when an addict learns to overcome old patterns of thinking?
Thanks for the very thoughtful question, it’s a good one.
I think the key to your question is your use of the word ‘mind’. The word ‘mind’ in everyday language is synonymous with nearly all of our cognitive functions, and we often talk about our mind as if it’s the controlling force. In terms of cognitive neuroscience, the mind is used more precisely. I would contend that our ‘mind’ is a conscious broadcast of our brains subconscious information streams (I discuss this in more detail in the first two chapters of my book – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848 – if you wish to take a look). If this is true, then the mind doesn’t pull the handbrake at all, our brain does.
Our brain is constantly remodelling itself around the stimuli it’s processing. This goes on continuously in the form of operant learning, usually at a subconscious level. It may appear that we voluntarily perform a veto every now and then, but this is illusory in many ways. This is probably too big to cover in a reply, but I have blogged on it before, and Haggard gives a good summary in this article if you want to read something more detailed from a cognitive neuroscientist working in this field for 30 years (Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497).
In terms of the example you raised of an addict overcoming their addictive behaviour, it probably all depends on the outcome of the veto action and the strength of the wiring that codes for the addictive behaviour. I read an article from an ad writer once that said long term impact of a message was the product of “salience x repetition”. This is a good conceptual explanation of the concept of learning. With enough pulling of the handbrake, it’s conceivable that eventually a new habit would be wired in to overcome the old one. But unless the outcome of the veto is really strong one way or the other, it takes an enormous amount of repetition to change the addictive behaviour. This is why addicts find it so hard to quit – the wiring of the addictive habit is so strong that it takes something equally salient to wire in a different behaviour (i.e. ‘hitting rock bottom’). A few good choices often don’t carry the same salience as the addictive behaviour. Still, as I said before, the veto is a brain function that simply involves conscious broadcast, not the ‘mind’ as most people consider it.
I hope that I’ve understood your question correctly and answered it in a sensible way. I’m happy to provide further clarification if I’ve missed the intention of your question.
Like I said earlier, thanks for the interesting, thoughtful question.
Pingback: Dr Caroline Leaf and the cart before the horse, take two | Dr C. Edward Pitt
Hi C Edward Pitt, thanks again for your post. I agree with almost everything you say on this blog and I agree Leaf is a quack but this post I find harder to swallow. Certainly it contradicts what I have read and found plausible in social psychology and philosophy about how human agency is emergent from, and dependent on, but not reducible to or caused by, the brain. I read parts of the Haggard article but don’t understand enough about the brain to know whether I find it all plausible. I see the quote from Haggard: “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”.
This troubles me (although I’m not really sure what the second sentence means) because a vision of a world without genuine free will or human volition would seem to be a pointless, purposeless world. The big social, political, aesthetic and cultural movements of history surely cannot be explained by what kind of brains people have had. The same basic biology enables radically different ethical and political positions about things. And individual and social life is dependent on and emergent from having a brain but is somehow – and this is where things get mysterious for me – not reducible to having a brain. Or in Frost and Lumia’s (2012) terms – a person is “an entity that possesses neurons, but is not reducible to them” (The Ethics of Neuroscience and the Neuroscience of Ethics: A Phenomenological–Existential Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 18, 457-474. This article argues against what the authors call biological determinism, and I tend to agree with them.)
In terms of the Haggard article I found the Libet experiment’s method implausible – if I understood them correctly. They told participants to press the button whenever they wanted, and to note the time on the clock at the moment when they ‘became aware’ of the intention to press it. Then they measured the time between the increase in ‘readiness potential’ and the moment of “awareness”. But how is that plausible when the participants were told at the beginning to press the button? – meaning that the preparation to do the task was somehow there already from the start. And also, getting people to ‘introspect’ about when they became aware of the intention to act is not a reliable measure of anything. (see Prinz (2004) The fractionation of introspection. Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 11, Numbers 7-8, 2004, pp. 40-57.) So for me the increase in ‘readiness potential’ a little time before the so-called awareness of willingness to act doesn’t tell us anything about what the action was actually ’caused’ by.
I also found this paper which critiques laboratory volition experiments:
“when investigating intentional control in the laboratory, task instructions invariably play a
crucial role. The experimenter determines the confines of what participants are allowed to intend, and which choices they are permitted to make. Recent brain imaging research has revealed the neural circuits involved in the implementation of verbal instructions (Ruge and Wolfensteller 2010; Hartstra et al. 2011, 2012). How these brain circuits interact with circuits involved in intentional action is an open question. Finally, laboratory research on human volition does not have a high ecological validity. Neuroscientific research on voluntary action usually investigates choices between arbitrary response options. In our daily life, however, we usually chose between alternatives that have a specific value or lead to specific consequences. Integrating cognitive neuroscience research on human volition with social psychological research might help to overcome this lack of ecological validity” [Brass, Lynn, Demanet & Rigoni (2011) Imaging volition: what the brain can tell us about the will. Experimental Brain Research, published online Nov 2013.]
So back to Leaf and “the mind controls the brain”. For myself I am of the free will school. However, pseudo-science often involves a smattering of plausible ideas along with a lot of crap – that’s why it’s pseudo-science, not just fairy tales. That means that rebutting pseudo-science often involves making fine-grained distinctions between ideas which may superficially sound quite similar. For me, the smattering of plausibility I see amongst Leaf’s crap is the idea that many of our choices do in fact have a big influence on our health. Hence there are ‘diseases of lifestyle’ like diabetes and heart attacks caused by poor diet, and this generation of children in north america might be the first in a long time to have shorter life expectancies than their parents because of inactivity and obesity. Changing one’s habits in such cases can make the world of difference (am I correct on that). This is obviously not the same as saying “the mind controls the brain”, that you can ‘think yourself well’, or that “if you randomly allow any negative thought into your mind damage can ensue on a mental and physical level”. But to the uncritically-minded it might sound the same. And of course, as you say there are many diseases that are not caused by our lifestyle – we get them irrespective of our habits, and despite the best will in the world we cannot do anything to get better from them on our own. The AIDS denialism period in South Africa was an example of the catastrophic consequences of that kind of thinking – the former president and health minister believed that AIDS was ‘socially constructed’ and not caused by HIV, thus rollout of ARVs was delayed by years, leading to untold numbers of preventable deaths. And I agree that ‘negative thoughts’ are often entirely healthy; if we didn’t have negative thoughts in response to terrible events we witness, we would be like monsters without a conscience.
So, perhaps this approach to debunking pseudo-science is to recognise the ways that it latches on to elements of plausible ideas but mangles them and spits out something misleading and nonsensical. This is perhaps different to the approach you have taken here, which is to take Leaf’s adage ‘the mind controls the brain’ and hit it repeatedly with a sledgehammer 🙂 The position you have arrived at – which some (including me) might call biological determinism – may end up making the opposite error, so as to obliterate the possibility that anything of what Leaf says is true. A difficult dilemma to entertain, I know, because Leaf herself uses the phrase ‘biological determinism’ to argue for her ‘power of the mind’ thesis.
Thanks for provoking this very interesting conversation. I have been thinking about this all day 🙂
PS please delete if this is an accidental re-post.
I really appreciate your comment, and I’m sorry for taking so long to reply, but I’ve been waiting for a sufficient ebb in my schedule to allow me enough time to give you the considered reply that your comment deserved.
So taking it from the top, I understand why many people hold to the school of free will. As you have so eloquently written, “a vision of a world without genuine free will or human volition would seem to be a pointless, purposeless world. The big social, political, aesthetic and cultural movements of history surely cannot be explained by what kind of brains people have had. The same basic biology enables radically different ethical and political positions about things. And individual and social life is dependent on and emergent from having a brain but is somehow – and this is where things get mysterious for me – not reducible to having a brain.” I certainly understand and appreciate that view point.
I think it comes back to the phenomenological vs epistemological approach – both viewpoints are valid and each carries a way of viewing the whole, and each has their own limitations. So perhaps my viewpoint is more epistemological and yours is more phenomenological, I think each carries its own internal validity. Certainly most people would work on a more phenomenological level with regards to will and volition, but even if we ignore the methodological issues with Libet’s work and laboratory testing of volition, we know that on an individual and a social level we can’t be fully in charge of our will and volition otherwise why would advertising work so well. Or why are people so responsive to peer pressure? Clearly there are other factors going on in relation to our decision making than just our conscious stream of thought. And clearly we are more than just a collection of neurons but those neurons are fundamental to our function, hence our volition and agency. The most basic example of this is general anaesthesia – if you turn off those neurons then you have no agency at all.
So, a reductionist approach is to look at the function of each neuron and then look at the function of the neuron within a collection of neurons, which helps us understand the growing complexity as each collections of neurons builds into an even greater collection of neurons. Once you get to the level of the brain, the function of the individual neuron is lost in complexity but it is still there, and when you add the social factor and we see ourselves as products of collections of collections of neurons, then it becomes even less clear as to the functions of those individual neurons. A phenomenological approach at this level makes the most sense in order to understand all of the complexity, but that doesn’t negate the importance of the reductionist approach, nor the causal role that a smaller collection of neurons has on the more macroscopic whole.
Hence, why I don’t disagree with you and the more phenomenological approach, but I don’t think that approach negates the lab work on the role of the subconscious brain pathways on our volition. If anything, such information like that contained in the Haggard article should help inform a phenomenological understanding of volition in the broader social context.
Coming back to your specific points on volition and health and the question of whether “many of our choices do in fact have a big influence on our health”, and whether “changing one’s habits in such cases can make the world of difference”. I think the answer is, “it’s complicated”. The short answer is that health is broadly determined by the biopsychosocial model – our biology interacts with our psychology and with our sociology, and depending on the disease state, each of the broad groups of factors may have a greater or lesser influence. Diabetes as an example – the cause of type 1 diabetes is mostly genetic as it’s an autoimmune disease, but how much it affects a person comes down to their psychology (resilience, self-determination, adaptation) as well as intelligence as well as a myriad of social factors such as wealth and education (generally, and health literacy) and even geography. All the insulin in the world is not going to help a person very much if they if they can’t afford vegetables or if they don’t have the intellectual capacity to good healthy meals for themselves, or if they’ve never learned to cook, or have a pot or a pan to cook with, or if they live in an environment where the food supply is limited. Or they’re going to find it hard to exercise if they live in a rough neighbourhood where there are significant personal safety concerns.
This demonstrates that it isn’t just our direct choices that affect us but many factors, some of which are beyond our direct control. Which is exactly the reason why Caroline Leaf’s teaching is so shallow, as she places the blame for everything squarely on our thoughts which doesn’t hold up under the gentlest interrogation.
I certainly try to recognise that one way to debunk pseudoscience is to recognise the plausible elements within, but sometimes a sledge-hammer is called for if you’re trying to chip away at things that are extremely tough to crack. I do try to be careful of making the opposite error and on the occasions that Dr Leaf, like the proverbial broken clock, ends up being inadvertently correct, I do try to acknowledge it. It doesn’t happen very often though. It’s difficult to strike the right balance between all of these things but I hope that I get it right more often than not.
Thanks again for the very interesting comment, and again I’m sorry that it’s taken a while to find a hiatus in my workflow to give this the time it deserved. I like your comments – very intelligent and articulate and challenging in their perspectives.
All the best mate.