Imagine that this Easter, the guest speaker at your church stands up from the pulpit and calmly mentions during the sermon that Jesus wasn’t really buried in a tomb, but was kept by his disciples in a house until he recovered enough from his wounds to go on his merry way.
What would you think of that speaker? Would you smile and nod, or even shout an ‘amen!’, buy their book, and encourage your pastor that they should be invited back again?
One would hope that there would be a polite but resounding outcry. Even if the rest of the message was perfect, you wouldn’t want someone to come back to your pulpit if they couldn’t get the basics of their subject right, even if they were considered a popular speaker or self-declared expert.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf preaches every day from both physical pulpits all over the globe, and a virtual pulpit through the power of Instagram and Facebook.
Dr Leaf used her position of social media prominence today to share this little jewel, “The brain cannot change itself; you, with your love power and sound mind, change your brain.”
Um … that’s not true … at all … in any way.
For a start, the most prolific period for brain development is actually pre-birth, and then the first year of life. But foetal brains don’t have their own thoughts. It’s not like the movie “Look Who’s Talking” inside the average uterus. The brain of an unborn baby is growing and changing at an exponential rate without any thoughts to guide them .
In our adult years, our brain still continues to develop. But that development isn’t dependant on our thought life. Significant consolidation of our brain’s neural pathways occur when we’re asleep , but our thought life isn’t active during sleep.
Indeed, real cognitive neuroscientists have shown that our stream of thought is simply a tiny fraction of our overall neural activity, a conscious glimpse of the brains overall function [3-5]. So you don’t change your brain at all. “You” can’t, because it’s your brain’s directed activity which causes the growth of new synaptic branches to support it, all of which is subconscious.
Therefore, suggesting that our brain can only change with our conscious control is patently false, and so clearly against the most fundamental principles of neuroscience that such a claim is the neuroscientific equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he just swooned.
Dr Leaf has committed scientific heresy.
At this point, supporters of Dr Leaf often suggest that she wasn’t speaking literally, but metaphorically. She didn’t really mean that the brain can’t change itself, just that our choices are really important.
Somehow I doubt that. Dr Leaf wasn’t being metaphorical when she claimed that her patients in her research projects grew their intelligence when they “applied their minds”:
“Now with a traumatic brain injury, basically IQ generally goes down around twenty points because of the kind of damage with traumatic brain injury. Well her IQ was 100 before the accident, it was 120 after the accident. So here with holes in her brain, and brain damage, she changed … she actually increased her intelligence. Now I’m pretty convinced at this stage, cause I’ve been working … besides her I’ve been working with lots and lots of other patients, seeing the same thing, when these students applied their mind, their brain was changing, their academic results were changing.” 
Dr Leaf believes that your mind can literally change your brain. It was the subject of her entire TEDx talk in February.
It sounds innocent enough until you consider the broader implications of this way of thinking – those with brain damage haven’t recovered fully because they just haven’t applied their minds enough. The same for those with learning disabilities or autism, ADHD, Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, or any other neurological disorder … because you only need to “apply your minds” to change your brain. “You have a powerful mind. You have a sound mind. You have a mind that is able to … to achieve what you’re dreams are. You are as intelligent as you want to be.” 
Or, in other words, don’t blame it on your brain if you’re intellectually disabled, mentally ill, or vacuous. You simply haven’t applied your brain well enough. Stop sitting around and think better.
As a church, we can, and should, be doing a lot better for those amongst us who suffer from neurological and mental disorders. It starts by being more judicious with who is allowed at that privileged position of the pulpit. We need to be eliminating scientific heresy from the pulpit, not clapping and shouting ‘amen!’
- Stiles, J. and Jernigan, T.L., The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(4): 327-48 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4
- Gronli, J., et al., Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 224 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00224
- Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53
- Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., An architectural model of conscious and unconscious brain functions: Global Workspace Theory and IDA. Neural Netw, 2007. 20(9): 955-61 doi: 10.1016/j.neunet.2007.09.013
- Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22
- Leaf, C.M., Ridiculous | TEDx Oaks Christian School | 4 Feb 2015, 2015 TEDx, 20:03. https://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjhANyrKpv8
I think her quote was very generic and includes an implied context for her target audience. At first, I have a similar concerns of inconsistency. However, I know that there is an implied context to many of her quotes. This is the context: many of our thought patterns, behaviors, and emotions (such as decades of unhealthy coping mechanisms, years of enabling negative self talk, etc…) can remain unchanged our entire lives. And unless their is a healthy choice or positive thought to divert our brains from enabling such destructive behaviors, how can we conscientiously develop a healthier thought life or better ways to cope with change and stress, other than medicine and psychotherapy?
If we choose to grow and expand our personalities (she teaches), then we can create more beneficial pathways in our brains and develop more positive/healthy/mature emotional reinforcements in our souls. Consequently, this “choice” may help us rise above the rigidity and apathy of everyday life, which is evident in so many people’s unhealthy behaviors and emotions (as she mentions).
But I could be wrong. She’s not perfect. She may have been condensing her teaching too much. By attempting to squeeze much of her work into a very quick “inspirational” quote, she loses some of the implied context, sounds very self-help-ish. Essentially, she’s not actually saying that the brain can’t change itself; what she really means (according to her other teachings) is that it you can influence your own brain in ways that may not occur without a conscience effort… and without that effort or choice, your brain may simply continue to reinforce negative thoughts, self destructive behaviors, and other undesirable coping mechanisms that hinder significant growth. As you know, she is targeting people who desire to change their thought patterns and improve their lives. Thus, they get what she is trying to say. They understand how she is telling them to ACT…CHOOSE…THINK NEW THOUGHTS… CHANGE. Maybe I am giving her too much credit. I pray that God helps her to be more consistent though, so that you won’t have to write articles like these, or be discouraged. God Bless. – Brandon
lol I guess I qualify.
Your quote; “At this point, supporters of Dr Leaf often suggest that she wasn’t speaking literally, but metaphorically. She didn’t really mean that the brain can’t change itself, just that our choices are really important.”
Referencing your sleep chart: is she wrong to imply that we can at least get the learning process started during “waking hours?”
Hi Brandon, thanks for your comments on a number of my posts. I’ll reply to them all individually, but for the moment, let me say that I appreciate you taking the time to look at a number of posts, and for your thoughtful insights overall.
With specific regards to this particular post, there are a few things I’d like to say in reply. As I said in the post, and you noted later, supporters of Dr Leaf often suggest that she wasn’t speaking literally, but metaphorically … Dr Leaf didn’t really mean that the brain can’t change itself, just that our choices are really important. This is important because: 1. We shouldn’t be reinterpreting her factoids for her. Implied context is open to interpretation, essentially dependent on the reader filling in the gaps. But this isn’t someone’s horoscope she’s giving, this is supposed to be authoritative facts from an supposed expert. Dr Leaf shouldn’t be relying on implied context.
However, 2. In this instance, Dr Leaf isn’t implying anything. She really does believe that you can change your brain with your thoughts. If you want more proof of this, have a look at her TEDx talk, or read the opening few chapters from her 2013 book “Switch On Your Brain”. Dr Leaf says in this book, “Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” [p33] “DNA actually changes shape according to our thoughts.” [p35] “The main point in this chapter is that mind controls matter.” [p38] “It is very interesting that every cell in the body is connected to the heart, and the brain controls the heart, and the mind controls the brain. So whatever you are thinking about affects every cell in our body.” [p94] The same idea is woven throughout her entire teaching, including other social media memes, such as “The toxic thoughts in our minds become physical baggage in our brain, which literally cause brain damage.” 5/12/2014, 27/10/2014 & 7/10/2014 – “Jealousy and envy creates damage in the brain … but … celebrating others protects the brain!” 11/2/2015 & 7/12/2014 – “You can’t GIVE offense … You can only TAKE it … but be careful if you do because offense causes brain damage!” 23/7/2014
My diagrams were to prove my statements that neural growth is not dependent on thought. Sure, some change in the neural landscape takes place due to conscious learning, but more learning is unconscious (hence, not dependent on thought), as well as my points that neural development occurs largely when we are not thinking i.e.: as a foetus, and a new-born, and when we’re asleep. Hence her statement that “The brain can not change itself” is patently false.
I think it’s a credit to you that you look for the best in her teaching and are generous in giving her the benefit of the doubt, but are still open minded to other possibilities. I don’t doubt that Dr Leaf started with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, modern science has moved beyond the idea that changing thought is integral to forming new habits or neural pathways, and in fact, trying to fight such negative thoughts can actually be detrimental to people. Dr Leaf has not adapted her theories, and instead has resorted to all manner of fallacies to try and strengthen her old theories, which has shifted her into the realm of pseudoscience. Her reliance on studies such as Radin’s (which I’ll come back to in your other comment) only confirm that she has very little solid science to back herself up, and/or that her capacity to understand what is good science and what is junk science is extremely limited.
As always, Dr Leaf is welcome to reply to any of my discussions on her work. If she has other trials that she’s willing to cite in support of her claims, then I’m more than happy to discuss these. However, her silence is deafening.
Again, thanks for your insightful comments. All the best to you.
Thanks for the detailed reply. Many people trust doctors etc. I think that she should explain how her work is more about how prayer, faith, taking in God’s Word, and trusting in the invisible work of God to create tangible positive changes the world around us will “renew” our minds (Rom 12). Thus, we don’t need as much scientific citations from her, as we need more testimonies about how God has changed lives and renewed minds. Skeptics can be shamed by people who are now thriving and functioning better than ever and who have exceeding joy in the Lord ‘s Presence.
Personally, I have OCD. So, I know my need to be proactive in “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). I do know what you are saying one sense; that without God’s help (I am interpreting through the lense of faith) some people can make themselves more frustrated or even compulsive by trying to change their brains without Divine Intervention. Like an agnostic alcoholic whole tries to fight his addiction but accidentally replaces it with another… like smoking.
Well, I also need a lot of “down time” and sometimes God speaks to me in dreams. So, I get that much of our brain development is subconscious. Even Dr Leaf’s original diagrams show how much more activity is happening in the subconscious realm. I still contend that having dominion over our own bodies and speaking in faith and in agreement with God’s Word can have a snowball effect to trigger positive and sometimes supernatural changes that play out in the subconscious.
Your criticism of Dr Leaf; Well, you did write a whole book about her. Maybe she should do a debate or article addressing you book. Maybe she will respond. She is passionate enough and energetic enough to find time for an appropriate rebuttal paper or article or blog etc perhaps.
Humor me please: check this video out if you have the time: This guy shows one way to unlearn and then re-learn new and old skills.
(This guy is a Christian and perhaps a science teacher, or at least passionate about science. Anyway, his friend creates a bicycle for him that has reverted steering, and most of the people he meets can’t ride it without hours of practice. Also, after he and his toddler learn how to ride these bikes , he has to unlock his old skill once given a traditional bike again.)
Hi Brandon. I’m not holding my breath waiting for Dr Leaf to respond, but the offer is always open to her.
I’ve actually seen that video already. I saw it about a week ago on a friends Facebook feed. I think all he’s doing is proving the plasticity of the brain and conscious learning. He does an amazing job taking something that everyone knows and making it sound like no one’s ever heard of it before, but in reality, it’s nothing new. The fact that someone can learn a new skill is good, but something as simple as riding a bike with reversed steering is still no where near as complicated as trying to overcome our own mental ill-health. It’s not that people can not learn to overcome their mental health issues with psychological based therapy, but it takes time and lots of reinforcement and isn’t just a short term process that people can do by themselves with a self-help book. If you’re interested, I discuss more about cognitive vs behavioural therapy in my book – specifically chapters 2 and 3 if you want some more in depth information.
All the best to you.
Sorry, my book on Dr Leaf’s teachings – “Hold that thought, Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf” – iTunes = https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/hold-that-thought/id908877288?mt=11 or Smashwords = https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848