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