Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mental Monopoly Myth

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What’s more important to a person’s health and well being?

Is it their physical attributes – their genes, their fitness, their diet? Is it their psychological state – their mind, their emotional balance? Is it their social context – how they relate and contribute to the communities that they’re a part of? Or is it their spirituality – the depth of their connections to faith and the supernatural?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, it’s the mind that dominates. This is a common theme of her books [1: especially chapter 1] and her social media memes.

Take today’s gem: “Mind action is the predominant element in well being and mental health.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what your genes are, where you were born or the depth of your acceptance in your community. It doesn’t matter whether you have a deep faith either. The psychological dominates the physical, the social and the spiritual. As she said in her books,

“Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” [2: p13]
“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.” [1: p33]
“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioural illness comes from ones thought life.” [1: p33]

Dr Leaf’s philosophy of our wellbeing can be pictured like a pyramid, with our ‘mind action’ (read, ‘choices’) dominating every other facet of our lives.

Leaf Mental Monopoly Model

The problem with this philosophy is that it doesn’t fit with science, scripture, or even common sense.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that Dr Leaf’s assertion doesn’t fit with every day experience. Where you were born and raised, and where you live, significantly impact a persons overall wellbeing, independent of their thoughts and choices.

Does Dr Leaf honestly believe that the wellbeing of a ten year old boy living in rural Sedan, with no access to running water and sewerage systems, living on a subsistence diet and drinking contaminated water from the only well in his village, has the same wellbeing as a ten year old in rural Ohio, who has access to clean water, plentiful food, and an education?

Does Dr Leaf think that the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in Afghanistan, with poor nutrition and limited access to meaningful antenatal care or a trained midwife to deliver her baby, is the same as the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in London, who has access to fresh food, vitamin supplements, GP’s, midwives, and specialist obstetricians in big city hospitals?

These are just two simple examples which demonstrate that the action of your mind has very little to do with your overall wellbeing.

But if you want to be more scientific about it, then look no further than the biopsychosocial model. Modern health professionals moved beyond the idea that only one facet of human existence was responsible for all of your wellbeing way back in the 1980’s. The biopsychosocial model proposes that the overall health of a person was equally dependent not just on the physical, but was part of a broader system of the medical, mental and the social [3]. The model recognised that a person’s overall wellbeing was made worse by social disadvantage as well as physical illness or poor coping skills, and so often, the physical, social and psychological would affect each other in loops – physical illness would often reduce a persons ability to mentally cope, which strained their social connections, making them lonely and reduced the care given to them, which then made them sicker.

Most Christian would recognise that one element is still missing, which is the spiritual. Our faith is a realm beyond rational thinking, and isn’t fairly grouped with the mental, although they are both housed in our brain. Still, faith influences our social interactions, our psychology, and our physical health, as much as each mutually influences our faith.

Putting it altogether, we don’t have a pyramid, but a collection of ponds. Our mind action does not dominate our health and our wellbeing, but is simply one part of a much larger whole, with our health and wellbeing at the centre.

Biopsychosocial spiritual coloured

It’s interesting that a woman with as much influence amongst the western Christian church as Dr Leaf would suggest that the mind is more influential to our wellbeing than our faith. This makes her teaching seem more humanist than holy, more secular than spiritual. It may invite questions about the deepest influences of her ministry – is it humanistic philosophy with a garnish of scripture, or does the Bible really promote thinking over faith? Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to examine the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind.

Irrespective of Dr Leaf’s philosophical foundations, I’d suggest that her hypothesis of the mental monopoly falls down at the level of common sense and good science. Medical science moved beyond the idea of the single dominant facet of humanity more than three decades ago.

It’s time for Dr Leaf to do the same.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        Leaf C. Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.
[3]        Borrell-Carrio F, Suchman AL, Epstein RM. The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry. Ann Fam Med 2004 Nov-Dec;2(6):576-82.

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Dr Caroline Leaf – Better graphics, same content

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In the world of marketing, visual media is king. Humans are sight based creatures. About thirty percent of our brains cortex is dedicated to vision , compared to 8 percent for touch and 2 percent for hearing http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/brain-games/articles/brain-games-watch-this-perception-facts/)

It’s no wonder then that sites like Pinterest and Instagram have so rapidly become such dominant sites on the social media landscape. And why billions of dollars are invested in visual advertising on TV and billboards.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self titled cognitive neuroscientist. In the last few weeks, she’s gone for a new look for her Instagram and Facebook posts – gone are the simple lines, plain text and stand alone logo. Her posts have gone glam, with backgrounds of her photo treated with coloured layering and shading, overlaid with Dr Leafs favourite text. Sometimes the text is pretty easy to read. Other times it looks like a 4th grade class got to take turns picking the font and text size for each different word. But hey, it’s edgy, it’s happening, it’s so hot right now.

It’s a real shame that she only chose to update the look and not the actual content of her social media memes. Take today’s offering as an example: “The mind processes. The brain reflects this processing.” (The unsaid conclusion being that, “The mind controls the brain.”)

I’ve written about this meme a few times (here, here, here and here, as a small sample). But let’s relook at it again, since Dr Leaf is unwilling to reconsider the statements lack of validity.

Does the mind really control the brain, or does the brain control the mind? Well, if the mind was separate from the brain and controlled the brain, then the mind would be able to function independently of the brain. And also, if the mind was separate to the brain, then changes to the brain would not influence the function of the mind.

It’s difficult to show that a person has a mind without a brain. You can’t really remove someone’s brain and then put it back again, so not many people are keen to volunteer for that study. But anecdotally, have you ever heard of a person who has woken from a coma having spend all that time in deep thought?

What IS much easier to study, and has been proven over the course of centuries, is the change to our cognitive function when our brain is changed, physically or functionally.

The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by medications.
The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by illicit drugs.
The mind changes when the function of the brain is changed by electrical stimulation.
The mind changes then the structure of the brain is changed by tumours or injuries.

In 1848, a man named Phineas Gage was packing gunpowder in some rock when an accidental detonation blasted a foot-long iron rod through the left face and forehead, severely damaging the left frontal lobe of his brain. History records that his personality changed from polite, well mannered, and well spoken to fitful, irreverent, impatient of restraint or advice, obstinate and capricious [1].

Whilst Phineas Gage was is most famous, other brain injuries can also change the way in which someone thinks. For example, lesions of the parietal lobe of the brain changes the way people see their own bodies. Baars writes, “Patients suffering from right parietal neglect can have disturbing alien experiences of their own bodies, especially of the left arm and leg. Such patients sometimes believe that their left leg belongs to someone else (often a relative), and can desperately try to throw it out of bed. Thus, parietal regions seem to shape contextually both the experience of the visual world and of one’s own body.” [2]

Some might argue that the mechanism of injury might be the variable that could change someone’s personality. After all, if an iron rod was blasted through my skull, I might be a little antsy too. But other structural change to the brain, not associated with a sudden traumatic event, can also result in personality changes – it’s well recognised that personality changes can be the first presenting symptom of brain tumours, for example.

Though the brain doesn’t have to be horribly distorted for the mind to change. In the last couple of decades, a tool has been developed called TMS – short for transcranial magnetic stimulation. A magnetic pulse is delivered over a part of the skull, passing through the bone to reach the brain, causing changes to the electrical current running through the nerve cells. Stimulation of different intensities can either turn off the nerve cells or excite them. TMS has become a great tool for studying cognitive neuroscience because it directly changes the function of the brain in a well localised and temporary manner. It’s also easy for scientists to blind the subjects to whether they’re receiving the treatment or a sham treatment, so the results are reliable. Research shows that when the frontal lobes of the brain are changed by the electrical signals, their executive function also changes [3].

Changes to the function of the brain are known to change the function of the mind and have been known to do so for centuries. From religious hallucinogens to Woodstock hippies, drugs of various forms have been used to alter mood, thought, and perceptions of reality. But there’s a drug that’s much more common, that’s known for its ability to alter our brains thinking ability the world over, and even Dr Leaf enjoys it.

Like most people, my morning doesn’t really start until after my first cup of coffee. Sure, I’m functional, but barely. Fifteen minutes after the first short black is in my system, I find that I’m much more alert and my thinking is clearer.

What’s changed? Is it my mind changing the function of my brain, or is it the coffee, specifically the caffeine in it, that’s changing my brain which is in turn is making my mind clearer and sharper? I think the answer is obvious. Caffeine is the most commonly used recreational drug in the history of mankind, and every cup of java (real coffee that is, not the travesty that is decaf) is more proof against Dr Leaf’s dogmatic misrepresentation of basic science.

So, if the mind is changed by alterations to the structure and/or function of our physical brain, it follows that our mind must be a function of our brain. Therefore, the mind does not process, while the brain simply hangs on for the ride. Rather, the brain processes, and our mind reflects this processing.

Dr Leaf can tart up her memes all she likes, but until she changes the content of her memes to match some actual science, it’s all just smoke and mirrors. The truth doesn’t need visual pimping. It is simply the truth.

References

[1]        Fumagalli M, Priori A. Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality. Brain : a journal of neurology 2012 Jul;135(Pt 7):2006-21.
[2]        Baars BJ. Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research 2005;150:45-53.
[3]        Guse B, Falkai P, Wobrock T. Cognitive effects of high-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation: a systematic review. J Neural Transm 2010 Jan;117(1):105-22.