Dr Caroline Leaf and the struggle spiral

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In Proverbs 12:25, the incredibly wise King Solomon wrote that, “Worry weighs us down; a cheerful word picks us up.”

Today, Dr Leaf posted to her social media stream that “An undisciplined mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions – These lead to degeneration of the mind and body.”

Well, that’s about as uplifting as a lead balloon.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  I’m sure her heart was in the right place when she posted her latest jewel of wisdom, but it may not be as encouraging or as helpful as she may have intended.

The biggest problem is her opening premise, “An undisciplined mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions”.  So … that’s not really accurate. The normal human mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions. It really doesn’t matter whether you discipline your mind or not, you won’t shift these ‘negative’ thoughts.

That’s because we’re meant to experience appropriate levels of fear and worry.  They’re a survival mechanism.  Without a certain amount of fear, we’d end up as a Darwin Award.  And as human beings, we’re naturally inclined to so many different cognitive biases that there’s a very long list (although ironically, those with the strongest confirmation bias will probably be the least likely to accept this).

By erroneously linking normal cognitive function to the concept of mental ill-discipline, Dr Leaf is simply setting people up for an unrealistic struggle with their normal psyche as they unnecessarily try to discipline it.

And for the people who really do struggle with excessive or inappropriate worry, fear or incorrect perceptions – i.e. people who suffer from formal anxiety disorders – this sort of statement is misleading because again, their issue isn’t mental ill-discipline. Anxiety is the result of a genetic predisposition and increased vulnerability to stress.

The second part of Dr Leafs meme is as unhelpful as the first.  For a start, it’s not true that worries, fears and distorted perceptions cause degeneration of the mind and body.  There may be a correlation between stress and some long term health problems, but correlation does not equal causation.  As Cohen and colleagues noted, “Although stressors are often associated with illness, the majority of individuals confronted with traumatic events and chronic serious problems remain disease-free.” [1]  Dr Leaf’s claim seems little more than a scare tactic, which can only lead to increased anxiety not increased motivation.

The important things to remember here are:
1. Experiencing worries, fears and distorted perceptions is normal, and not something that can be changed by disciplining your mind.  Don’t fall into the trap of trying to treat something that isn’t a disease.
2. If you do suffer from an anxiety disorder, don’t blame yourself.  That sets up a spiral of struggle.  Thoughts are just words. They have no power over you unless you engage with them.  Instead of trying to repress every worry and every fear, allow your thoughts to bubble away in the background, and instead, focus your energy on taking values based committed action which will ultimately help you live a life of meaning, not just struggling.


[1]     Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE. Psychological stress and disease. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association 2007;298(14):1685-87.

9 thoughts on “Dr Caroline Leaf and the struggle spiral

  1. You know its so sad to me the way the scientific community treats each other. Normally I would never comment on something like this but I believe you to be a man of honor and this dignifies a response. I have 2 favors to ask of you. If you have such a problem with Dr. Leaf would it be so hard to talk to her about it? I know this behavior is the norm for the scientific community but you are called to a higher standard and I believe you are well capable of breaking out of the norm and making a huge difference. You are a son of God. But this is like gossiping about your neighbor all over town instead of simply walking over there and talking to them. I see that Dr. Leaf makes some leaps so big she would cause an academic lynching, but her ministry isnt to the scientific community her ministry is to Christians. And her message is basic: your thoughts are important. This is a very biblical message and I believe much needed in the body of Christ. Which brings me to my 2nd favor, cant you see the value in what she is teaching? Cant you pray for her and kinda get on her side a little bit? If your convictions are so deep and if you are so bothered by her there is definitely a way to get a hold of her where she would actually have a good conversation with you and I am sure make some adjustments. It might take some emotional intelligence but if you are praying about it and the Spirit of the living God is helping you then all things are possible. She would probably benefit greatly from a conversation with you and I guarantee there are ways of getting a hold of her. I could go on and on about this but just imagine this: If the scientists, Christians, democrats & republicans (yes I am in the US) showed a little more respect to each other, if they treated each other as friends, what would this world look like? If they examined their own motives, and were honest about their fears, what would that look like? Im just trying to be reasonable, because obviously you have some great concerns or fear concerning Dr. Leafs teachings and the impact its having, now what is the healthiest honest way of dealing with that? But the bigger point is how are you missing the good?

    • Hi Andrew.

      Thanks for your impassioned and compassionate comment. Let me go through your points and answer them properly.

      1. “If you have such a problem with Dr. Leaf would it be so hard to talk to her about it?”

      I have certainly tried to talk to Dr Leaf about these issues. Unfortunately, Dr Leaf has refused to engage with me, publicly and privately.

      After I heard her speak for the very first time a few years ago, I sent an e-mail to the senior pastor of the hosting church that outlined my concerns. With my consent, he forwarded my e-mail on to her. At the same time, I reviewed the weekends teachings on this blog.

      Dr Leaf chose not to respond to my e-mail privately, but instead, Mac Leaf dismissed my concerns publicly in a comment on my blog.

      In my subsequent reply, I offered to publish any further comments Dr Leaf wished to make, in full and unabridged. I also offered to meet with Dr Leaf face to face in any city in Australia (and I’ve subsequently expanded that promise to include any city in New Zealand) to discuss my concerns. Dr Leaf has chosen not to take up that offer, although the offer still stands.

      I have also attempted to politely raise my concerns on her Facebook page, but like many other non-sycophants, I have been blocked from commenting by her social media minions. She’s also blocked me on Twitter.

      When Dr Leaf recently came through my home city, I went to hear her speak and after the second service, tried to approach her with the intention of introducing myself and shaking her hand, in the spirit of honour and maturity. Unfortunately I couldn’t get past her presidential style detail complete with body guards.

      So you might assume that it would be easy to discuss these issues with Dr Leaf, but the reality is the opposite. There are probably many ways that people could interpret her unwillingness to engage … intellectual weakness, intellectual dishonesty, shielding her financial interests, or just plain hubris … honestly, I don’t know and it’s probably none of my business. All I can say is, ‘I’ve tried’. I have done everything that I can do short of stalking her. Unfortunately she has chosen not to listen.

      For the record, I’ve also formally expressed my concerns to the National Executive of the Australian Christian Churches, which is the national oversight for the organisation of churches that I belong to. Their decision was that the issues I raised were concerning, but beyond their level of expertise. Not that it mattered, since they stated it wasn’t the National Executives responsibility to tell member churches who they could or couldn’t have preach.

      So while this may seem to you and others that my work “is like gossiping about your neighbor all over town instead of simply walking over there and talking to them”, actually it’s the only path left open to me to ensure that her work is held to a standard, and an alternative view is presented.

      2. “I see that Dr. Leaf makes some leaps so big she would cause an academic lynching, but her ministry isnt to the scientific community her ministry is to Christians. And her message is basic: your thoughts are important. This is a very biblical message and I believe much needed in the body of Christ.”

      I’m confident that your love for the Church runs deep, so you may not have meant to say what you said, but I have a lot of problems with that sentence.

      (a) Dr Leaf’s ministry, like all ministry, is to the lost. If Dr Leaf’s ministry to the church undermines confidence in the church, and weakens the churches capacity to engage with the unchurched, then her ministry is counter productive.

      In a 2013 blog for the Huffington Post (http://goo.gl/5EHKjm), Charles Reid wrote,

      “Christians must provide effective witness against both extremes. But before Christianity can engage atheism it must first address the scientific illiteracy in its own house. For the greatest danger Christianity confronts at the present moment is not incipient persecution, but increasing marginalization and irrelevance. If Christians cannot engage reasonably and responsibly with science, there will be no place for them in the public life of advanced societies.”

      Reid was paying particular attention to Ken Ham in this blog, but the principle remains the same. Scientifically illiterate Christians quickly lose credibility with people. We can’t meaningfully engage with a person who has a rudimentary understanding of biology by proudly tell them that we create new genes with the power of thought.

      (b) If Dr Leaf’s teaching has “leaps so big she would cause an academic lynching” then why is that teaching fit for the church? Are you suggesting that the church deserves second best?

      (c) Dr Leaf’s message is actually a lot broader than just the subject of thought. She promotes erroneous advice on mental health which is potentially very dangerous (https://goo.gl/5DjT8O) and her jaunt into nutritional advice which, while less harmful, is confusing and unnecessarily restrictive (https://goo.gl/yg13wr).

      Dr Leaf’s teaching on thought isn’t as important as we assume. Our take on thoughts comes from our cultural exposure to the popular psychology derived from Beck’s Cognitive Therapy idea – “Dysfunctional behaviour comes from thoughts, therefore we fix dysfunctional behaviours by first fixing thoughts.” But when examined scientifically, the opposite is true. Cognitive therapy specifically targeting problem thoughts offers no extra improvement over behavioural therapy alone. Dr Leaf tries to use scripture to prop up her teaching on thoughts, but unfortunately she takes the scriptures out of context.

      3. “Cant you see the value in what she is teaching?”

      I honestly think there is very little good in what she’s teaching. Believe me when I say that I’ve looked. Her teaching ranges from incorrectly elevating thought as pre-eminent, which sets up false hope and unnecessary struggle, all the way through to down-right dangerous when she incorrectly condemns psychiatric medications, which has every chance of driving a vulnerable person off their pills and to their death through suicide. Sure, there are probably bits and pieces of actual truth in her work, but they’re so few and far between that the average lay person is unlikely to pick them, and so much damage has already been done by her misinformation that the truth loses it’s power.

      4. “If your convictions are so deep and if you are so bothered by her there is definitely a way to get a hold of her where she would actually have a good conversation with you and I am sure make some adjustments.”

      Like I said before, I’ve tried to initiate communication with her. I would like to think she might change her teaching if she spoke to me, but realistically, she’s got a lot riding on what she teaches – her income stream for one, and her reputation. And she’s had more than enough opportunity to meet with me if she has wished to. I’m not going to give up, but the ball is in her court. I can’t force her to listen to me.

      Finally, let me say again that your comment is perfectly reasonable. In an ideal world, people would be able to give honest feedback and also receive it, without fear of repercussions or judgements. I understand where you’re coming from, and I feel the genuine concern in your tone. Believe me when I say that I’ve examined my motives a lot over the last few years. I’ve tried to address my concerns in the healthiest way possible for all parties, and it’s because of the action (or inaction as the case may be) from Dr Leal’s end that we’re here today. I hope that the future’s different, but that’s in God’s hands, and in Dr Leaf’s.

      Many thanks for your comment. All the best.

      • Wow! Sorry I just saw this, it was in my “social” category in gmail so missed it. I didn’t expect such a great response from you! This is really impressive, thank you for your time, i am working right now so I wanted to at least let you know I got it. Honestly there is a lot here that I need to pray through because there are some big ideas, new and different and I think i need to pray it through/process it all. I really see your perspective and see a lot of value in your reasoning and motivation. Tell me if you agree with this:
        1) There is a critical need right now for a good liaison between the scientific community and the church world.
        2) Ministers wanting to make scientific claims need to significantly raise their standard of accountability.

        Both of these issues have actually been heavy on my heart for some years. What do you think?

        Also what work has been getting you excited (scientific or ministry) and what ministers do you see doing a good job?

      • Hi Andrew, thanks for the encouragement. By all means, take your time to process.

        I definitely agree with your number 2 statement. There seems to be a lot of conjecture and opinion masquerading as science these days, not just in the church, but within the secular sphere as well. It’s easy to cherry-pick the information that supports one’s personal viewpoint and make it sound like it’s supported by science. If ministers fell into that trap, I think it would erode confidence in the church, and in those particular ministers, which weakens our influence within the public sphere, or at least, fails to strengthen it.

        As for number 1, there are lots of very good scientists who are also faithful Christians. The problem is not the lack of a liaison but it’s the churches unwillingness to listen that is the main problem. Again, I don’t think the church is isolated in this regard. We live in a very post-modern world where people judge solely with their emotions and not with their brain, where social media memes and factoids have replaced critical thinking. It would certainly help if there was a reliable scientific liaison that the church leadership looked to for guidance on interpreting scientific research, but would the church leadership know if they found a person like that? I’m not sure if they would.

        I guess this means we have to pray that God would open the eyes of our church leadership so that they can discern the truth of God’s word and also the truth of science.

        If you have any other questions or points of discussion after you’ve had some time to process, feel free to post.

        All the best.

  2. Ok I’m just going to be blunt. After reading just a snippet of what you have to say, I can almost guarantee that you are an agent of the enemy as the acusser of the brethren. The same spirit that bashes every man and woman of God all over the internet. Caroline leafs teaching minister to me and I think she is straight from God and so is her message. So when you bash her you bash the holy spirit she is inspired by. What is your motive by what you are writing? You need to repent and I suggest any born again believer not only stop reading but to not receive it as truth. Its nothing more than slander and gossip cloaked in professional jargon.

    • Dear Marianne,

      Thank you for your spirited comment.

      You’re welcome to personally criticise me if you like. I don’t mind. I’m getting used to the disapproving and pejorative accusations from supposedly loving Christians. Not that you probably care, but I can assure you madam, I am no more a tool of Satan than you are, so I won’t be repenting. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of all truth, so I don’t think he minds when I correct Dr Leaf’s misleading claims. If you wish to criticise my work based on a snap judgement of a few sentences, then that’s your right, but may I kindly suggest you remove the beam from your eye first. You might be able to see things a bit more clearly then.

      Have a great day.

    • Marrianne please! He is a child of God! Be easy. Try to Investigate a little bit before you start accusing. Pray for him if you are concerned. What benefit did you feel you got from Dr. Leaf? You could share that and what is will come to the light.

  3. I just came across your blog today via a Dr. Leaf rabbit trail as I was made aware of her a few months ago. Wanted to say that I admire your tenacity and sticking to facts and actual science and research with your rebuttals (unlike the emotionally manipulative and condemnatory tirades you’re having to endure from highly misguided people).

    Honestly, this Dr. Leaf person reminds me of some other popular church-y personalities who seem to have figured out how deeply the United States is steeped in false, emotionally based religion coming at people under the guise of “Christianity”, with very little scrutiny of popular teachings and teachers taking place because of a widespread lack of actual sound and systematic theology. It’s ridiculously easily to make money proclaiming dubious messages to vulnerable people who will pretty much believe anything as long as it’s wrapped in some popular Bible verses and proclaimed by charismatic speakers. I was caught in that vortex for a time myself before God pulled me out of it and systematically and painfully scraped these false teachings out of my system while growing me up to maturity. Owie. So worth it though.

    Anyway, thank you for being a much-needed voice of reason. I’m a fellow believer in Christ who is very happy to have stumbled upon your blog, as I’m always looking for objective and unbiased approaches to any minister, ministry and message I’m gathering information about. You have provided the counter-balance I was looking for.

    Keep on keeping on, Dr. Pitt. Test all things. Hold fast what is good.

    • Hi Dani. Thanks for your comment. It’s very encouraging, and it’s a really nice break from the usual emotionally manipulative and condemnatory tirades 🙂

      I think you’re absolutely right – Dr Leaf isn’t the only Christian personality that is exploiting the systemic absence of discernment and accountability that plagues the western (not just the American) church. I focus on Dr Leaf because of her scientific claims, and because there is only one of me and I can’t try and hold everyone to account. But keep spreading the word. Tell everyone you know about your concerns with Dr Leaf (and any other unsound teachers) and we will eventually turn the tide.

      Have a Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.

      All the best.

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