Dr Caroline Leaf and the mind-brain revisited again

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Dr Leaf’s theme for the week is the mind-brain link. In the last few days, Dr Leaf has posted memes claiming that the brain is seperate from, and subservient to, the mind. Despite evidence to the contrary, she continued the same theme today.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her teaching is strongly influenced by one of her foundational philosophical positions; that the mind (the intellect, will and emotions) controls the body, which includes the brain. While this idea may be popular with philosophers, it’s not with neuroscientists.

Not that this bothers Dr Leaf, of course, since she’s not really a neuroscientist.

Today’s meme is more or less exactly the same as what she claimed over the previous couple of days, except today’s version is more verbose.

She said,

“Mind directs what the brain does, with the mind being our intellect, will and emotions (our soul realm). This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body. We use our mind to pretty much do everything.”

At this point, I’m having a strong and nauseating sense of deja vu.

I know I’m going to be repeating myself, but to reinforce the message, lets go through Dr Leaf’s meme to show that it hasn’t gotten any righter with repetition.

“(The) Mind directs what the brain does” … The relationship of the mind to the brain is like the relationship of music and a musical instrument. Without a musical instrument, there is no music. In the same way, the mind is a product of the brain. It’s not independent from the brain. Without the brain, there is no mind. Indeed, changes to the structure or function of the brain often results in changes to the mind. Yesterday I used the example of medications. Caffeine makes us more alert, alcohol makes us sleepy or disinhibited. Marijuana makes it’s users relaxed and hungry, and sometimes paranoid. Pathological gambling, hypersexuality, and compulsive shopping together sound like a party weekend in Las Vegas, but they’re all side effects linked with Dopamine Agonist Drugs, which are used to treat Parkinson’s disease. If a pill affecting the brain can change the function of the mind, then it’s clear that the mind does not direct what the brain does.

“This is an interesting concept posing huge challenges and implications for our lives because what we do with our mind impacts our spirit and our body” … The relationship between our body, mind and spirit is interesting. I’ve written about this before in an essay on the triune being and dualism. But there are no great challenges here or implications here. If anything, knowing that our thoughts don’t have any real power over us is incredibly freeing. Rather than increasing our psychological distress in trying to suppress or control our thoughts, we can step back and focus on committed actions based on our values.

“We use our mind to pretty much do everything” … Actually, we don’t. Much of what we do, say, and even perceive, is related to functions of our brain that are entirely subconscious. This idea is summed up very nicely by Dr David Eagleman, best-selling author and a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas;

” … take the vast, unconscious, automated processes that run under the hood of conscious awareness. We have discovered that the large majority of the brain’s activity takes place at this low level: the conscious part – the “me” that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is only a tiny bit of the operations. This understanding has given us a better understanding of the complex multiplicity that makes a person. A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of several parts, all of which compete to steer the ship of state. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated, contradictory. We act in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect by simple introspection. To know ourselves increasingly requires careful studies of the neural substrate of which we are composed.” https://goo.gl/uFKF47

So no matter which way Dr Leaf says it, it simply isn’t true that the mind controls the brain. As I said in my previous post, this is a fatal flaw for Dr Leaf’s teaching. That she keeps using this trope is entirely her choice and her right, but it certainly doesn’t aid her reputation as a credible neuroscientist.

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3 thoughts on “Dr Caroline Leaf and the mind-brain revisited again

  1. Pingback: MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS … | Dr C. Edward Pitt

  2. Considering your rudimentary reasoning to argue Dr Leaf’s theory, I wonder why you don’t entertain the notion that maybe it is a two way street? Clearly the pharma world has capitalised on the negative side of mental health altering the good chemicals in the brain to the degree of extreme negative responses in the human condition but there has been growing evidence that positive behaviours can influence the chemical response in the brain. Behaviours induced to improve quality of life clearly come from a decisions made in the mind. I am not sure that you have made an arguement.

    • Hi hmg,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I’m sorry that you consider my reasoning ‘rudimentary’. You’re welcome to review the chapters I’ve written on the function of the mind and brain in my two books, “Hold that thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf” (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848 / http://www.debunkingdrleaf.com/hold-that-thought/). They contain a lot more detail and citations.

      Why don’t I entertain the notion that it’s a two way street? Because it’s not a two-way street. The brain will grow new pathways and reinforce existing pathways if the neural pathway is used repetitively. That’s neuroplasticity 101, but that’s not dependent on thinking. Your premise is that behaviour influences the brain and behaviours come from the mind, thus it’s the mind influencing the brain. Except that your assumption that “Behaviours induced to improve quality of life clearly come from a decisions made in the mind” is inaccurate. You’re conflating the mind (which is conscious) with the subconscious. As I wrote in the blog and reinforced by the quote from a real cognitive neuroscientist, much of what we do, say, and even perceive, is related to functions of our brain that are entirely subconscious. Our behaviour, then, does not “clearly come from decisions made in the mind”.

      As for your assertion that “the pharma world has capitalised on the negative side of mental health altering the good chemicals in the brain to the degree of extreme negative responses in the human condition but there has been growing evidence that positive behaviours can influence the chemical response in the brain”, I think you’re half right. Behavioural activation is important for improvement in mood hence why therapies like ACT and CBT work. However, thought is not critical for this to occur – hence why studies have shown that it’s the behavioural aspect and not the cognitive aspect of CBT that is critical. However, your pharma argument smells of intellectual laziness, an overgeneralisation if ever there was one. There are several Cochrane reviews that shows anti-depressants work for a variety of disorders (references below) and generally speaking, psychiatric medications do much more good than harm. Sure there are always going to be case studies of “extreme negative responses” but I know of many more people whose lives have changed for the better because of psychiatric medication.

      All the best to you.

      References:

      Arroll B, Elley CR, Fishman T, et al. Antidepressants versus placebo for depression in primary care. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2009(3):CD007954.
      Soomro GM, Altman D, Rajagopal S, Oakley-Browne M. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) versus placebo for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2008(1):CD001765.
      Kapczinski F, Lima MS, Souza JS, Schmitt R. Antidepressants for generalized anxiety disorder. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2003(2):CD003592.

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