They say that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen … you just have to believe in it to make it work. Wish upon a star, believe in yourself, speak positively, think things into being … it’s the sort of magical thinking that forms the backbone of Hollywood scripts and self-help books everywhere.
But that’s not how science works. In the real world, believing in something doesn’t make it magically happen. Holding onto a belief and trying to make it work leads to bias and error. Instead of finding the truth, you end up fooling yourself into believing a lie.
This is the trap that Dr Leaf has fallen into as she continually tries to perpetuate the unscientific notion that the mind changes the brain.
Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her philosophical assumptions start with the concept that the mind is separate from and controls the physical brain, and continue to unravel from there.
The problem is that Dr Leaf can’t (or won’t) take a hint. I’ve discussed the mind-brain link in other blogs in recent times (here and here), but yet Dr Leaf continues to insist that the mind can change the brain. It’s as if she believes that if she says it for long enough it might actually come true.
Today, Dr Leaf claimed that “newly published” research from Yale claimed that, “Individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” Except that this research is not really new since it was published last year, and Dr Leaf tried to draw the same tenuous conclusions then as she’s doing now.
She quoted from the interview that one of the authors did for the PR puff piece that promoted the scientific article:
“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable”.
Well, the issue is clearly settled then, all over bar the shouting. Except that the promotional article doesn’t go through all of the flaws in the methodology of the study or the alternative explanations to their findings. Like that the study by Levy, “A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers” , only showed a weak correlation between a single historical sample of attitude towards aging and some changes in the brain that are known to be markers for Alzheimer Dementia some three decades later.
They certainly didn’t show that stress, or a person’s attitude to aging, in anyway causes Alzheimer Dementia. And they didn’t correct for genetics in this study which is the major contributor to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s . So no matter what Dr Leaf or the Yale PR department thinks, the results of the study mean very little.
But why let the lack of ACTUAL EVIDENCE get in the way of a good story.
It’s sad to see someone of the standing of Dr Leaf’s shamelessly demoralise themselves, scrambling to defend the indefensible, hoping beyond hope that what they believe will become the truth if they try hard enough. It doesn’t matter how much Dr Leaf wants to believe that the mind changes the brain, that’s not what science says, and clutching at straws citing weak single studies and tangential press releases isn’t going to alter that.
 Levy BR, Slade MD, Ferrucci L, Zonderman AB, Troncoso J, Resnick SM. A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Psychology and Aging 2015;30(4).
 Reitz C, Brayne C, Mayeux R. Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurol 2011 Mar;7(3):137-52.