Dr Caroline Leaf is no stranger to ignorance and controversy – she thinks that our minds can create matter, that our thoughts can control our genetic expression, and that psychiatric medications are a leading cause of death. So it should come as no surprise when she proves the Dunning-Kruger Effect over and over again.
Still, I found her podcast and meme today utterly breathtaking.
Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-cum-life-guru continues to weigh in on the gun debate every time there’s a mass shooting. I wouldn’t if I were her, but fools rush in.
At least Dr Leaf has finally stopped blaming mental illness or psychiatric medication for causing such mass murders. That said, there’s still more twisting and contorting in her statement than at a pretzel convention.
Dr Leaf has relinquished one over-simplistic solution in favour of another. Yes, mass shootings aren’t related to mental illness, but can you really say with a straight face that mass shootings occur because of a lack of love? So we should all hold hands and sing Kumbayah? Have a few more hugs? Dr Leaf’s suggestion is childish and inane.
Since 1996, Australia’s number of mass shootings has been zero. Australia’s gun-related homicide and suicide rate also fell. Why? It’s not because we all started loving each other more down here after 1996. It’s because, amongst other reasons, the Australian government introduced gun law reform, drastically reducing the number of guns available within the general population.
Perhaps living in Texas has rubbed off on her, or perhaps Dr Leaf is an NRA sympathiser. I honestly don’t know why Dr Leaf is so afraid to speak directly to the problem. Most of the US and the entire rest of the world can see the issue for what it is. If it wasn’t so tragic, her dance around the issue would be comical.
Dr Leaf is welcome to her opinion, but she can not claim any level of moral or professional authority on this issue. Her “years of experience in the mental health field” are zero, as is her credibility as an expert. Encouraging more love with the same number of handguns and semi-automatics on the street is not going to prevent more casualties.
The last time I looked through the supermarket, I bought some baked beans. How did I know the can I took off the shelf was full of baked beans and not freshly harvested sheep’s innards? Because the label on the can said so.
Labels aren’t perfect of course. Every now and then, a can of something has the wrong label applied in the factory. Usually it’s nothing too sinister – no accidental swaps of some goat entrails instead of your tinned salmon. Instead, it’s usually something similar – tuna gets labelled as salmon and vice versa, and the worst that happens is that the tuna mornay you’ve just made had an unexpected flavour. Even these sorts of mild mix ups are rare. Overall, we trust that the labels are guides and the information they provide us helps us make an informed decision about what do to with that particular can and its contents.
It would be pretty silly for some random person to preach out the front of the supermarket, ranting about how all labels for a particular thing are all wrong.
“Uh, just because the occasional can of tuna was accidentally filled with cat food doesn’t mean to say that all labels are wrong. And just because one person had a bad experience with the wrong label, the supermarket shouldn’t stop using them … otherwise how else is anyone supposed to manage their cans effectively without labels? Honestly, stop looking like a fool by preaching about labels and let the rest of us finish our shopping.”
Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist, self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, and a self-elected champion of irrelevant mental health advocacy, has come out all guns ablazin’ over ADHD labels again. She needs to give it a rest – she’s just like the crazy person standing in front of the supermarket.
“Labels for ADHD are bad”, she says. “Look at Avery Jackson, who was labeled ADHD but did not accept the label. He went on to earn multiple degrees and become one of the top neurosurgeons in the U.S!” The underlying message – labelling a child with ADHD will lock then into a life of pathetic excuses and they won’t ever reach their full potential until they renounce the curse of their ADHD label.
For every scary anecdote about the evils of ADHD and the mental prison that everyone with such a label is supposed to find themselves in, there are ten more where the ADHD label helped them. There are so many more people where the ADHD label helped them to finally understand their condition and receive the correct treatment, enabling them to reach their potential and improve their life in leaps and bounds.
Take, for example, one of my patients called Little Jimmy (not his real name). When Little Jimmy was in the early primary school grades, he was a bit of a fidgeter and couldn’t concentrate well enough at school or at home to complete his homework tasks. His mother took him to a naturopath who told him he had a disorder of “pyrolles disease”. Thankfully, mum brought him to see me, and after a careful history and a long chat, Little Jimmy went to see a specialist who diagnosed him with ADHD and commenced him on stimulant medications. Before his label, Little Jimmy’s reading levels were languishing at the bottom off his class after two years of stagnation. He was more than a year behind in reading levels and going nowhere fast. Two weeks after getting his label and the right medication, he went to the top three reading levels in the class. His mother told me of the massive gains he made, and the flow-on effect this had to his self-esteem and confidence in other areas of his school work and school life. She cried as she recounted his story, and then I cried too.
So perhaps Avery Jackson became an orthopaedic surgeon because he chose to ignore his label of ADHD and worked hard anyway. Good for him. Little Jimmy got a label of ADHD and because of it, he learnt to read. Now he’s got the chance to follow in Avery Jackson’s footsteps, BECAUSE of his label.
Labels are important. Without them, we wouldn’t know how to know who needs which treatment. Labels can help people overcome some of the strongest barriers and connect with others for support.
And let’s face it, if someone really wanted to, they don’t need a label of ADHD to find excuses in life.
So labels are not a hinderance, but rather, they are a guide to help you know what’s going on so informed choices can be made. In Dr Leaf’s mind, those kids with ADHD are just naughty children, with bad parents, who are using the label of ADHD to cover their poor parenting and their bad behaviour. Clearly all they need to do is to stop their toxic thinking and they wouldn’t need their medications, but they would be cured.
Dr Leaf is wrong … she can stand and scream blue murder about labels and ADHD all she wants. But just like the crazy random person screaming about labels in front of the supermarket, it means very little. It’s not helping her cause, and if anything, it’s sewing distrust in an system that, despite it’s flaws, works very well, and has helped thousands of children and adults alike to achieve their potential.
That’s the power of labels, and Dr Leaf would do herself and all her followers a favour if she stopped mislabelling them.
Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, put this up on her social media pages this morning:
“Never feel bad for being sad. Emotions should not be kept inside because that will only make things worse. Talk to someone, cry, scream… whatever helps you feel better. One of my favorite movies is Inside Out because it really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process. I really encourage all of you to not keep emotions bottled up. Let it out!”
Inside Out is one of my favourite movies too. It is a rich layering of some complex psychology, told through a wonderfully relatable narrative that is beautifully told.
Inside Out is about the emotions that live inside us. Riley, an 11-year-old girl, moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the movie tells the story of her emotions as they deal with all of the conflicts and chaos that comes with adapting to such a big change.
The main characters are Joy and Sadness, which share “headquarters” with Anger, Fear and Disgust. Each character has its own role to play, which Joy, as the main narrator of the movie, explains:
“That’s Fear. He’s really good at keeping Riley safe.”
“This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.”
“That’s Anger. He … cares very deeply about things being fair.”
And Sadness? “And you’ve met Sadness. She … well, she … I’m not actually sure what she does …”
Dr Leaf explained that Inside Out, “… really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it, but Inside Out is actually much much deeper. The story of Inside Out demonstrates that all of our emotions are needed in order to be a healthy human being.
Joy thinks of herself as the primary emotion, and does her best to keep Sadness away from the control panel. Over the arc of the story, Joy learns that Riley needs Sadness too – that some problems can’t be solved with distraction or a pop-psychology pep-talk and positive attitude.
By the end of the movie, Joy allows Sadness to take over, helping Riley to process all of the things she had been struggling with after the major life change of her move to San Francisco.
This is what Dr Leaf was referring to, I think. Yes, sadness is part of healing from any major life change including grief.
What Dr Leaf didn’t discuss was the role of the other emotions in Riley’s life. Yes, Joy and Sadness are important, but the movie demonstrated all the way through that Fear, Anger and Disgust were all just as important, and the end of the movie showed that Riley’s core memories, which each formed a different aspect of her personality, were various combinations of all of the emotions.
But that’s not what Dr Leaf teaches. For decades, her teaching has been back-to-front, claiming that emotions like anger and fear are toxic, and that toxic emotions cause damage to your brain and damage to your health. She tells her followers not to think toxic thoughts or to have toxic emotions, but to take control of your thought life.
“Toxic thoughts are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.”  (p19)
“Hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions; they can produce real physiological reactions in the body and cause serious mental and physical illness.”  (p30)
“There are two groups of emotions that are polar opposites: positive, faith-based emotions and negative, fear-based emotions. Each has its own set of molecules and performs as spiritual forces with chemical and electrical representation in the body. Faith-based emotions are love, joy, peace, happiness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, forgiveness and patience. These produce good attitudes and thoughts. Fear-based emotions include hate, anxiety, anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, impatience and irritation. These produce toxic attitudes and create a chemical reaction in the body that can alter behavior.” http://tkr-onfire4him.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/controlling-toxic-thoughts-and-emotions.html
“When you think a toxic thought, or make a bad choice, or you hang on to anything that is negative—anger, bitterness, hurt, irritation, or frustration—it impacts the production of those chemicals.” “Through an uncontrolled thought life, we create the conditions for illness; we make ourselves sick! Research shows that fear, all on its own, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones. There are INTELLECTUAL and MEDICAL reasons to FORGIVE! Toxic waste generated by toxic thoughts causes the following illnesses: diabetes, cancer, asthma, skin problems and allergies to name just a few. Consciously control your thought life and start to detox your brain!” https://drleaf.com/about/toxic-thoughts/
So it’s really interesting to see Dr Leaf discuss a movie that promotes the exact opposite of her teaching. Perhaps she’s finally coming around to what real neuroscientists and researchers have been saying for ages, that “adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of an emotional reaction … Adaptive coping profits from flexible access to a range of genuine emotions as well as the ongoing cooperation of emotions with other components of the action system.” 
If Dr Leaf is finally coming around to real science, then that’s great, but she can’t have it both ways … she can’t promote expressing your emotions on one hand and then suppressing them on the other. If she wants to come back to the fold of real science, then she’s going to have to renounce her previous teaching, and take it down from her website. Otherwise it ends up being conflicting and hypocritical as well as being downright confusing.
So, Dr Leaf, you’re welcome to use movies like Inside Out to illustrate good psychological principles, but if you want credibility, you should work on some consistency.
 Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
 Skinner EA, Zimmer-Gembeck MJ. The development of coping. Annual review of psychology 2007;58:119-44.