Dr Caroline Leaf and Zombie Chemical Imbalance Myth

Sometimes if you tell a story often enough, people forget that it’s just a story and it takes on a life of its own. It’s like a zombie … the story isn’t real but it continues to wander around eating people’s brains and it’s very hard to kill off.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also believes that reading a few blogs from fringe psychologists entitles her to call herself a mental health expert. She is the Christian church’s pin-up girl for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dr Leaf recently posted a blog on “The Chemical Imbalance Myth”. It’s a zombie. She’s posted on this before (on the 26th of October 2015 to be precise) but her blog post in 2015 was so inaccurate that she later took it down, only for it to resurface later on her website (in the section dubiously titled “Scientific FAQ”).

And like every good zombie, it’s resurfaced again. Dr Leaf hasn’t changed any of the inaccuracies that forced her to take down the original post, but instead added a couple of extra bits in, mixed it up a little and then just served it up, like a reheated bowl of rancid Christmas scraps.

I won’t go through each and every point like I did with her previous iteration of this blog, although if you want to review my more in-depth analysis of this subject, then please feel free to read my previous blog post: https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/26/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-myth-of-chemical-imbalances-myth/. But I thought it was worth highlighting a couple of key things from this year’s fetid reincarnation which are so flawed that not even a B-grade science fiction writer would seriously entertain them.

THE MIND AND THE BRAIN

Dr Leaf says:

“In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life.” This is based on her underlying assumption that the brain doesn’t control the mind, but instead the mind controls the brain.

However, she also says that “Psychotropic drugs can directly affect our health, with side effects such as an increased risk of suicide, loss of sexual ability, potential brain shrinkage, agitation, insomnia, weight gain and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, lethargy, mental fog, emotional apathy, homicide”.

This statement is really ignorant and prejudiced; psychiatric drugs don’t make people into murderers for a start.

But the most striking flaw of all is that Dr Leaf is contradicting herself. She confidently asserts that psychotropic medications and their terrible chemical imbalances have ghastly side effects on emotional and cognitive functions such as “mental fog” and “emotional apathy”. But how can that be? After all, if the brain does not control the mind as she says, then the medications affecting the brain would not have any effect on the mind.

Dr Leaf can’t have it both ways – either her entire ministry is built on a false premise (the brain really controls the mind after all) or her dire assertions about psychiatric medications are unfounded (chemical imbalances in the brain can’t cause effects on the mind).

One way or the other, Dr Leaf has a serious problem in her reasoning.

Real science has clearly demonstrated that the mind is a product of the brain. Things that alter the structure of the brain (trauma, tumours) or the function of the brain (medications like ropinirole, every day drugs like caffeine, or illicit drugs like LSD) can all cause changes in how the mind functions with resulting changes in behaviour.

If Dr Leaf isn’t able to get the basics of science right and make even the most basic cogent argument then how can she be trusted to speak to more complicated issues surrounding mental health and illness.

DR LEAF’S RESEARCH

Dr Leaf has never been one to undersell her scientific work. Accordingly, in her blog post she says:

Following a similar research path, I have also demonstrated, using my research on the power of mind-action in changing the brain, that mental disorders are primarily based in the mind …

I have researched the effectiveness of mind action techniques (which are thought-based) in overcoming the negative effects of neurological issues such as TBI, dementias, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma as well as various cognitive, emotional and mental health issues …

My Geodesic Learning Theory has been shown not only to be effective in mental health care, but also treating physical damage to the brain that occurs in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disabilities and to improve learning techniques in both schools and the corporate world …

my research and experience indicated that many of these conditions were influenced by, or originated in, a disorder of the mind that was either caused by a trauma or negative thinking patterns. In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life.

And yet the reality is that Dr Leaf only did one PhD in South Africa, and has not done any other university based research since. Her PhD did not look at “the power of mind-action in changing the brain”. In fact, her research didn’t focus on mental health or illness at all, and it certainly didn’t focus on dementias, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma, cognitive, emotional or mental health issues.

Her PhD was the evaluation of her Geodesic Learning Theory on a group of very normal students in a South African School. None of them had dementia. None of the other conditions were mentioned either. The overall results were likely due to chance, and in some cases, her intervention made the students grades worsen. The only other research that Dr Leaf performed was a similar intervention in come schools in Dallas, but the results were much the same as her PhD and given the unflattering results, this study was never published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dr Leaf should know what she studied for her own research, and yet her description in her current blog post is so strikingly different from what is on the public record. So again, this begs the question – how can someone who is so wrong about her own research be trusted with any level of authority in any other subject?

PREJUDICE AGAINST MENTAL ILLNESS

For someone who claims to be an expert on mental health, Dr Leaf is extremely callous and dismissive of those people who suffer from mental illnesses. She repeatedly uses quotation marks to refer to mental illnesses, like ‘“diseases” like depression’ as if to suggest that they aren’t illnesses at all. Can you imagine if this same level of disrespect was applied to someone with a physical disability? That people in wheelchairs have the “disability” of paraplegia, for example. It’s extremely disrespectful and intolerant whether it is speaking about a physical disability or a mental illness.

The other thing which is highly inappropriate is her scare-mongering about psychiatric treatments. Psychiatric patients are not imprisoned, drugged, locked in solitary confinement and compelled to “live their days marinating in their own excrement.” I doubt whether Dr Leaf has ever set foot in a psychiatric facility. She is simply regurgitating the information fed to her by alarmist groups such as Mad In America, a group of psychologically trained rogue extremists – the Taliban of the world of psychiatry. It’s propaganda in it’s purest form, but Dr Leaf takes it at face value and repeats it no matter how inaccurate it actually is.

Dr Leaf’s criticism of modern psychiatry is breathtaking in it’s ignorance, especially in the face of published science, but what makes it more concerning is that it is internally inconsistent her own teaching, and this isn’t the first time that she’s contradicted herself.

Dr Leaf should take down this ignorant, inaccurate and intolerant post. This particular zombie myth needs to be buried once and for all.

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Kintsukuroi Christmas

Have you ever opened a Christmas present to find it wasn’t quite what you expected?

I confess, I hate Secret Santa. I’ve been scarred more than once. One time a group of my friends decided it would be good to do a Secret Santa. I spend an hour or two making sure that I found a present for my secret santa that was good quality, something small but meaningful. After all, no one wants to get some dud present. In the end I bought this person a small sampler of some good quality chocolates – something discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed.

In return, I got a tin of cat food … and not even good quality cat food, but the cheapest generic cat food from the worst supermarket chain.

Stunned, I remember stammering, “But … I don’t have a cat …” (For the record, my friends were very unsympathetic and thought it was extremely hilarious).

Another time for a workplace Secret Santa, I had to buy for one of my receptionists. Again, I thought about something that would be discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed, and I tracked down a small gift box from the Body Shop.

In return, I got batteries, and again, not good batteries, but the cheap variety that have lost half their charge before you even take them from the packet. To rub salt into that particular wound, my secret santa revealed himself as one of the other doctors in the practice, who proudly said, “You’ve got kids, so I thought batteries would be a great present for all of the toys they’re going to get.”

Dude, I’ve got Asperger’s, and even I know that was a sucky present! So, uh, thanks?

Ever since the first Christmas more than two thousand years ago, Christmas is a time of giving gifts. In the description of the first Christmas in the Bible, the three magi (or wise men) brought the baby Jesus three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Interestingly, history suggests that these gifts were extraordinarily precious which in ancient times made them standard gifts to honour a king or deity. Gold as we know is a precious metal. Frankincense was used as perfume or incense and myrrh was used as an anointing oil. These same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.

Christmas presents have come a long way since then, and even more so in the last century. My father was born in a poor part of northern England at the end of the great depression, the youngest child of a family of ten children. He would tell me of his Christmases growing up and how his brothers and sisters looked forward to getting an apple, an orange and some nuts in their Christmas stockings. When I was a pre-teen in the 80’s, I got books and clothes, cricket gear and matchbox cars (hey, they were cool back in the day). This Christmas, all my tween and teen children want is electronic consoles (my son has his heart set on a Wii Switch). I don’t dare think what my grandchildren will be asking for at Christmas time in twenty or thirty years’ time.

Whether you get presents fit for a king or you end up with the booby prize of generic cat food, we at least expect our presents to work. No one wants a broken present after all. So imagine if when you opened your Christmas present, it was cracked, or chipped, or broken. What would you do? Would you keep it, or hope that the person who gave it to you kept the receipt?

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that would not only keep things which were broken, in repairing them, would make them even more precious. For more than 400 years, the Japanese people have practiced kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi (pronounced ‘kint soo koo ree’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the deep understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

The edges of the broken fragments are coated with a glue made from Japanese lacquer resin and are bonded back into place. The joints are rubbed with an adhesive until the surface is perfectly smooth again. After drying, more lacquer is applied. This process is repeated many times, and gold dust is also applied.

In kintsukuroi, the gold lacquer accentuates the fracture lines, and the breakage is honoured as part of that piece’s history.

In the practice of kintsukuroi, we see the principle that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

Sometimes I feel very, very broken … hopeless, useless, like I’m just a broken present. Sometimes I wish I could be returned, but I didn’t come with a receipt and sometimes I feel like no one would want me back anyway. Sometimes I feel like I’m good for nothing but the scrapheap.

Whether it’s mental illness, family stress, financial hardship or just the daily grind wearing us down, we can all find ourselves feeling a bit broken at times.

Christmas reminds us of the gift of redemption. Jesus’ life was one of fixing that which was broken, of giving people a second chance. The gospels tell story after story of how Jesus helped people back on to their feet; forgiving, healing and restoring hope. Even his life before his ministry was that of a carpenter, creating new things and fixing that which was broken.

It’s easy to feel broken in this broken world, but remember, whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption. No one is beyond repair. Like objects fixed with kintsukuroi, being broken isn’t the end, but we can become even better – more beautiful and more honoured for having been broken.

I hope that this Christmas, you can find hope and redemption, and that you get some good gifts worthy of a king, not worthy of a cat.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. See you in 2019.