Dr Caroline Leaf and the power of prayer

If you’re a Christian, then you believe in the power of prayer.  It’s pretty fundamental … prayer is fundamental to our relationship with God and our daily life with him, and even salvation itself.

So where does the power of prayer come from?  Does it come from the words we speak like some ritual incantation? Does it come from the power of our minds?  Or does the power of prayer rest solely in God and his power when he answers our prayers?

One gets the impression from reading Dr Leaf’s e-mail newsletter today that the power of prayer is less about God and more about the power of the human mind.

Dr Leaf starts by saying that “12 minutes of daily focused prayer over an 8 week period can change the brain to such an extent that it can be measured on a brain scan. This type of prayer seems to increase activity in brain areas associated with social interaction compassion and sensitivity to others. It also increases frontal lobe activity as focus and intentionality increase.”

That may well be true, but the effect isn’t related to prayer itself, it’s simply what happens when the brain does things over and over.  This same effect occurs in people who perform Buddhist meditation [1], or jugglers learning to juggle [2], or London taxi drivers memorising the streets of London by rote [3].  Indeed, the brain has been shown to change simply with hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle [4].  Prayer might change the brain, but so do a lot of other things that have nothing to do with prayer.

Not that these pesky facts stop Dr Leaf from going on to state that, “As well as changing the brain, another study implies that intentional prayer can even change physical matter. Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.”  To start with, this study [5] that Dr Leaf refers to was nothing to do with Christian prayer, and all to do with Buddhist-type meditation … to use this ‘experiment’ as support for prayer is misleading.  It’s also misleading because the results were essentially the interpretation of the experimenter.  The same experimental design performed by independent laboratories showed no effect of thought on laser light [6] (see also “Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread“).

So intentional thought doesn’t change physical matter, and why should that be any surprise?  Prayer might change things, but the effect of prayer has nothing to do with us.  We don’t change physical matter, only God does, since He created matter in the first place.

Dr Leaf is simply setting up a false premise so she can solve it – ‘You cause brain damage by your toxic thinking, but you can heal your brain damage by your non-toxic thinking’.  But toxic thoughts do not cause brain damage, so there is no brain damage from toxic thinking for prayer to reverse.  The pathetic excuse for ’science’ that Dr Leaf relies on to support her ministry doesn’t show any effect for the power of prayer.  As Christians, the power of prayer is a matter of faith and reliance on the power of God, not our own strength.

References
[1]        Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in human neuroscience 2012;6:292
[2]        Scholz J, Klein MC, Behrens TE, Johansen-Berg H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature neuroscience 2009 Nov;12(11):1370-1.
[3]        Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus 2006;16(12):1091-101.
[4]        Hagemann G, Ugur T, Schleussner E, et al. Changes in brain size during the menstrual cycle. PloS one 2011 Feb 04;6(2):e14655.
[5]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 2008;4(1):25-35.
[6]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

Dr Caroline Leaf – 2 Corinthians 10:5 doesn’t support brain detoxing

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist-come-theologian, 2 Corinthians 10:5 says that “We take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.”

Sure, part of it does, but does the scripture 2 Corinthians 10:5 lend any credibility to Dr Leaf’s idea that thoughts are toxic and we need to take them captive to detox from them?

She may want it to – her 21 Day Brain Detox is so scientifically anaemic that I can understand her desperation to bolster its credibility any way she can.  Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, misinterpreted scripture isn’t the elixir her teaching needs.

2 Corinthians 10:5 is Pauls famous scripture in which is pens the words “thought” and “captive”, a concept which seems to support Dr Leaf’s ideas.  Except that Paul isn’t speaking generally to us, the body of Christ, but specifically about the Corinthian church. Look at the verse in context:

“By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul, who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ towards you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.  You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” (NIV UK, 2 Corinthians 10:1-11)

This chapter is a specific rebuke to some of the Christians within the church at Corinth, and also a defence against some of the murmurings and accusations that some in that church were levelling at Paul. For example, in verse 2, “I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.”

Verses 3-6 are a specific and authoritative rebuttal against the accusations levelled at Paul, paraphrased as, “You may speak against us and the church, but we have weapons that smash strongholds, and we’re coming to take down those pretensions of yours and take every thought of yours captive to make it obedient to Christ, and punish every act of disobedience …”

The specific nature of the verse is also supported by some Bible commentary:

“But how does St. Paul meet the charge of being carnally minded in his high office? “Though we walk in the flesh [live a corporeal life], we do not war after the flesh,” or “according to the flesh,” the contrast being in the words “in” and “according.” And forthwith he proceeds to show the difference between walking in the flesh and warring according to the flesh. A warrior he is, an open and avowed warrior – a warrior who was to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; a warrior too who would punish these Judaizers if they continued their disorganizing work; but a prudent and considerate warrior, deferring the avenging blow till “I am assured of your submission” (Stanley) “that I may not confound the innocent with the guilty, the dupes with the deceivers.” What kind of a preacher he was he had shown long before; what kind of an apostle he was among apostles as to independence, self-support, and resignation of official rights in earthly matters, he had also shown; further yet, what kind of a sufferer and martyr he was had been portrayed.”
(C. Lipscomb – http://biblehub.com/commentaries/homiletics/2_corinthians/10.htm)

Similarly, the translation from the original text is more specific than general. The verb used for “bringing into captivity” is aichmalōtízō, “to make captive: – lead away captive, bring into captivity” which is in the Present Active Participle form of the verb. The present tense represents a simple statement of fact or reality viewed as occurring in actual time. The active voice represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. The Greek participle corresponds for the most part to the English participle, reflecting “-ing” or “-ed” being suffixed to the basic verb form. Actions completed but ongoing or commands are different verb tenses (see https://www.blueletterbible.org/help/greekverbs.cfm for a better explanation). Paul wasn’t making a general statement, but a specific statement about what he would do in his present time, not the future.

So, Paul isn’t telling us to “bring every thought captive into obedience to Christ”.  Paul is issuing a smack-down to his critics, not telling us to fight our thoughts.

Dr Leaf is guilty of perpetuating a common scriptural misunderstanding in order to try and validate her already weak teaching.

Our thoughts are not toxic.  We do not need to detox our brain.  Misquoted phrases of scripture taken out of context doesn’t change that.

Kintsukuroi Christians

When I was a kid growing up, there wasn’t much that my father couldn’t repair.

Dad was extremely gifted with his hands, a talent that I certainly didn’t inherit. He was able to take a problem, come up with a practical solution in his mind’s eye, then build it out of whatever scraps of wood, metal or plastic he could lay his hands on. It was the ultimate expression of frugality and recycling that comes from a limited income and four growing children.

Dad was also able to resurrect nearly everything that broke in our house. Plates, cups, teapots, toys, tools … it seemed there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by the careful application of Araldite.

Araldite, for those unfamiliar with it, is some sort of epoxy resin that, in the right hands, possesses mystical properties of adhesion. It would stick anything to anything.

Dad’s gift for repairing things with Araldite meant that a lot of our things were patched up. Some of our most loved possessions were the most cracked. Despite being glued together several times, each item was still functional. Maybe not as pretty as it may have once been, but still useful, and more importantly, still treasured. Each time the Araldite came out, it taught me that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that shares the same principles. 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 the 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.
Mental illness is a mystery to most people, shrouded by mythology, stigma, gossip or Hollywood hype. It’s all around us, affecting a quarter of the population every year, but so often those with mental illness hide in plain sight. Mental illness doesn’t give you a limp, a lump, or a lag. It affects feelings and thoughts, our most latent personal inner world, the iceberg underneath the waters.

On the front line of medicine, I see people with mental health problems every day, but mental health problems don’t limit themselves to the doctor’s office. They’re spread throughout our everyday lives. If one in four people have a mental health problem of one form or another, then one in four Christians have a mental health problem of one form or another. If your church experience is anything like mine, you would shake hands with at least ten people from the front door to your seat. Statistically speaking, two or three of them will have a mental illness. Could you tell?

It’s a fair bet that most people wouldn’t know if someone in their church had a mental illness. Christians battling with mental illness learn to present a happy façade, or face the judgment if they don’t), so they either hide their inner pain, or just avoid church altogether.
Experiencing a mental illness also makes people feel permanently broken. They feel like they’re never going to be whole again, or good enough, or useful, or loved. They’re often treated that way by well-meaning but ill-informed church members whose idea’s and opinions on mental illness is out-of-date.

The truth is that Christians who have experienced mental ill-health are like a kintsukuroi pot.

Mental illness may break them, sure. But they don’t stay broken. The dark and difficult times, and their recovery from their illness is simply God putting lacquer on their broken pieces, putting them back together, and rubbing gold dust into their cracks.
We are all kintsukuroi Christians – we’re more beautiful and more honoured than we were before, because of our brokenness, and our recovery.

I’m pleased to announce that my book, Kintsukuroi Christians, is now available. I’ve written this book to try and bring together the best of the medical and spiritual.
Unfortunately, good scientific information often bypasses the church. The church is typically misled by Christian ‘experts’ that preach a view of mental health based on a skewed or outdated understanding of mental illness and cognitive neuroscience. I want to present a guide to mental illness and recovery that’s easy for Christians to digest, adopting the best spiritual AND scientific perspective.

In the book, I look at some scientific basics. Our mental world is based on the physical world. Our mind is a function of the brain, just like breathing is a function of our lungs. Just as we can’t properly understand our breathing without understanding our lungs, so it is that if we’re going to understand our thinking and our minds, we are going to have to understand the way our brain works. So the first part of this book will be an unpacking of the neurobiology of thought.

We’ll also look at what promotes good mental health. Then we’ll look at what causes mental illness, specifically looking at the most common mental health disorders. I will only look at some of the most common disorders to demonstrate some general principles of psychiatric illnesses and treatments. This book won’t be an encyclopaedia, and it doesn’t need to be. I hope to provide a framework so that common and uncommon mental health disorders can be better understood. I also discuss suicide, which is sadly more common than most people realise, and is rarely discussed.

I know mental illness is difficult, and we often look at ourselves or others as though the brokenness is abhorrent, ugly and deforming.
My hope is that through Kintsukuroi Christians, you’ll see the broken pieces are mended with gold, and realise that having or recovering from a mental illness doesn’t render someone useless or broken, but that God turns our mental brokenness into beauty.

Kintsukuroi Christians is available to purchase from good Christian bookstores around the world including:

Kooyong = https://www.koorong.com/search/product/kintsukuroi-christians-christopher-pitt/9780994596895.jhtml

Amazon US = https://www.amazon.com/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Amazon UK = https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Smashwords = https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/720425

~~

Mental illness can be challenging. Sometimes learning about mental illness can bring up difficult feelings or emotions, either things that you’ve been through yourself, or because you develop a better understanding of what a loved one is going through or has been through. Sometimes old issues that have been suppressed or not properly dealt with can bubble up to the surface. If at any point you feel distressed, I strongly encourage you to talk to your local doctor, psychologist, or pastor. If the feelings are so overwhelming that you need to talk to someone quickly, then please don’t delay, but reach out to a crisis service in your country

In Australia
Lifeline 13 11 14, or
BeyondBlue
Call 1300 22 4636
Daily web chat (between 3pm–12am) and email (with a response provided within 24 hours)  https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

USA = National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand = Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline 0800 543 354

UK = Samaritans (24 hour help line) 116 123

For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

On sperm and common sense

I’ve been thinking the last few days about critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack of it.

I’ve written about critical thinking before.  I realise that critical thinking can be difficult, and it doesn’t always come naturally to us humans.  And in discussing it here, I don’t want to give the false impression that I expect everyone to suddenly become Aristotle or Francis Bacon, but I’d like to think we can all have enough critical thinking skills to have some basic common sense.

A case in point came across my Facebook feed tonight.  A Facebook friend had laryngitis and was about to embark on a speaking engagement and was asking the hive mind for some advice.

Now I know that this was a question posed to lay people, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to be giving specific medical advice … but it was interesting that the answers, by and large, didn’t even pass the common sense test.  Most of the answers recommended either gargling or drinking various home-made potions.  Except, when you gargle something or drink something, it doesn’t go anywhere near the voice box – we know that because we know what happens when you get liquid into your voice box, you cough or choke.  So clearly, no matter what you’re gargling or drinking, it isn’t going to affect your vocal cords one bit.  You don’t need a medical degree to know that, you just have to use a little bit of common sense.

The same deficiency in entry-level critical thinking is seen in the church all the time.  It afflicts everyone from pew-warmer to pastor.  Common sense so often escapes us when it comes to understanding scripture.  Christian celebrities skew the text of the Bible to suit their own agendas all the time, and most Christians are too gullible and just accept the incorrect interpretation.  Sometimes a scriptural misinterpretation can be passed down from generation to generation because people don’t question the orthodoxy for fear of appearing divisive or ignorant.

A funny example of how the scripture can be taught with all sincerity but without much understanding is in relation to sperm.  When I was in my final year of high school at a prominent Christian school, one of the male teachers took it on himself to get all the boys together from our year level for a chat about important man things.

One of the things that was mentioned was that we shouldn’t masturbate, because of the story of Onan.  In Genesis 38, Onan ejaculated on the ground rather than in his sister-in-law and God smote him.  Somehow, that was taken to mean that semen is precious, therefore it shouldn’t be wasted.  This lead to a historical view, expressed by Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.”  This lead to the concept that masturbation is evil because it is seminal genocide, which eventually lead to the Monty Python parody “Every sperm is sacred” (https://youtu.be/fUspLVStPbk?list=RDfUspLVStPbk).

Anyway, back to my high school – the teacher wasted our entire morning tea time talking about Onan, and about how we should be chaste and not masturbate because every sperm is sacred.  But he clearly didn’t read the actual scripture, nor did he or anyone else ever consider why, if God was so stressed about wasting semen, He would create men to have wet dreams.  I really wanted to make this point, but didn’t because it was morning tea time and everyone wanted to get out of there, and I also didn’t want to be mercilessly harassed about being pro-masturbation by every guy in my grade.

My high school teacher and the story of Onan is an example of how people can be well meaning and still misguided, and why we need to apply common sense to scripture.  It doesn’t take a great deal of biological knowledge to know that men have nocturnal emissions of semen, yet for centuries, the story of Onan was about how he was smitten because of his treatment of his sperm, not about how he was disobedient.

Another example of how well-meaning but misguided teaching can be perpetuated comes from the Christian course, “Valiant Man” by Australian pastor, Dr Allen Meyer.  The “Valiant Man” program was a ten-week series of small group sessions designed with the intention of helping men develop their Christian character in the area of sex.  In week three, Dr Meyer (not a medical doctor) tried to show that men should respect women more because we all started off in the womb as females, and the Y-chromosome eventually turned us from a girl into a boy.

This little factoid wasn’t the only significant defect in the Valiant Man program, but it was one of the most memorable.   “We all start off female” was one of the things that the other participants in the program all remembered, and it even made it to Sunday morning church as part of a testimonial one of the men gave about the program.  And yet, it was one of the most clearly inaccurate parts of the program – all embryos have the structures to be either male or female.  We didn’t all start off as women.  Men aren’t an aberration of the female default setting*.

In week one of the program, all participants were required to agree to some ground-rules in order to keep going on the program.  Point 2 of this ‘contract’ said, “intellectual opinions play no part in our discussion, except where they are relevant to our growth.”  In other words, don’t challenge the material gentlemen, and don’t think for yourselves.  While this might be conducive to running a smooth program, it meant that gross errors and distortions were left unchallenged.

This pattern of unquestioning acceptance of misguided teaching continues throughout the church.  This is something that Dr Leaf does all the time.  It doesn’t take theological training to see that her use of scripture is inaccurate (like her interpretation of Proverbs 23:7, for example), but the vast majority of Christians simply accept her misguided interpretation and theologically trained church leaders also accept it, or don’t correct it (both of which are just as heinous).

I know that critical thinking is sometimes tricky, but I’m not advocating for anything more than common sense.  Entry level critical thinking doesn’t take much effort but it can be particularly life changing.  Like with “Valiant Man”, a little bit of critical thinking can stop bad teaching from being accepted as truth.  Like the story of Onan, a little bit of critical thinking can stop centuries of incorrect teaching being perpetuated.  Like with my friends Facebook status, a little bit of critical thinking can help a person make the best choice for their own personal health.

As Christians, we need to have some self-respect and stop being so gullible, just accepting something as the truth because some Christian celebrity says it from the pulpit.

Ultimately it’s the truth that sets us free, not some gilded assumption.

* In fairness, I did the program in 2010 and it may have been updated since then … here’s hoping.

Dr Caroline Leaf and her Genesis moment

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Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, had this to say on social media earlier today: “You are constantly creating matter out of mind … so you are always in a Genesis moment.”

Wow! Just wow! She may not have crossed the line into heresy, but she is pretty much right on top of it.

Because again, she has claimed that we can do with our minds what only God can do. We can not create matter.  The only being that has every created matter is God himself, in Genesis. In adding her little “Genesis moment” comment, she’s essentially equating our mind with God’s.

She might as well just come out and say, “We create matter with our minds, so we are like God”.

There’s a real Genesis moment where people thought they were like God: “‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”  We all know how that eventually turned out.

Ultimately it begs the question, where are the church leaders? I don’t hear anyone denouncing Dr Leaf’s comparison of our mind to God’s. How much is too much? When will they say, “Enough’s enough”?

It should have been said already, but sadly, with every unscientific, unscriptural meme that Dr Leaf publishes, the impotence and inaction of the church to becomes more and more painfully obvious.

Please church leadership, please take a stand, before it’s too late.

The confused teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf

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Dr Leaf released her latest e-mail newsletter today.  I decided to follow up with a brief review of this week’s instalment after her last e-mail newsletter completely misrepresented Ephesians 4:16, the function of the hypothalamus and the effect of stress on the population,

Dr Leaf was true to her usual form.  Her fundamental assumptions remain subtly skewed, forcing each layer of argument into an unbalanced and unstable alignment, and the more she tried to justify herself, the more unstable her arguments became, until eventually they toppled.

There was the obligatory dig at the medical profession, another smug ad hominem dismissal claiming that doctors have ‘negligible training in nutrition’, so doctors don’t understand the ‘whole approach’ that Dr Leaf and other so-called ‘progressive’ food thinkers have.  In reality, doctors have a lot of nutritional training, a darn-sight more than communication pathologists and self-titled cognitive neuroscientists.

And again, Dr Leaf demonstrates her paucity of knowledge or respect for the scripture by again misquoting Proverbs 23:7.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to be able to read a verse of scripture in context, and in context, “as he thinks in his heart [mind], so is he” has got nothing to do with our mind or our thoughts (as I’ve discussed before https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/05/30/dr-caroline-leaf-manhandling-scriptures-again/).

But the critical error which invalidates Dr Leaf’s essay this week is the intellectual dissonance she creates by making two paradoxical claims.

“Your mind, or soul, has one foot in the door of the spirit and one foot in the door of the body. The mind creates coherence between the spirit of man and the body of man, and therefore influences and controls brain/body function and health, and influences spiritual development. Your mind, with its intellectual ability to choose and its emotional authority, controls all physical aspects.”

and

“Fasting has been shown to enhance brain function, and reduce the risk factors for coronary artery disease, stroke, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure. For instance, restricting calories can support the induction of sirtuin-1 (SIRT1), an enzyme that regulates gene expression and enhances learning and memory.”

Essentially, Dr Leaf is saying in one breath that the mind is separate to the physical brain but controls all of the function of the physical brain and the body, but then moments later says that changes in the body alters the function of the brain which then alters the function of the mind.

So which is it?  You can’t have it both ways?  It’s impossible for the mind to control all physical aspects of the brain if the mind is vulnerable to changes in the brain and body.

The dilemma of Dr Leaf’s mind-brain paradox stems from her defective set of assumptions on the triune being.

“You are intrinsically, brilliantly, and intricately designed with a spirit, soul and body (Genesis 1:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). This is known as our triune nature.  Our triune nature is divided into different components. Your spirit is your ‘true you’, or what I call your PerfectlyYou. The spirit has three parts: intuition, conscience and communion (worship). Your soul, which is your mind, also has three parts: intellect, will and emotions. Lastly, your body has three parts: the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm, from which the brain and the body form.”

Dr Leaf’s ideas about the triune being are Biblically and scientifically tenuous—more conjecture on Dr Leaf’s part than hard science or solid theology (Read here for more information on this https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/07/25/dr-caroline-leaf-dualism-and-the-triune-being-hypothesis/)  Yet she bases her entire ministry on these shaky assumptions, cherry picking studies and manipulating facts to suit her arguments and ignoring the glaring contradictions that inevitably arise.

So Dr Leaf’s latest offering to her followers again demonstrates the confusion and contradiction that plagues her teaching—layer upon layer of cherry-picked factoids manipulated to prop up her tenuous assumptions. Dr Leaf would do better by listening to scientists and doctors rather than arrogantly dismissing them.

The soul, stress, sugar and spin

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Stress and sugar.  In our post-modern society’s orthorexic narrative, these are two of the biggest villains.  So combining them into a diabolical duo reinforces their evil even more.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, self-titled cognitive neuroscientist and Christian life coach.  In her latest newsletter to her adoring fans, Dr Leaf has accused sugar and stress of mass murder, with our soul’s approach to stress as their accomplice.

I’m sure Dr Leaf means well, but just because she’s not trying to frighten sales out of the gullible and vulnerable doesn’t mean she gets a free pass on the accuracy of her information.

To boil it down, Dr Leaf’s argument goes something like this:

Our choices turn good stress into bad stress
Bad stress releases excess cortisol which leads to disease and death
Therefore our choices to stress causes disease and death

We control our choices through our minds
Therefore, our mind is the key to stress illness
(oh, and sugar …)

The arguments seem plausible on the surface.  Most people have heard enough about stress to know about ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that ‘bad’ stress is a significant cause of disease and death.  In the middle of her essay, Dr Leaf jumps from stress to sugar with no preceding link, but again, most people have heard that sugar is unhealthy, so they would probably just accept that statement too.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her article has several critical errors which turn her well-meaning educational essay into a science-fiction short story.

To start with, her essay is built on the dysfunctional premise that the mind controls the brain, so each higher argument or premise is fundamentally skewed from the outset, and in doing so, Dr Leaf simply creates a circular argument of distorted factoids.

For example, her opening sentence: “The hypothalamus is a central player in how the mind (soul) controls the body’s reaction to stress and foods.”  The hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system deep in the brain.  It’s the main pathway from the brain to the endocrine system as Dr Leaf goes on to correctly assert, but essentially it runs on auto-pilot, responding automatically to information already being processed at a level beyond the reach of our conscious awareness and control.  For example, the hypothalamus regulates our body temperature, but it does so without our conscious control.  We can not consciously will our body temperature up or down just with our minds.

It’s the same with the stress response – there are many times where people have a subconscious stress response, where their mind feels like there’s nothing to be afraid of, but their hypothalamus is still priming their system for fight or flight.  White coat hypertension is a prime example.  White coat hypertension, or “White Coat Syndrome” is the phenomenon of people having high blood pressure in their doctor’s office but not at home.  Patients will say to me all the time, “I don’t know why my blood pressure is so high in here.  I feel fine.  I know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.”  But while their conscious mind is relaxed, their deeper subconscious brain remembers those injections that hurt, or that one time a doctor stuck the tongue depressor too far down their throat and they felt like they choked on it, and their hypothalamus is preparing them for whatever nastiness the doctor has for them this time.

Dr Leaf’s statement fails because she wrongly equates our brain with our mind, a subtle perversion which doesn’t just invalidate her premise, but significantly skews the essay as a whole.

As a quick aside, Dr Leaf also says that the hypothalamus “integrates signals from the mind and body, sending them throughout our bodies so that we can react in an appropriate and functional manner, ‘so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love’ (Eph. 4:16 NLT)”.  Ephesians 4:16 isn’t talking about the physical body, but about the body of Christ.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to know this, you just have to be able to read.  Here is what the Bible says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis added).

There’s no subtlety about this misuse of scripture.  Even non-Christians would be able to figure out that this verse has nothing to do with the physical body.  Dr Leaf has demonstrated that she either doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t understand it.  Either way, this is a shameful indictment on Dr Leaf’s claim that she’s a “Biblical expert”, and should be ringing alarm bells for every pastor that is considering letting her get behind the pulpit of their church.

Dr Leaf rolls on with her list of medical misinformation.  Some of it is subtle (the “stages of stress”, also termed the General Adaptation Model, is an outdated model of the stress response [1], and CRF and ACTH are released during all stages of stress, not just stage 1).  Some of it is outlandish, like her claim that high levels of stress leads to Cushing’s Syndrome (see http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2233083-overview#a4 for a list of the causes of Cushing’s Syndrome and note that stress isn’t on the list).

Dr Leaf’s also suggested that it was solely our perception of stress that was the key factor in the outcome of stress, making reference to “a study” showing a 43% increase in mortality if you thought stress was bad.  This is an example of cherry-picking at it’s finest, where one study’s findings are misrepresented to try and support one’s pre-existing position.  Dr Leaf didn’t bother to list her references at the end of the article, instead expecting people to find it for themselves, but I’ve previously seen the study she’s referring to.  Keller and colleagues published the study in 2012 [2].  Their survey suggested a correlation between overall mortality and the combination of lots of stress and the belief that stress is bad.  But remember, correlation does not equal causation, a golden rule which Dr Leaf is quick to ignore when the correlation suits her argument.  The Keller study, while interesting, did not control for the impact of neuroticism, the “negative” personality type which is largely genetically determined and is independently associated with a higher mortality [3-9].  It does not prove that thinking about your stress in a better way makes you live longer.

Dr Leaf went on to claim that “the researchers estimated that the 18,200 people who died, died from the belief that stress is bad for you—that is more than two thousand deaths a year.”  Even here, Dr Leaf manages to get her facts wrong.  The authors actually wrote, “Using these cumulative hazards at the end of the study follow-up period under the assumption of causality, it was estimated that the excess deaths attributable to this combination of stress measures over the study period was 182,079 (controlling for all other covariates), or about 20,231 deaths per year (over 9 years).”

Dr Leaf can’t even get her vexatious arguments right.  Not that the number really matters, because notice how the authors described the magic number as an “assumption of causality”.  Basically the authors said, ‘Well, IF this was the cause of death, then these would be the numbers of deaths attributable.’  They NEVER said that anyone actually died because of their beliefs about stress.  Indeed, the results showed that just believing that stress was bad didn’t make any difference to the mortality rate as Dr Leaf suggested – it was the interaction of high stress AND the belief it was bad that was associated with a higher mortality.  But why let pesky issues like methodological rigour get in the way of sensationalist hyperbole.

Then in the penultimate paragraph, Dr Leaf suddenly decides to throw sugar into the mix.  Somehow without justification, stress is bad and therefore sugar is also bad, and they both throw the hypothalamus and the rest of the body into toxicity.

Dr Caroline Leaf is promoted, by herself and by many in the Christian church, as a Biblical and scientific expert, but in one short promotional essay, Dr Leaf makes multiple critical scientific and exegetical errors.  In other words, her errors in discussing scientific findings and basic Biblical text are so massive that they are incongruent with her claim to be an expert.

Something needs to change – either Dr Leaf revises her knowledge and improves her accuracy, or she needs to stop misleading people from pulpits, both virtual and real.

References

[1]        McEwen BS. Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN 2005 Sep;30(5):315-8.
[2]        Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol 2012 Sep;31(5):677-84
[3]        Okbay A, Baselmans BM, De Neve JE, et al. Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nature genetics 2016 Apr 18.
[4]        Servaas MN, Riese H, Renken RJ, et al. The effect of criticism on functional brain connectivity and associations with neuroticism. PloS one 2013;8(7):e69606.
[5]        Hansell NK, Wright MJ, Medland SE, et al. Genetic co-morbidity between neuroticism, anxiety/depression and somatic distress in a population sample of adolescent and young adult twins. Psychological medicine 2012 Jun;42(6):1249-60.
[6]        Koelsch S, Enge J, Jentschke S. Cardiac signatures of personality. PloS one 2012;7(2):e31441.
[7]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[8]        Gonda X, Fountoulakis KN, Juhasz G, et al. Association of the s allele of the 5-HTTLPR with neuroticism-related traits and temperaments in a psychiatrically healthy population. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 2009 Mar;259(2):106-13.
[9]        Lahey BB. Public health significance of neuroticism. Am Psychol 2009 May-Jun;64(4):241-56.