Dr Caroline Leaf and the Maligned Master Mind Meme

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On Facebook today, Dr Leaf published a menagerie of memes, a full house of five of her favourite little nuggets of wisdom that comprise the pillars of her teaching.  For example, “Everything you first do and say is first a thought.” And, “You alone are responsible and can be held responsible for how you react to what happens in your life: your future is open, filled with an eternity of possible situations and choices.”  Too bad that our genes, which are not the result of our choices, are the biggest influence of our personality and our capacity to cope with our external environment (Vinkhuyzen et al, 2012), and that we often do and sometimes say things without thinking (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/11/08/dr-caroline-leaf-putting-thought-in-the-right-place/).

But the most interesting meme in today’s trick is “The mind controls the brain … the brain influences but does not control the mind.”

For years, Dr Leaf has taught that the mind is separate from and controls the brain through social media and through her books.  Take a meme she posted to social media in May 2016.  It said, “As triune beings made in God’s image, we are spirit, mind (soul) and body – and our brain being part of the body does the bidding of the mind …”, and “God has designed the mind as separate from the brain. The brain simply stores the information from the mind and your mind controls your brain.”

With the weight of scientific evidence bearing down on her, Dr Leaf has finally given a little and made a concession.  Now the brain influences, but is still controlled by, the mind.

While it’s a step in the right direction, Dr Leaf’s meme is still wrong.  It doesn’t matter what small changes Dr Leaf makes to the window dressing of her teaching, her ministry is so structurally unsound that it’s derelict.

This is because the mind is a product of the brain.  Yes, the brain influences the mind, because the brain creates the mind.  Actual neuroscientists like Professor Bernard Baars in collaboration with mathematician and computer scientist Professor Stan Franklin have shown that the mind is simply a small projection of a much greater stream of unconscious brain activity (Baars and Franklin, 2003; Franklin, 2013; Baars, 2005)

The relationship of the brain to the mind is a little like the relationship of our cars dashboard to the engine.  We don’t see all of the actions of the engine under the hood of our car, but it powers our car nonetheless.  What we do see is the dashboard.  We can see our speed, and depending on the make and model of the car you drive, the dashboard also shows the engine temperature, revs, fuel and the warning lights for our engine and our electrics.

In the same way, our brain powers us.  It’s the engine purring along under the surface.  Our mind is the dashboard, giving us a tiny glimpse at a much greater process underneath the surface.  Suggesting that our mind is in control of our brain is like suggesting that our dashboard is in control of our engine.  The mind is a product of our brain designed to give us conscious awareness of a small portion of a much deeper stream of activity that senses our environment, alters our moods, plans our actions and then executes them.

By basing her entire ministry on such science fiction, Dr Leaf makes a mockery out of every church that hosts her, of everyone that buys her books, and of everyone who subscribes to her programs.  She also makes a mockery of herself, which is the saddest part of this whole story.  I hope that she stops making changes to the window dressings of her ministry, and starts to make the necessary changes to her foundations before it’s too late and the whole thing comes crashing down.

References

Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53

Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends Cogn Sci, 2003. 7(4): 166-72  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12691765 ; http://bit.ly/1a3ytQT

Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22

Vinkhuyzen, A.A., et al., Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2012. 2: e102 doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27

Can you really Think and Eat Yourself Smart?

Sydney_skyline_at_dusk_-_Dec_2008

Today I’m in Sydney, a vibrant, bustling city which centres on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.  When I booked my flights in April, I was originally going to spend the day attending Dr Caroline Leaf’s Australian Think and Eat Yourself Smart workshop.  Dr Leaf and her minions revoked my ticket a few weeks later.  She also changed the workshop twitter hashtag from #thinkandeatsmart to just #eatsmart, so perhaps Dr Leaf doesn’t want free thinking at the workshop.

It’s such a shame really, because I was looking forward to being part of the history of Dr Leaf’s first workshop on Australian soil.  But no matter … why waste a perfectly good plane ticket when I can have a day to sightsee, take photos, and catch a few Pokemon here and there as well.

And as a special something for all the people who’re attending the workshop today with Dr Leaf, I thought I’d pen a blog in their honour … something for them to ponder as they listen to Dr Leaf’s presentation, and maybe even provide them with a nidus of a question to pose to her during the day.  So here goes …

As the name would suggest, the Think and Eat Yourself Smart workshop is based on Dr Leaf’s book, Think and Eat Yourself Smart.  Does the book (and the subsequent workshop) deliver what it promises?  That is, can you really think and eat yourself smart?  It’s all well and good for Dr Leaf to espouse her fringe opinions on the food industry and modern farming, and to recycle nutritional information that doctors and dieticians have been promoting for years, but if her book can’t deliver on its titular promise, then it’s just an unoriginal rehash.

To support her thesis that we can think and eat ourselves smart, Dr Leaf declares that what you think affects what you eat, and what you eat affects what you think.  It’s on these intertwined ideas that Dr Leaf’s book stands or falls.  Let’s look at those statements in more detail.

Statement number 1 – “What you think affects what you eat”

Dr Leaf has a broad approach with this premise.  She suggests that the mindset that you have will not only determine what you consume, but also how your body will process it.

For example, she said on page 84 of Think and Eat Yourself Smart, “Research shows that 75 – 98 percent of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues come from our thought life; only 2 – 25 percent come from a combination of genetics and what enters our bodies through food, medications, pollution, chemicals, and so on.  These statistics show that the mindset behind the meal – the thinking behind the meal – plays a dominant role in the process of human food related health issues, approximately 80 percent.  Hence the title of this book: you have to think and eat yourself smart, happy and healthy.”

She goes on to say, “If we do not have a healthy mind, then nothing else in our life will be healthy, including our eating habits.”

We can break down these statements to assess their validity.

First of all, this statement is predicated on her 98 percent myth, something which I’ve previously proven to be implausible, but which Dr Leaf continues to use despite the overwhelming evidence against it.  To arrive at this conclusion, Dr Leaf has over-extrapolated, paraphrased, and exaggerated a handful of sources that were either out-of-date, clearly biased, or irrelevant.  She even had the gall to ascribe a made-up figure to an article which, ironically, twice contradicted her.  If you want to know more, see Chapter 10 in my book (http://www.debunkingdrleaf.com/chapter-10/)

This means that Dr Leaf’s statement, and indeed, her entire book, is built on gross misrepresentations of illegitimate resources.  Genetics and our external environment actually play a much greater role than she is willing to give credit for.  The mindset behind the meal is largely irrelevant – nowhere near 80 percent as Dr Leaf suggests.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take a couple of well-known medical conditions that are often associated with lifestyle and compare the research examining the difference that thinking and food make to them.  After all, if your mindset really is responsible for more than 80 percent of our health, then these two very common conditions should improve by more than 80 percent when thought patterns are changed.

Example 1: Hypertension.

Hypertension is also known as high blood pressure.  First, a brief explanation of what the numbers mean when talking about blood pressure so we’re on the same page: Blood pressure is measured in units of millimetres of mercury (or mmHg).  The old sphygmomanometers were hand pumps attached to a rubber bladder and a column of liquid metal mercury.  The blood pressure reading was however high the column of mercury rose at the two ends of the cardiac cycle.  There are always two numbers, expressed as ‘number 1 over number 2’ and written as N1/N2, like 120/80 or ‘one hundred and twenty over eighty’.  The top number is the maximum pressure in the arterial system when the heart pumps the blood into the arteries.  The bottom number is the pressure left over in the arterial system just before the heart beats again.  A blood pressure of 120/80 is the gold-standard physiological reference of normal blood pressure.  A blood pressure consistently above 140/90 is considered high.

Primary hypertension, which accounts for about 95 percent of all cases, has a strong genetic component.  According to eMedicine, “Epidemiological studies using twin data and data from Framingham Heart Study families reveal that BP has a substantial heritable component, ranging from 33-57%.” (http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/241381-overview#a4)  Environmental causes account for nearly all of the rest.  Secondary hypertension is related to a number of different diseases of the arteries, kidneys, hormone system and many others.  Diet is clearly part of those environmental causes.  Psychological stress is in there too, but the question is, how important is it?  If Dr Leaf is right, it should be 80 percent.

According to medical research, reducing alcohol intake to one standard drink per day or less reduces the systolic blood pressure (the top number) by between 2 and 4 mmHg.  Reducing salt to less than 6g a day decreases the systolic blood pressure by between 2 and 8 mmHg.   At best, that’s a 12mmHg reduction.  The DASH diet is as close to Dr Leaf’s macrobiotic tree-hugging anti-MAD diet as one could reasonably get, relying not just on cutting out salt, but also consuming low fat milk and lots of fruit and vegetables.  At best, the DASH diet could shave another 6mmHg from the standard low salt diet.  So that’s a grand total of 18mmHg with even the most optimistic of expectations.

Compared to diet, the best improvement in blood pressure from mind control is 5mmHg at best (and given the size and quality of the studies, that’s being generous) (Anderson et al, 2008; Barnes et al, 2008).

So for hypertension, changing your thinking has, at best, only about a quarter as powerful as changing your diet, not four times more powerful as Dr Leaf would have us believe.  One more nail in in the coffin for Dr Leaf’s theories.

Example 2: Dyslipidaemia.

Dyslipidaemia is medical jargon for cholesterol behaving badly.  Cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s found as a component of the fats in our diet.  To simplify a complex process, we need cholesterol to make our cell membranes, and cholesterol is also an essential building block for most of our hormones.  Cholesterol is usually carried around the body on protein transports called lipoproteins.  If there’s over-production of these lipoprotein particles or they’re not cleared by the liver properly, then the cholesterol they carry can get up to mischief.  The pathways and means of lipid metabolism in the human body reflect complex processes, and genetics, certain medical conditions, medications, and environmental factors can change how the lipoproteins behave.

So how much does thinking affect our cholesterol?  Well, there isn’t a lot of research looking at the subject, but a few studies have looked at cholesterol (specifically triglycerides, one of the lipids in the cholesterol ‘team’) and ‘mind-body practices’ (such as self-prayer, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or any other form of mind-body related relaxation technique or practice).  In a cross-sectional analysis of a cohort from the Rotterdam Study, Younge and colleagues examined the association between mind-body practices and the blood levels of triglyceride.  They found that mind-body practices were associated with a triglyceride level 0.00034 mmol/L less than those who did not perform mind-body practices (Younge et al, 2015).  That’s nearly imperceptible, possibly an artefact.  In fact, the average effect of placebos (the fake pills given as a control in therapeutic drug trials) are far greater – 0.1 mmol/L on average (Edwards and Moore, 2003).  Dietary interventions such as low carbohydrate diets decreased triglycerides by 0.26 mmol/L compared to low fat diets (Mansoor et al, 2016), and low fat diets up to 0.27 mmol/L lower than standard diets (Hooper, 2012).  Statins, the lipid-lowering medications, reduce triglycerides by between 0.2-0.4 mmol/L depending on the specific drug studied (Edwards and Moore, 2003).

The point of all this isn’t so much the specific numbers but the obvious difference between the (lack of) power of thought over an important lifestyle condition compared to the effectiveness of diet and medications.  If thinking was four times more important to the process of human food related health issues as Dr Leafs proposes, then thought-related ‘mind-body’ interventions should be at least four times more effective than any other intervention.  But the numbers don’t reflect that – ’Mind-body’ interventions are 1000 times weaker than dietary or drug interventions.

So Dr Leaf’s pronouncement that “the mindset behind the meal – the thinking behind the meal – plays a dominant role in the process of human food related health issues, approximately 80 percent” is complete bunkum.  There is no evidence to support the 98 percent myth which forms her statements underlying premise, and the examples of hypertension and dyslipidaemia, two common lifestyle conditions with proven genetic and dietary links, prove that thought based interventions are much, much weaker than dietary or drug interventions.

Therefore Dr Leaf’s claim that what you think affects what you eat is entirely baseless.

Statement number 2 – “What you eat affects what you think”

Dr Leaf writes, “Although your brain is only 2 percent of the weight of your body, it consumes 20 percent of the total energy (oxygen) and 65 percent of the glucose – what you eat will directly affect the brain’s ability to function on a significant scale.  Your brain has ‘first dibs’ on everything you eat.  I call this the ’20 percent factor’ or the eating behind the thinking, and it underscores the fact that how and what we eat affects our mind, brain and body.” (p84-5)

On face value, the statement seems to hold some weight.  Food does have an impact on how our brain works.  It certainly isn’t the only factor though – demands in the environment, our oxygen levels, our hormones, the function of our major organs, infections or injury, and our levels of sleep, all play a significant role on how our brain functions too.  But strictly speaking, what we eat does have an impact on how we think – if we haven’t eaten, or if we don’t consume enough calories, especially carbohydrates, our body slows some of our bodily functions down to preserve energy, including some of our cerebral functions.  So when you hear people complain that they can’t think because they have low blood sugar, that may in fact be true.  On the other hand, a pure glucose load can shift the balance of the amino acid tryptophan in our body, which enables the brain to produce more of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can lift our mood.  Or ingesting food or drinks with stimulants like caffeine, such as my morning espresso, also improves how we think by making us more alert.

Unfortunately, Dr Leaf’s application of this premise goes several steps too far.  Later on page 85, Dr Leaf says, “if you eat while emotional, your body does not digest your food correctly.”

Well, that statement may contain an element of truth but only because it’s so hazy and indefinite that it’s applicable in the broadest sense.  Technically, we’re always emotional to one degree or another.  Even if I assume that Dr Leaf’s is meaning ‘angry’ when she says ‘emotional’ then it’s not so much that our body digests food incorrectly, but just differently.   When you’re highly aroused (physiologically, not sexually, just to clarify), your body goes into fight or flight mode.  The body diverts blood away from your intestines and towards your muscles, heart and lungs, so that you have the energy to handle the crisis.  The food in your stomach and guts isn’t going anywhere, and your body leaves it where it is to come back to it later when the crisis has been averted.  This is a normal physiological response.  The body still digests the food and absorbs it correctly, things are just delayed a little (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010).

The biggest problem with Dr Leaf’s ‘eating behind the thinking’ argument is that it directly undermines her previous teaching.

Dr Leaf has made multiple social media posts claiming that the mind is separate from the brain and controls the brain.  She’s written much the same sentiment in her books.  Take a meme she posted to social media in May 2016.  It said, “As triune beings made in God’s image, we are spirit, mind (soul) and body – and our brain being part of the body does the bidding of the mind …”, and “God has designed the mind as separate from the brain. The brain simply stores the information from the mind and your mind controls your brain.”

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So the obvious question is, “If God designed our mind (our thinking) to be separate from the brain and to control the brain, then how can the food we eat make any difference to what we think? My diet affects my brain through the amount and timing of glucose I ingest, but can my diet can’t affect my thinking if the mind is separate to the brain and controls the brain?

Either the mind is separate to the brain, or it’s not.  It can’t be both.  If the mind is separate to the brain, then what you eat can’t affect what you think and the book becomes an emaciated shadow of rhetoric.  If the mind is dependent on the brain then the book and seminar maintain some semblance of validity, but the rest of Dr Leaf’s ministry crumbles like a well-made cheesecake crust, since the entirety of Dr Leaf’s ministry rests on her idea that the mind is separate from the brain and controls the brain, not the other way around (https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/05/30/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-mind-brain-revisited/).

At the very least, this must be embarrassing for Dr Leaf, and if she keeps shooting herself in the foot, people will eventually notice that she’s limping.

So other than the free-range, fair-trade, grass fed, organic agro-ecologically produced kale and spinach root muffins and the chia and dandelion broth, it appears that the attendees at Dr Leaf’s workshop today may not be getting what they signed up for.  What you think does not radically change your health, or influence what your food does to your body, and the food you eat does not significantly change how you think.  Our diet is important to our health, but we can’t think and eat ourselves smart.

To all the attendees at the workshop, I hope you got something valuable out of the workshop.  While you were all sitting in a small room, listening to Dr Leaf and snacking on lemon and quinoa stuffed free-range quail giblets, Sydney was outdoing itself.  Not that I’m rubbing it in or anything, but see for yourself …

Kirribilli View

Dr Mary Booth lookout

Milsons Point

Milsons Point

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Milsons Park, Neutral Bay

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Cremorne

Point Piper

Point Piper

Macquarie Lighthouse

Macquarie Lighthouse

Blues Point Reserve

Blues Point Reserve

Blues Point Reserve

Blues Point Reserve

References

Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood pressure response to transcendental meditation: a meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens 2008 Mar;21(3):310-6

Barnes VA, Pendergrast RA, Harshfield GA, Treiber FA. Impact of breathing awareness meditation on ambulatory blood pressure and sodium handling in prehypertensive African American adolescents. Ethn Dis 2008 Winter;18(1):1-5

Edwards JE, Moore RA. Statins in hypercholesterolaemia: a dose-specific meta-analysis of lipid changes in randomised, double blind trials. BMC Family practice. 2003 Dec 1;4(1):1.

Hooper L, Abdelhamid A, Moore HJ, Douthwaite W, Skeaff CM, Summerbell CD. Effect of reducing total fat intake on body weight: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. Bmj. 2012 Dec 6;345:e7666.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, food, and inflammation: psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2010 May;72(4):365.

Mansoor N, Vinknes KJ, Veierød MB, Retterstøl K. Effects of low-carbohydrate diets v. low-fat diets on body weight and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Nutrition. 2016 Feb 14;115(03):466-79.

Younge JO, Leening MJ, Tiemeier H, Franco OH, Kiefte-de Jong J, Hofman A, Roos-Hesselink JW, Hunink MM. Association between mind-body practice and cardiometabolic risk factors: The Rotterdam Study. Psychosomatic medicine. 2015 Sep 1;77(7):775-83.

MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS …

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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” [1], 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 [2].  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.

References
[1]        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).
[2]        Reitz C, Brayne C, Mayeux R. Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurol 2011 Mar;7(3):137-52.

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.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the mind-brain revisited

 

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Dr Leaf has been promoting her food philosophy lately, but yesterday and today, she has come back to one of her favourite neuroscience topics.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. It’s her belief that “as triune beings made in God’s image, we are spirit, mind(soul) and body – and our brain being part of the body does the bidding of the mind …”.

This is one of the flaws that terminally weakens her teaching, and leads to scientifically irrational statements like yesterday’s meme:

“God has designed the mind as seperate from the brain. The brain simply stores the information from the mind and your mind controls your brain.”

On what basis does she make such a claim? I’ve reviewed the scripture relating to the triune being hypothesis. The Bible doesn’t say that our mind is seperate to our brain, nor that it dominates and controls our brain. Dr Leaf’s statement yesterday is simply assumption based on more assumption. It’s like an intellectual house of cards. The slightest puff of scrutiny and the whole thing comes crashing down on itself.

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To try and reinforce her message today, Dr Leaf quoted Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, “The mind has the ability to causally affect and change pathways in the brain.” Jeffrey M. Schwartz is an OCD researcher from the UCLA School of Medicine. It appears he lets his Buddhist anti-materialism philosophy cloud his scientific judgement.

Well Dr Leaf, I see your expert and I raise you. Dr David Eagleman is an author and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. He has written more than 100 scientific papers on neuroscience, and has published numerous best-selling non-fiction books including ‘Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain’ which was a New York Times best-seller. He isn’t an irrational anti-materialist.

He said, “It is clear at this point that we are irrevocably tied to the 3 pounds of strange computational material found within our skulls. The brain is utterly alien to us, and yet our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on the integrity of this biological tissue. How do we know this? Because when the brain changes, we change. Our personality, decision-making, risk-aversion, the capacity to see colours or name animals – all these can change, in very specific ways, when the brain is altered by tumours, strokes, drugs, disease or trauma. As much as we like to think about the body and mind living separate existences, the mental is not separable from the physical.” https://goo.gl/uFKF47

This statement makes much more logical sense. The functions of the mind are all vulnerable to changes in the brain. Take medications as one particular example. 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. There are many other examples of many other physical and chemical changes in the brain that affect the mind.

Conversely, there is limited evidence of the effect of the mind on the brain. Sure, there is some evidence of experienced meditators who have larger areas in their brain dedicated to what they meditate on, but the same effect has been shown in other parts of the brain unrelated to our conscious awareness.

But since the mind is a function of the brain, whatever effect the ‘mind’ has on the brain is, in reality, just the brain effecting itself.

So Dr Leaf can cherry-pick from her favourite authors all she wants, but quoting a supportive neuroscientist doesn’t diminish the crushing weight of scientific evidence which opposes her philosophical assumptions. If she wants to continue to proffer such statements, she would be better served to come up with some actual evidence, not just biased opinion.

Anti-depressants – Not the messiah

 “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!” 

 Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy.  They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered!  Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.

Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies.  It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah.  One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.

The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche.  We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.

Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian.  Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah.  Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications.  The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time.  People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.” [1]  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.

Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently.  Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems.  Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.

“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.

But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?

In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine [2].  It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.

They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.

When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials.  The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group.  In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either.  That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced.  To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.

Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo.  Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.

There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better.  The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.

One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.

The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal.  Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place.  When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression [1].  Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.

This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype.  Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp

So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation.  Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies.  They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.

Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either.  Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades.  Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression [3].

What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6].  Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.

This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk

The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this.  If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around?  Are both together more powerful than each one alone?

In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy.  They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available.  Medication should only be considered if:

  1. a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
  2. a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
  3. talking therapies haven’t worked.

Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck.  While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use [7].  In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.

This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills

At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance.  Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.

With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression.  Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.

References

[1]        Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
[2]        Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
[3]        Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
[4]        Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[5]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[6]        Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
[7]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.

IMPORTANT

If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:

In Australia

  • you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
  • BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
  • the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
  • daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
  • email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354

In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.

 

Dr Caroline Leaf – The mystery of he said/she said is no longer a mystery

This weeks edition of New Scientist magazine carried an article entitled “Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain” [1].  The article was inspired by a journal article published in the PNAS last month [2], which reviewed the scans of 1400 different people to see if there were specific differences in the neuroanatomy of the brains of men and women (i.e., are there ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, or are the commonly accepted male/female differences just a myth, or a cultural, not biological phenomenon?)

According to the article, there is an “extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed. Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the ‘maleness-femaleness’ continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features.” [2]

So essentially, there’s no strong biological basis for gender differences after all.  “This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. ‘There are not two types of brain,’ says Joel.” [1]

This news is a blow to one of Dr Leaf’s less renowned books, “Who switched off your brain? Solving the mystery of he said/she said” [3].

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her ‘he said/she said’ book is based on the idea that there are definitive characteristics of the male and female brain which define each gender.  From her conclusion on page 211,

“Men and women are different.  Both the physical anatomy and functional strategy of our brains are different.  We can’t attribute this to social engineering, cultural norms or our up-bringing.  We’ve been created different – it’s in our fundamental design.  Our parents, our communities, and the cultural context of our childhood and adolescence certainly have a prominent developmental role in each of our lives.  But your brain has been fashioned in a specific way that shapes your ‘true you’ long before any of these other factors have had the opportunity to exercise their influence on you.”

As a quick aside, this quote shows the confusion in Dr Leaf’s teaching.  As I’ve discussed before in other blogs, Dr Leaf contradicts herself by claiming that our brain determines our gifts and our behaviours in some books (like ‘He said/she said’ and ‘The gift in you’) but then claims that our thought life controls our brains and our physical reality in the rest of her teaching.  So which is it?

But this quote also sounds the death knell for her book, in light of the recent scientific evidence to the contrary.  Which is a shame, since out of all of her books, this one initially seemed the most scientifically robust.

Even though the book is based on a now defunct theory, I wonder if the thrust of her book still holds true to a point.  We’ve all been created to be different, and we should celebrate those differences and how they complement other people around us.  It just so happens that those differences aren’t inherent to our gender, but to us as individuals, uniquely designed by God “for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

So, yes, the mystery of he said/she said has been solved, but not quite as Dr Leaf envisaged.

References

[1]        Hamzelou J. Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain. New Scientist. 2015 Dec 5.
[2]        Joel D, Berman Z, Tavor I, et al. Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 Nov 30.
[3]        Leaf CM. Who swithced off your brain: Solving the mystery of he said/she said. Texas, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2011.