Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of the myth of multitasking

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Can you successfully multitask?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, multi-tasking is a myth.

Actually, Dr Leaf isn’t completely wrong. Her factoid is so vague that there may be some truth in it somewhere. The problem with teaching via vague factoid is that no one can apply anything from it. If we were to take Dr Leaf’s statement as a specific teaching or advice, then we would be misled.

Why? Because it all comes down to how you define ‘multi-tasking’.

I have a couple of patients in a nursing home, two old ladies who sit on a balcony in the sun, knitting and talking at the same time. Isn’t that multi-tasking? Think of what you do every day. How often are you doing something menial while doing something requiring a bit more attention? How often do you have a conversation with your passenger while your driving? Isn’t that multi-tasking? When you get up in the morning and you are able to make a cup of tea and some breakfast at the same time, read some of the paper or your e-mails while you’re eating your breakfast at the same time, etc. Isn’t that multi-tasking?

We multi-task all the time. If we had to do everything in a linear, sequential fashion, we would never get anything done. We are able to multi-task because routine tasks have become largely habitualised by our brains and don’t need lots of processing power to complete. Hence why we can do something as complex a driving a car while still talking to our passenger or listening to music. Certain occupations, such as air-traffic control, involve high levels of multi-tasking [1].

When a task is new and/or complicated, our brains need to utilise our resources of attention to properly process the information required by the task. There is only so much that our working memory can handle. Our working memory uses tricks to handle larger amounts of information through a process called “chunking” [2] but there is still a finite limit. Performing two or more cognitively demanding tasks at the same time is difficult, and the brain can often cope by shifting tasks, although there is always a price to pay for this [3].

So it is true that there are some tasks that require more of the cognitive capacity of the brain to process. The higher the cognitive load, the more capacity needed, and the less likely that the brain will be able to multi-task with it. Thus, it’s reasonable to suggest that we can’t multi-task all of the time with every task we have to perform (although the more we do a task, the more habitual it becomes, thus reducing the cognitive load of the task, and increasing our ability to multi-task it).

However it’s misleading to say that we can’t multi-task at all. It’s a myth that multi-tasking is a myth. Dr Leaf’s comment that, “Paying attention to one task at a time is the correct way”, isn’t a summary of the neuroscience of attention, but a subjective statement based on her grandiose pretension. There is no objective evidence that “one task at a time” offers generally applicable benefit.

So don’t be afraid of multi-tasking. Just know your limits.

References

  1. Nelson, J.T., et al., Enhancing vigilance in operators with prefrontal cortex transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Neuroimage, 2014. 85 Pt 3: 909-17 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.11.061
  2. Bor, D. and Seth, A.K., Consciousness and the prefrontal parietal network: insights from attention, working memory, and chunking. Front Psychol, 2012. 3: 63 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00063
  3. Monsell, S., Task switching. Trends in cognitive sciences, 2003. 7(3): 134-40

Dr Caroline Leaf and the cart-before-the-horse conundrum

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A chaotic mind filled with thoughts of anxiety, worry, etc. sends out the wrong signal right down to the level of our DNA

So says Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.

Her Facebook factoids have varied in their quality lately, ranging from the almost reasonable, down to the outright ridiculous. Today’s contribution rates an 8.5 out of 10 on the pseudoscience scale.

The reason why it rates so high is for the same reason why many of her factoids, and indeed nearly all her teaching, rates the same: Dr Leaf has the relationship between the brain and the mind back to front.  Dr Leaf squarely puts the proverbial cart before the horse.

One would think if you were going to claim to be a cognitive neuroscientist, you would at least get the basic facts right. But Dr Leaf’s teaching, from her first book through to her last, is based on this idea that it’s the mind that is in control of the brain, hence why she thinks that thoughts can be so toxic.

Dr Leaf’s entire teaching heavily rests on her fallacious assumption that the mind is in control of the brain. Thoughts are only important if the mind controls the brain. Toxic thoughts can only affect our health if the mind controls the body. Controlling toxic thoughts is only worthwhile if our mind can influence our brain and body in positive or negative ways.

The problem for Dr Leaf is that there is no credible scientific evidence that the mind controls the brain. The only evidence she does tend to proffer is based on the work of other pseudoscientists, or she misinterprets or misquotes real scientific data to fit her erroneous working theory. For example, Dr Leaf refers to a paper titled, “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA” [1]. She says that this paper is, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation (which) determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [2: p111] Actually, the experiment was based on faulty assumptions, and so full of flaws in their methodology and analysis, that it could show nothing at all [3]. All it could prove was that Dr Leaf was so desperate to grasp hold of anything that seemed to support her theory that she was willing to use a twenty-year-old study from a group of pseudoscientists that also believe in occult practices like ESP and telekinesis (http://psychotronics.org).

The concept that we have a soul that’s separate to, and controls our brain, is called dualism. Modern science gave up on dualism a long time ago. While psychological sciences have been slower to give up on the idea of our thoughts as influential, no credible scientist still holds on to the idea that we have an ethereal force that controls our biology. Dualism is untenable both scientifically and philosophically [4].

The reality is the exact opposite to what Dr Leaf teaches. Our brain is responsible for all of the functions that are traditionally associated with the mind/soul/spirit. For more in depth information, please see my essay: Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis. Therefore, a “chaotic mind filled with thoughts of anxiety, worry, etc” doesn’t send signals down to our DNA. It’s our DNA and the many steps in it’s expression, and the interaction of our biology and our environment, that then causes our minds to be worried, anxious, chaotic etc.

Dr Leaf is welcome to hold any view she likes, but she cannot claim to be a cognitive neuroscientist while holding a view that is directly contradicted by actual cognitive neuroscience. Nor should she be welcome to speak as an expert when she clearly is not one.

For the sake of her audiences and the Christian church as a whole, Dr Leaf needs to revise her teaching and bring it into line with the facts established by real cognitive neuroscientists.

References

  1. Rein, G. and McCraty, R. Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA. in Proc. Joint USPA/IAPR Psychotronics Conf., Milwaukee, WI. 1993.
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  3. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848
  4. Bunge, M., The Mind-Body Problem, in Matter and Mind. 2010, Springer Netherlands. p. 143-57.