Caroline Leaf – Carrie Fisher killed by bipolar meds

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No longer content with just wilful ignorance, Dr Caroline Leaf has stooped even further by using the death of a beloved actress as a sick segue against psychiatric medications.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She markets herself as an expert in neuroscience and mental health despite not knowing how genes work (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-genetic-fluctuations-falsehood/ and https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/01/07/dr-caroline-leaf-the-christian-churchs-anti-vaxxer/).

In her latest “Mental Health News – January 2017” e-mail newsletter, Dr Leaf makes some astounding and outlandish statements about mental health.

She starts by claiming that Carrie Fisher’s death was ultimately caused by the psychiatric medications she was taking.

“Few people, however, are talking about the possible link between her heart attack and her psychiatric medication. As mental health activist Corinna West shows, ‘new antipsychotics cause weight gain, diabetes, and a bunch of other risk factors associated with heart disease.’ We have to take these risk factors seriously. We are not merely talking about statistics—we are talking about real people, people like Carrie Fisher.”

Dr Leaf, no one’s talking about the possible link between her heart attack and her psychiatric medication because we respect the Carrie Fisher too much and would rather celebrate her life and achievements, not perform a hypothetical post-mortem motivated by prejudiced speculation.

No one’s talking about the possible link between her heart attack and her psychiatric medication because no one really knows what caused Carrie Fisher’s heart attack.  No one knows if she had any other risk factors for heart attacks, or what medications she was on.  There could be a dozen other reasons why she had a heart attack.  No one else is asking because it’s none of our business.

No one’s talking about the possible link between her heart attack and her psychiatric medication because we know that psychiatric medications do much more good than harm.

No one is talking about the possible link between her heart attack and her psychiatric medication because it’s highly disrespectful to use someone’s death to promote your political or ideological position.  Using Carrie Fisher’s death as a segue to your soapbox about psychiatric medications is like someone using Princess Diana’s death as an opportunity to talk about the dangers of speeding in tunnels.  It’s ungracious, unbecoming, and in poor taste.

What’s even more dishonouring to Carrie Fisher is that Dr Leaf’s claims about psychiatric medications are not accurate.

“Sadly, individuals suffering from mental health issues ‘die, on average, 25 years earlier that the general population.’ These medications are incredibly dangerous, and we have to start asking ourselves, as the investigative journalist and mental health campaigner Robert Whitaker notes, if the benefits of these drugs truly outweigh the risks.”

Notice the giant hole in her argument?  She assumes that the increased risk of death in those with mental illness is the medications they’re on, just like she’s assumed that Carrie Fisher died because she was taking psychiatric medications.

That’s confirmation bias, not science.

Real mental health experts – the ones with training, clinical experience and research acumen – directly contradict Dr Leaf.  Experts like Correll, who say that, “Although antipsychotics have the greatest potential to adversely affect physical health, it is important to note that several large, nationwide studies providing generalizable data have suggested that all-cause mortality is higher in patients with schizophrenia not receiving antipsychotics.” [1]

In other words, the life expectancy of people with schizophrenia is shorter than the rest of the population, but it’s much shorter in schizophrenics not on meds.  Psychiatric medications help people with schizophrenia live longer.

In fact, the use of any anti-psychotic medication for a patient with schizophrenia decreased their risk of dying by nearly 20% [2] whereas the risk of dying for schizophrenics who didn’t take anti-psychotics was nearly ten times that of the healthy population [3].

This is the same for other psychiatric medications as well, “clozapine, antidepressants, and lithium, as well as anti-epileptics, are associated with reduced mortality from suicide.” [1]

Psychiatric drugs aren’t “incredibly dangerous”.  Like any tool, when used in the right way, they can bring radical transformation.  What IS incredibly dangerous is the disingenuous and ill-informed making libellous and inaccurate statements about medications they don’t understand.

Not content to just insult Carrie Fisher’s memory, Dr Leaf went on to claim that psychiatric labels are also as harmful as psychiatric drugs.  “These risks are not limited to taking medication. Psychiatric labels can also harm the individual involved. Child psychiatrist Sami Timimi recently discussed the adverse effect the autism label can have on children and adults alike. Labels can lock people in, taking away their hope for recovery, affecting their ability to perform everyday tasks and crippling their determination to live above their circumstances. Words can harm people as much as “sticks and stones” do, as psychologist Paula Caplan notes in her talk on psychiatric survivors and diagnoses.”

It’s witless to suggest that labels harm people or that they somehow lock people in and take away their hope.  The right label, which doctors call a diagnosis, doesn’t lock people in at all, it does the exact opposite:
* The right diagnosis gives hope – hope that comes from receiving the right treatment and not wasting time, money and energy pursuing the wrong treatment.
* The right diagnosis gives power – it empowers people by giving them the ability to make accurate decisions about what’s best for themselves and their loved ones.
* The right diagnosis gives certainty – in many situations, knowing what the diagnosis is reduces unnecessary anxiety and fear.

Imagine that you had a freckle on your arm, and it started growing suddenly.  You go to the doctor, and the doctor says that the freckle is actually a skin cancer.  Does that label lock you in and take away your hope?  Of course not.  It gives you the certainty of knowing that treatment is needed, and the power to decide if you want that treatment.  And it gives you hope that with the right treatment, you can continue to live a healthy life.

In the same way, a psychiatric diagnosis doesn’t lock people in and remove their hope.  A child who understands that they have autism can stop beating themselves up for being ‘odd’ and instead, they can understand that their different wiring gives them special powers that other kids don’t have.

Psychiatric labels do not harm an individual, it’s the backwards opinions of so-called mental health experts that harm individuals with psychiatric illness.  The stigma of a diagnosis is related to the way in which society treats individuals with that diagnosis, not the diagnosis itself.  Perpetuating the myth that that ‘depression and autism aren’t really diseases’ reduces the acceptance of society for those who suffer from those conditions.  That’s what causes harm.

Dr Leaf should apologise to her followers for showing such disrespect for Carrie Fisher, and to all those who take psychiatric medications.  Carrie Fisher spent her life supporting people with mental illness, trying to break down the stigma of psychiatric illness and treatment.  Her life’s work should be celebrated, not defaced by Dr Leaf and her unscientific opinion.

References

[1]        Correll CU, Detraux J, De Lepeleire J, De Hert M. Effects of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers on risk for physical diseases in people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association 2015 Jun;14(2):119-36.
[2]        Tiihonen J, Lonnqvist J, Wahlbeck K, et al. 11-year follow-up of mortality in patients with schizophrenia: a population-based cohort study (FIN11 study). Lancet 2009 Aug 22;374(9690):620-7.
[3]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

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Dr Caroline Leaf – The Christian church’s anti-vaxxer

Well, this is my first post for the new year.  2016 was certainly historic!

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was “post-truth”.  Post-truth describes the concept “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

While the popularity of the word rose in step with the popularity of the US President-Elect, post-truth as an idea has been building more and more over the last decade or so.  It’s the driving force behind other cultural phenomena of our modern world, like the alternative health and the anti-vaccination movements.

It’s also the secret to the success of Caroline Leaf.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She’s been riding the wave of our post-truth culture for years.  Dr Leaf has a set of slickly spoken mistruths that form the basis of her ministry, and are repeated constantly (including, but not limited to):

The mind controls the brain
75-98% of all physical, mental and emotional illnesses come from our thought life
The heart is a mini-brain
Our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement
ADHD and depression aren’t diseases
Anti-depressant medications are dangerous placebos

There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims, but that hasn’t stopped her claiming, because Christians and the leadership of the Christian church believe her without question.

In the last twenty-four hours, Dr Leaf put up two separate social media posts which follow the same pattern – repeated mistruths with no basis in fact.

“What an honor to be speaking at the annual Noiva humanitarian foundation conference in Winterthur, Switzerland, which works actively with the Syrian refugees seeking to broker peace in the Middle East.  I spoke about how showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63%!”

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Showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63% hey?  I’m assuming she’s referring to the study by Poulin et al [1], because she’s posted this to her social media feed before, and there aren’t any other studies out there that show compassion and helping others increases physical and mental health so much … not that the Poulin study showed it either (not even close – https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/10/27/dr-caroline-leaf-credit-where-credits-due/ and https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/01/16/does-helping-others-help-you/)

On the photo she put up on social media to gloat about her little jaunt to Switzerland, the Powerpoint in the background reads, “Can the mind change the brain?”  Again, the answer is a clear ‘No’!  She tried to argue the same nonsense in her TEDx talk in early 2015 (https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/).  It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now.

Unless Dr Leaf’s found some better resources, NOIVA should ask for their money back.  They could have fed a lot of refugees for the wasted cost of hosting Dr Leaf at their conference.

Dr Leaf’s second social media post was even more egregious.

“Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing.”

WRONG!  Absolutely wrong.  There is NO scientific evidence that supports this statement at all (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-genetic-fluctuations-falsehood/).  DNA is stable.  It doesn’t “fluctuate by the minute”.  It’s not influenced by our thoughts or our choices.

We may be stuck in a post-truth world but science is not, and will never be, post-truth.  Your belief in the cancer-fighting properties of turmeric doesn’t make turmeric cure cancer.  Your opinion that the MMR vaccine causes autism doesn’t change the concrete scientific evidence that it doesn’t.

By the same token, Dr Leaf might believe that our thoughts and choices change our DNA, but it doesn’t matter how many times Dr Leaf repeats the same fiction, it still doesn’t make it fact.  She can repeat ad nauseum her belief that the mind controls the brain, or our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement, or depression isn’t a disease, or all of our illnesses come from thoughts.  None of them were true the first time she made each outrageous claim, and they still aren’t true now. Scientific truth doesn’t change depending on what suits your opinion.

In fact, all Dr Leaf is doing by continually perpetuating her stock of mistruths is to disempower her audience.  Rather than encourage people to follow the facts, they are sucked into a vortex of wasted money and time.  Precious resources are spent chasing wild geese instead of putting them towards something more meaningful.  NOIVA diverting funds to support Dr Leaf’s fees instead of feeding refugees is a perfect case in point.

Worse, Dr Leaf’s teaching discourages people from taking effective medications and seeking effective treatments which can only lead to greater suffering in those who are vulnerable.

In this sense, Dr Leaf is like the anti-vaxxer of the Christian church, discouraging her followers from seeking scientifically sound treatments in favour of belief in erroneous and invalid actions with no proof of efficacy and a real risk of harm.

When will the leadership of the Christian church stand up for their parishioners and stop Dr Leaf’s fictions from infecting their churches?  The answer should be ‘now’, and that’s a fact.

References
[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.

Free will isn’t free

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It’s only two days before Christmas.  I know most people in the last forty-eight hours before the Yuletide would be focussing on last minute shopping for presents or foraging for the ingredients for their Christmas feasts, or making their last minute arrangements for their holiday celebrations.  So now may not be the right time to post something meaty about the philosophy of free will, but hey, it might just make for a welcome distraction.  Come with me, if you’re game, down the rabbit hole of our choices.

Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, posted a quote today from former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, Keith Ward: “Free will is a place where people can decide to do what is right or to do what is wrong and nothing determines their choice – lots of things influence their choice but nothing determines it except them”.

But is it, really?  Clearly Professor Ward is a very learned fellow, but what strikes me about Dr Leaf’s quote of the day is Professor Ward’s false moral dichotomy, and his over-simplistic implication that every choice is a fully conscious choice.  Perhaps his quote is taken out of context by Dr Leaf and his intended message has been skewed.  It wouldn’t be the first time Dr Leaf has cherry-picked and misquoted.

Dr Leaf added in her ‘me too’ comment – “So we are responsible and can be held responsible for our choices – this is confirmed by science and scripture”.

I should say, it’s not that Dr Leaf’s comment is completely wrong – we are held responsible for our choices, but this isn’t confirmed by science or by scripture, it is something that is legal more than it is scientific or scriptural.

As humans, we have a strong feeling of voluntary control over our actions, that everything we do is something that we choose to do.  This sense of control is so fundamental to our existence that much of our social system depends on it, such as our laws and the penalties for breaking them [1].

Except that science has proven that our sense of full control is largely an illusion.

I understand this idea might be hard for some people to accept.  We’re taught that we have full control over our actions or ideas.  We experience this sense of control from the vantage point of our own perception.  It’s hard to believe that we’re not really in full control of our actions and choices.  The dominant paradigm in the Christian church is the idea of free will.  We’re taught that the words we say and things we do are the exclusive product of our will.  Cognitive neuroscience paints a different picture.

The modern neuroscience of the will started with Benjamin Libet.  Professor Libet was a researcher in physiology at the University of California San Francisco.  He was initially studying the electrical properties of different sensations in the brain, but in the early 1980’s, he performed an experiment to look at the electrical readings that take place when a person decides on an action.  His subjects would decide to perform a simple movement of their arm or hand, and say when they were aware of the intention to act.  Electrodes connected to the subject’s heads measured their brain activity before, during, and after their decision to act.

What was remarkable was that there was a clear spike in electrical activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2].  Libet suggested that an unconscious process was responsible for the ‘willed’ action.

Other studies since that time have confirmed Libet’s results.  In fact, a study in 2008 showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3].

This predictable unconscious spike of brain activity prior to awareness of our intention to act has been verified over and over and is beyond doubt, but there’s still lots of debate as to exactly what it means.  Defenders of the idea of free will have tried presenting alternative explanations of the pre-awareness unconscious activity, but none of them line up with the proven, repeatable science.

So if we don’t have full conscious control of our actions, what does go on in our brains when we perform an action?

Again, I won’t go into the fine print, but it’s important to understand that our brain does most of its work at a subconscious level, which includes the planning and execution of our actions [4, 5].  The brain takes the information presented to it, as well as information from memories, and makes a prediction of the best course of action.  This means that our processing of goals, rewards, and actions can be affected by ‘subliminal priming’ (in other words, information we process below our conscious level can affect the decision about the best course of action [5]).

Even though we’re not aware of every process the brain employs in our subconscious to formulate the best plan of action and to prime our system ready for that action, there is a element of awareness that provides real-time monitoring and a veto function [4].  Like if you were about to complain about your job and then suddenly remembered you were talking to your boss, you could stop yourself from saying something you might later regret.

What does it all mean?  The take-away message here is this: We have limited will, not free will.

We still have some capacity to choose, but our conscious choices are dependent on our subconscious brain activity, our experience and knowledge.

We can make choices, or “exercise our will”, if you like, but within the constraints of a number of factors beyond our conscious control.  We can “pull the brake”, so to speak, and stop an action that our subconscious brain activity primed us for, but wasn’t such a good idea when a bit more thought was applied.  Our brain also uses our experience and knowledge to predict the best action to take, and because some of our knowledge and experience comes from exercising our limited choices, we can also say we have some input into our decisions.

So in this sense, Prof Ward is correct – lots of things influence people’s choices and ultimately, the choice someone makes is their choice.  I don’t make your choices for you, they are your choices.  Except that it’s inaccurate and misleading to think of our will as being entirely conscious and thought driven.  We make a lot of subconscious decisions every day, often based on subconscious priming.  Most actions we take, day in and day out, are not influenced by our conscious thought.  They may sometimes make it into our subconscious awareness, and if they do, it’s often after the fact.

Have ever had a “Why did I say that” experiences, where your brain is thinking one thing and your mouth says another?  These are times that demonstrate the difference in the systems at work in our brains, which are usually co-ordinated, but not always.  There are other demonstrations of this as well, like specific brain pathologies leading to conditions such as Alien Hand Syndrome.

These sort of conditions show that intention is not the same as action.

Sure, most of the time they’re aligned, but not always.  And this is the key to Dr Leaf’s quote of the day today – the underlying assumption is that all of our choices are reflected in our actions, when really, our choices are better thought of as our intentions (although again, it’s still not that simple … is it morally wrong if you try to hurt someone but you don’t, or is it morally wrong if you try not to hurt someone, but you do?)

Professor Ward’s quote also sets up a false dichotomy of free will into only right or only wrong, and doesn’t take into account the intellectual or developmental capacity of a person to make a choice.  Would you expect a two-year-old to judge a complex moral life or death situation?  A more practical example is should people with dementia be able to make their own financial and health-related decisions?

Most reasonable people would say, “Well, that depends …” and that’s the correct answer here.  Nothing in the real world of human morality and choice is black or white.  There is always some subtlety, some nuance.

When put in context, the black-and-white thinking and teaching of Dr Leaf is shown up as shallow and inadequate.  Her little quote of the day doesn’t prove that free will is Biblically and scientifically supported, far from it.  All it shows is that Dr Leaf’s views are narrow and blinkered, and aren’t reflective of any scientific or scriptural expertise.

Dr Leaf is welcome to her opinion, but until she gains some actual expertise, she should reconsider her choice to share it.

References

[1]        Haggard P. Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2008 Dec;9(4):934-46.
[2]        Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, Pearl DK. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain : a journal of neurology 1983 Sep;26 (Pt 3):623-42.
[3]        Soon CS, Brass M, Heinze HJ, Haynes JD. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience 2008 May;3(5):543-5.
[4]        Bonn GB. Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology 205;4:920.
[5]        Horga G, Maia TV. Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach. Frontiers in human neuroscience 204;6:199.

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.

Dr Caroline Leaf – credit where credit’s due

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It’s not often I see something positive in Dr Leaf’s work, but today was one such occasion.

I’m often (legitimately) critical of Dr Leaf’s paucity of references and citations for her Facebook posts and social media memes.  Today was different – Dr Leaf made a statement and backed it up with an easily obtainable peer-reviewed journal article.  It’s a shame it wasn’t backed up by an accurate interpretation, but it’s a positive step none-the-less.

Dr Leaf claimed that “People who served others experienced a 68% increase in healing compared to those who only got treatment for themselves.”

Since the article was so easy to find, I decided to look it up.  The article was by Poulin et al, “Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality”, in the American Journal of Public Health [1].  Actually, the article was familiar, because Dr Leaf has written about the same article before, but her social media post that time was more nebulous.

So does the study by Poulin and his colleagues show that people who served others experienced a 68% increase in healing compared to those who only got treatment for themselves?  In a word … no.

First of all, the study wasn’t looking at healing, it was looking at mortality.  They may seem similar, but getting better from something (“healing”) is not the same as not dying from something (“mortality”).

Second, no one in the study was being “treated”.  I’m not sure where Dr Leaf got the idea that the control group was getting “treatment”.  The study compared those who self-reported “helping behavior directed toward close others … in any of 4 unpaid helping activities directed toward friends, neighbors, or relatives who did not live with them” versus those that did not.

Thirdly, there’s no mention of a 68% improvement anywhere in the article.  The article gives its results as hazard ratios.  For the non-statisticians, the hazard ratio is “the ratio of the particular event taking place in treatment group compared to control group.”  The simplest (probably over-simplified way) way of thinking about hazard ratios is to do a simple sum – the hazard ratio minus 1 is the percentage increase or decrease in risk, where a positive number is an increased risk and a negative number is a decreased risk.  So a hazard ratio of 1.13 means that a person in the exposure group has a 13% increased risk compared to the control group (=1.13 – 1).  And a hazard ratio of 0.7 means a 30% decreased risk (0.7 – 1 = -0.3).  So for the helping group to have a 68% decreased risk of dying, the hazard ratio would be 0.32 (0.32 – 1 = -0.68).

If you’re lost in the numbers, don’t stress.  The point is that Dr Leaf was very specific about the helping group increasing in healing by 68%, but there’s nothing in the results to suggest this.  The study authors wrote, “When we adjusted for age, baseline health and functioning, and key psychosocial variables, Cox proportional hazard models for mortality revealed a significant interaction between helping behavior and stressful events (hazard ratio [HR] = 0.58; P < .05; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.35, 0.98). Specifically, stress did not predict mortality risk among individuals who provided help to others in the past year (HR = 0.96; 95% CI = 0.79, 1.18), but stress did predict mortality among those who did not provide help to others (HR = 1.30; P < .05; 95% CI = 1.05, 1.62).”  Unless I’m missing something, there’s nothing in the results that remotely suggests a 68% improvement in anything.

And for what it’s worth, the study shows very weak associations anyway (in statistical terms, the confidence intervals are broad, and almost cross 1), so even if the study really did say something about a “68% increase in healing”, it’s something that is only slightly more likely to occur than by chance alone.  Then there’s other evidence that contradicts this particular study’s findings, so in all fairness, this study shouldn’t be used to base social media memes on in the first place.

Overall, it’s good that Dr Leaf cited an article in her social media meme, but her interpretation of the study was poor, something more at the level of a university freshman than a supposed expert in her field.  And it reflects badly on the Christian church that this is the level of ‘expertise’ that the church accepts and then promotes.

I would encourage Dr Leaf to continue to cite references for her memes, but she really needs to learn how to interpret clinical studies if she and the church are going to continue to promote her as some sort of expert.

References

[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.

The Secret Teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the decade, “The Secret” is no secret.  We’ve all heard of the book or the movie, or the countless gurus that promote how they’ve made millions of dollars and found untold happiness by unlocking the power of the Law of Attraction.  You can have that same success too if you buy their book or attend their seminar, or sign up to be part of their network marketing scheme.

Let’s be honest, we’ve probably all, at some point, indulged someone telling us that we just need to think positive or visualise our goal and it will be ours.  It’s even something that many preachers over the years have sold to us in various guises, like hyper-faith, name it and claim it, sowing your seed.

The Secret claims that if we understand we’re all energy, one with the universe and its power, then we can leverage that power to create or receive anything we want with our thoughts.  We just need to think positively and visualise it.  It’s a repackaging of the human potential movement, new age philosophy and cosmic consciousness, all of which is a repackaging of pantheism and Eastern religious teaching.

The author, Rhonda Byrne, (who I’m embarrassed to say is Australian) wrote, “If you’re feeling good, it is because you are thinking good thoughts.”  Ok, but what about when you’re thinking good thoughts and you still feel bad?  What exactly are ‘good thoughts’ anyway?

She also wrote, “Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything.”  So the rise of ISIS is because of my thoughts.  Donald Trump might be President … my thoughts.  An oceanic tectonic shift cuts the undersea trunk line taking out the internet for half the eastern seaboard … Sorry, my bad, I was having negative thoughts again.

So The Secret really doesn’t make a lot of objective sense.  I could go on, but it’s been taken down well enough by a number of commentators and critics over the last decade or so (https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4096; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/june/20.71.html), so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel.  But suffice to say, The Secret fundamentally sells the power of thought to shape our reality … wait, that sounds oddly familiar.  Dr Leaf said the same thing at TD Jakes’ church, the Potter’s House, only this week.

leaf-the-secret

@bishopjakes proudly shared this Instagram post which Dr Leaf duly forwarded to her adoring fans.  “You can shape your reality by the way you think” was even the title of her message.  (She followed it up with an e-mail to her subscribers saying the exact same thing …)

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Dr Leaf’s teaching is eerily similar to The Secret in many other ways.  That quote from before: “Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything” sounds remarkably similar to “Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” (Who Switched Off My Brain, p13)

There are lots of others.  From The Secret:

“Everything else you see and experience in this world is effect, and that includes your feelings. The cause is always your thoughts.”

“Every thought of yours is a real thing – a force.”

“Everything else you see and experience in this world is effect, and that includes your feelings. The cause is always your thoughts.”

“Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can.” (This one made me giggle more than the others … yep, those three bottles of Coke I just drank have absolutely no effect on my waistline because I believe that excessive soda consumption is slimming …)

“Your imagination is an extremely powerful tool.”

“Quantum physicists tell us that the entire universe emerged from thought!”

“Quantum physics … says that you can’t have a universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is perceived.”

“The amazing work and discoveries of the quantum physicists over the last eighty years has brought us a greater understanding of the unfathomable power of the human mind to create.”

“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think thoughts, they are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency. Everything sent out returns to the source – you.”

“There are no limits to what you can create for you, because your ability to think is unlimited!”

Compare that to just a small sample of Dr Leaf’s work:

“Our mind is designed to control the body, not the other way around.  Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” (Switch On Your Brain, p33)

“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical and behavioral illness comes from ones thought life.” (Switch On Your Brain, p33)

“DNA actually changes shape according to our thoughts.” (Switch On Your Brain, p35)

“Whatever you are thinking about affects every cell in your body.” (Switch On Your Brain, p94)

“Everything you do and say is first a thought in your physical brain.  You think, then you do, which cycles back to the original thought, changing it and the thoughts connected to it in a dynamic interrelationship.  If your thinking is off … then your communication though what you do and say is off, and vice versa.” (Switch On Your Brain, pp98-99)

“Quantum theory converts science’s conception of humans from being mere cogs in a gigantic, mechanical machine to being freethinking agents whose conscious, free choices affect the physical world.” (Switch On Your Brain: p120-1)

“Thought signals seem to move faster than the speed of light and in ways that classical physics cannot explain.  This means our mind controls matter, and is therefore a creative force.” (Switch On Your Brain, p121)

“These statistics show that the mindset behind the meal – the thinking behind the meal – plays a dominant role in the process of food-related health issues …” (Think and Eat Yourself Smart, p84)

The only difference between The Secret and Dr Leaf’s ministry is Dr Leaf’s claim that science and scripture support it, though lexical contortions of scripture, and cherry-picked pseudoscience does not qualify as supporting evidence.

In the last ten years since The Secret was published, many critics have lined up to pull it apart, some prominent Christians included.  So they should, because The Secret is an abhorrent, unscientific concoction of new age humanism, or as one critic astutely put it, “spiritual narcissism”.

I’ve dissected Dr Leaf’s teaching over the last three-and-a-bit years and shown that her science is wanting, and her scripture is tenuous.  As this week’s sermon aptly demonstrates, Dr Leaf’s teaching appears to be a lukewarm re-serving of The Secret, sprinkled with some scripture and pseudoscience to try and make it more palatable for the Christian church.  Despite the shared narratives of self-obsession and magical thinking, the Christian church still fawns over Dr Leaf.  It’s embarrassing to see the same Christian leaders and media outlets lambaste The Secret but unquestioningly accept the same message woven through Dr Leaf’s teaching.  Dr Leaf’s teaching is so close to The Secret I’m surprised Rhonda Byrne hasn’t asked for royalties.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.  The same goes for ignorance—the only thing necessary for the triumph of ignorance is for smart men (and women) to do nothing.  We also need consistency.  Rejecting The Secret but accepting the same teaching from Dr Leaf creates a cultural cognitive dissonance amongst the Church that’s unhealthy.

Church, it’s time to stand against mistruth no matter what the source.

Bibliography

Byrne, R., The Secret, Atria Books, New York. 2006 ISBN 978-1-58270-170-7

Leaf C., Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.

Leaf C.M., Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.

Leaf C.M., Think and Eat Yourself Smart. USA: Baker Books, 2016.