Strong marketing can’t make up for weak ideas

Well Dr Leaf, 10 out of 10 for persistence.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. In the last month or so, Dr Leaf has been hammering home her foundational belief that the mind is in control of the brain, and indeed, that your thoughts are the key to everything in life, a bit like 42 in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. According to Dr Leaf, your thoughts are the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Dr Leaf has attempted to prove her point through quotes from neuroscientists, from her own teaching, and from some published research. All she’s ended up proving is that she’s so desperate to prop up the concept that she’ll stoop to cherry-picking articles and massaging quotes. Poor form for a woman who promotes herself as a scientist.

Today’s meme is the spiritual justification of her position, expressed as a lovely little graphic with a verse from Proverbs 4:23. It’s a real Pinterest special. Most people would look at the pretty picture and accept the quote without question. It’s good marketing for sure.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 5.51.29 PM

But if you strip back all of the eye-candy, is the meme still worth posting? Is Dr Leaf’s meme an accurate depiction of what Proverbs 4:23 truly means.

First things first, is the meme an accurate quote? In this case, it is. The Good News Bible really does say, “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+4%3A23&version=GNT)

So the next question is, is the Good News version an accurate translation of the scripture? It’s interesting that nearly every other translation doesn’t mention thoughts and thinking at all:

New International Version = Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
New Living Translation = Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.
English Standard Version = Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
New American Standard Bible = Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.
King James Bible = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
Holman Christian Standard Bible = Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.
International Standard Version = Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life.
NET Bible = Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.
Aramaic Bible in Plain English = Keep your heart with all caution because from it is the outgoing of life.
GOD’S WORD® Translation = Guard your heart more than anything else, because the source of your life flows from it.
JPS Tanakh 1917 = Above all that thou guardest keep thy heart; For out of it are the issues of life.
New American Standard 1977 = Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.
Jubilee Bible 2000 = Above all else, guard thy heart; for out of it flows the issues of life.
King James 2000 Bible = Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
American King James Version = Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
American Standard Version = Keep thy heart with all diligence; For out of it are the issues of life.
Douay-Rheims Bible = With all watchfulness keep thy heart, because life issueth out from it.
Darby Bible Translation = Keep thy heart more than anything that is guarded; for out of it are the issues of life.
English Revised Version = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
Webster’s Bible Translation = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
World English Bible = Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life.
Young’s Literal Translation = Above every charge keep thy heart, For out of it are the outgoings of life.

Nearly every other English translation refers to “the heart”. Obviously not the literal “heart”, that muscular blood pump in the middle of our chests, but the metaphoric heart, the human soul. So even on majority rules, the Good News Bible translation is looking shaky. Is there any further corroborating evidence to help us understand which version is the most correct?

The answer would be in the original Hebrew. The word for ‘heart’ in Proverbs 4:23 is לֵב (leb), and more broadly is a word relating to the soul, ‘inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding’ (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3820&t=KJV). In some verses, the word in used in reference to what would be considered thoughts, but in many others, the word is used to describe a person’s feelings or motivations, or attitudes, or even specific intelligence and manual skills. For example:

Genesis 17:17: “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?”
Genesis 42:28: “And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?”
Exodus 8:32: “And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.”
Exodus 35:35: “Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.”

So it appears the Good News Bible is actually a poor translation. Again, this is an example of Dr Leaf cherry picking something that suits her theory out of a bulk of divergent views. No matter how she tries to sell the concept, the idea that the mind controls your brain and that your thoughts control your destiny is scientifically and scripturally weak. Persistence and good marketing isn’t going to change that.

MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS …

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 9.45.03 PM

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

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 10.25.58 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.06.38 PM

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 and the struggle spiral

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.01.10 AM

In Proverbs 12:25, the incredibly wise King Solomon wrote that, “Worry weighs us down; a cheerful word picks us up.”

Today, Dr Leaf posted to her social media stream that “An undisciplined mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions – These lead to degeneration of the mind and body.”

Well, that’s about as uplifting as a lead balloon.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  I’m sure her heart was in the right place when she posted her latest jewel of wisdom, but it may not be as encouraging or as helpful as she may have intended.

The biggest problem is her opening premise, “An undisciplined mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions”.  So … that’s not really accurate. The normal human mind is filled with worries, fears and distorted perceptions. It really doesn’t matter whether you discipline your mind or not, you won’t shift these ‘negative’ thoughts.

That’s because we’re meant to experience appropriate levels of fear and worry.  They’re a survival mechanism.  Without a certain amount of fear, we’d end up as a Darwin Award.  And as human beings, we’re naturally inclined to so many different cognitive biases that there’s a very long list (although ironically, those with the strongest confirmation bias will probably be the least likely to accept this).

By erroneously linking normal cognitive function to the concept of mental ill-discipline, Dr Leaf is simply setting people up for an unrealistic struggle with their normal psyche as they unnecessarily try to discipline it.

And for the people who really do struggle with excessive or inappropriate worry, fear or incorrect perceptions – i.e. people who suffer from formal anxiety disorders – this sort of statement is misleading because again, their issue isn’t mental ill-discipline. Anxiety is the result of a genetic predisposition and increased vulnerability to stress.

The second part of Dr Leafs meme is as unhelpful as the first.  For a start, it’s not true that worries, fears and distorted perceptions cause degeneration of the mind and body.  There may be a correlation between stress and some long term health problems, but correlation does not equal causation.  As Cohen and colleagues noted, “Although stressors are often associated with illness, the majority of individuals confronted with traumatic events and chronic serious problems remain disease-free.” [1]  Dr Leaf’s claim seems little more than a scare tactic, which can only lead to increased anxiety not increased motivation.

The important things to remember here are:
1. Experiencing worries, fears and distorted perceptions is normal, and not something that can be changed by disciplining your mind.  Don’t fall into the trap of trying to treat something that isn’t a disease.
2. If you do suffer from an anxiety disorder, don’t blame yourself.  That sets up a spiral of struggle.  Thoughts are just words. They have no power over you unless you engage with them.  Instead of trying to repress every worry and every fear, allow your thoughts to bubble away in the background, and instead, focus your energy on taking values based committed action which will ultimately help you live a life of meaning, not just struggling.

References

[1]     Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE. Psychological stress and disease. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association 2007;298(14):1685-87.

Book review: “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” by Dr Caroline Leaf

ThinkAndEatYourselfSmart_Cover_Web

Think and Eat Yourself Smart
Dr Caroline Leaf
328 pages, Published by Baker Books USA

My rating: 2 / 10

As a society, we are obsessed with food.  With copious food blogs, celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows, food has become more about our social status and self-identity than about nourishment.

Food has always been intimately connected to our health and well-being, and the modern food obsession has taken that to extreme levels as well.   Organic, paleo, sugarless, raw food, cleansing and other popular diets have morphed into ‘movements’, the polite shorthand way of describing popular obsessions that are borderline cults.

Trying to cash in on this wave of cultural orthorexia is Dr Caroline Leaf with her latest book, “Think and Eat Yourself Smart”, published in early April by Baker Books.

Dr Leaf describes the book as “an attempt to reintroduce a culture of thinking and effort back into eating, one based on diligently stewarding the body and world God entrusted to us.  In the spirit of renewing the mind, it is a lifestyle book that seeks to reimagine what we eat within an integrated spirit, mind and body framework.”

And that would be fine in theory, though in practice, Dr Leaf uses the book more as a vehicle for divulging her personal food preferences and her socio-political ideology while recycling most of her dubious brain science.

But before we go any further, let me issue a disclaimer: There’ll be some who will look this review and assume I’m being critical of Dr Leaf’s book for the sake of being critical.  I recognise that I’m not Dr Leaf’s number one fan, however, I want to say from the outset of this review that I have approached this as dispassionately and objectively as I can.

“Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is certainly not all bad.  Dr Leaf raises some legitimate issues.  For example, she’s critical of the vitamin and supplement industry and the staggering cost of supplements compared to their very limited benefits.  She discusses the previous dietary advice regarding low-fat foods, and how the misguided attempt to reduce our dietary fat intake lead to a compensatory increase in starch and sugars.  She also discussed the current concerns about too much sugar and refined carbohydrates, and raises the very real problem of food waste and food security.  The recipes at the back of the book contain the usual over-rated hipster foodie ingredients like dandelion, kale, quinoa and chia seeds to maintain Dr Leaf’s foodie creds, although some of the recipes themselves sound alright.

Unfortunately, every truth is outweighed by a multiplex of factoids and misrepresentations.  Dr Leaf clearly favours organic food, which despite her claims, have not been shown to be better tasting, more nutritious, less toxic, and better for the environment.  She’s clearly against genetically modified organisms (or GMO’s), a stance which is more populist than scientific.

Dr Leaf’s underlying premises are also deeply flawed.  It’s clear that she’s been heavily influenced by the work of Michael Pollan and other post-modern food gurus of the same ilk.  She’s critical of modern food systems including all food processing, food transportation, and supermarkets, claiming that modern agriculture and food processing destroys all nutrients and taste.  Dr Leaf claims that “Real food is food grown the way God intended: fresh and nutritious, predominantly local, seasonal, grass-fed, as wild as possible, free of synthetic chemicals, whole or minimally processed, and ecologically diverse.” (p29)

Dr Leaf’s definition of “real food” is nothing more than a romanticised post-modern social construct, and claiming it’s God’s idea doesn’t make it any less misleading.  Of course we want our food to be fresh, and we also want it to be nutritious.  But fresh and nutritious are not dependent on being local, seasonal, ecologically diverse (whatever that means), grass-fed and wild.  In fact, how something can be grass-fed and wild seems contradictory.  Processing food makes it safer, and in most cases, more nutritious that the unprocessed farm gate versions.  There’s virtually no pesticide residues left on conventional produce either, so that’s a moot point.

In fact, modern food is actually easier to eat and digest, more nutritious, tastier, safer, and longer lasting than ever before in human history. Today’s canned and frozen foods are infinitely healthier than in the past, and in some cases, more nutritious than the vegetables straight off the farm (canned tomatoes, for example, because nutrients are more easily absorbed from cooked tomatoes).  Dr Leaf’s idealised view of our agrarian past is false, and the notion that we should return to it is inane.

Dr Leaf also spends a great deal of time trying relate our nutritional health to our thinking.  I discussed this in the pre-review of the book, here.  She claims that “Research shows that 75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues come from our thought life; only 2 to 25% come from a combination of genetics and what enters our bodies through food, Medication, 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.” (p84)

Again, this is a false premise based on bogus science.  75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues do not come from our thought life.  What you think and how you feel makes no difference to how your body processes the nutrients you put into it.

This excessive focus on the power of thought is a segue back to her previous teaching, a justification as to why she as a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist should be writing about food.  Unfortunately, the information contained in the second part of the book makes it obvious that she’s not an expert on either.

Sure, Dr Leaf discusses responsibility and choices which are important to what we put in our mouths, but there are so many other variables that are more intrinsic to our individual diets than just personal responsibility.  Like, poverty, income, education, cooking skills or geographic location for example.

Dr Leaf claims that how you think changes how you eat, and how you eat changes how you think.  Except the last part of that statement is mutually exclusive to her premise that the mind is separate to the brain and controls the brain.  What you put in your mouth might change the function of your brain, but how can that change the way you think if the mind is separate to the brain?

This paradox is the death-knell to her books credibility and usefulness.  Not that it makes any difference to Dr Leaf, who conveniently forgets this central tenet of her teaching whenever it suits her.

The advice she provides is also off-track.  The answer to processed food isn’t to plant your own garden, or raise your own chickens, or join a local agro-economic food co-op.  That sort of advice is impractical for the vast majority of her audience.  It excludes everyone who lives in a modern city, or who, like me, has an uncanny ability to kill all but the hardiest of plants.  Even her exhortation to eat “real food” is unnecessarily complicated.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf’s advice isn’t dangerous, but just old and confusing.  Most of the useful information she gives is obscured by the plethora of unnecessary and irrelevant opinions and factoids.  It’s also nothing new.  There have been countless books and blogs written by real nutritionists and dieticians that say the same essential things in much simpler ways.  Even John Oliver did a better job of explaining problems associated with sugar and our modern food systems (* Warning * – Strong language and adult themes).  He’s an agnostic satirical comedian who doesn’t pretend to be a scientific expert, and he still get’s the message across more effectively than Dr Leaf.

To conclude, if you want sound nutritional advice, I’d suggest you head for books by actual dieticians. Professor Rosemary Stanton is one author I would recommend. She’s a Professor of Nutritional Science and Visiting Fellow of the School of Medicinal Sciences at the University of New South Wales.  She’s published hundreds of academic and consumer articles including 33 books on good nutrition.  She’s been lecturing and writing about good food for longer than I’ve been alive.

In contrast, Dr Leaf’s book “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is a repackaging of stale opinion and dubious science by an author who isn’t a nutritionist, or even a cognitive neuroscientist for that matter.  There might be some helpful advice in there, but it would be difficult for an average reader to pick out what’s beneficial and what’s bogus.

To that end, “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is a lot like a frozen microwave dinner.  It looks good on the packaging, but what you get on the inside isn’t the same.  There’s a few nutritional morsels, to be sure, but most of it is just offal and gristle that’s been homogenised to an unrecognisable mush and then reassembled.

If you’re a Dr Leaf devotee, or you’re interested in her socio-political views, then by all means, buy this book.  If you want sound nutritional advice, look elsewhere.

 

“Think and Eat Yourself Smart”: a pre-review

Update: Read my full review of “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” here.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 6.55.43 PM

They say, “Never judge a book by its cover.”  What about judging it by its marketing?

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She’s also a wannabe nutritionist.  Her latest book is “Think and Eat Yourself Smart”, due for official release at the end of April.

I haven’t read her book yet so I’m not really sure what she’s going to say.  It might be a well reasoned and soundly researched discussion about healthy eating, except there are some conflicting ideas that are appearing in Dr Leaf’s own marketing of the book, so I’m not holding out much promise.

For example, yesterday Dr Leaf suggested 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.”

This is bogus science.  It doesn’t matter if I’m convinced that eating a half gallon tub of ice cream is nutritious or not, it’s going to have the same nutritional effect on my body (namely, none).  It’s not 80 percent healthy because I believe it’s healthy.

Dr Leaf has made this assertion based on other bogus science – “How does thinking affect eating, and how does eating affect thinking? Research shows that 75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues come from our thought life; only 2 to 25% come from a combination of genetics and what enters our bodies through food, Medication, pollution, chemicals, and so on.”

Dr Leaf’s assertion that “75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues come from our thought life” is a favourite factoid of hers that forms the basis of most of her teaching.  Except that it’s wrong.  It has no basis in fact.  I’ve discussed this at length in several blogs and in my book (see here for a more detailed explanation of Dr Leaf’s 98% myth).

It’s unclear just how much of her book Dr Leaf has based on this false assumption, but the fact that it’s there in the first place sets a bad precedent for the rest of the book.

Only time will tell, of course.  I’d like to be proven wrong, but unfortunately, Dr Leafs latest book seems to be plagued with the same poor science as her other tomes.

Watch this space …