60 seconds – Dr Leaf and Anxiety

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Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, says that “A chaotic mind filled with rogue thoughts of anxiety and worry sends out the wrong signals and affects you right down to the level of your DNA!” She also says that “Toxic thinking destroys the brain!”

In other words:

Anxiety → Toxic thought → DNA changes +  Brain damage

But that’s not what science says. According to modern research, anxiety disorders are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [1]. The other way of looking at it is that people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders have a fully functional capacity for resilience [2,3].

In other words:

DNA changes + External stress → Anxiety

Dr Leaf’s teaching is backwards. Perhaps it’s time she turned it around.

References

[1] Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2
[2] Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10
[3] Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84

Dr Leaf and Anxiety

Christian male modelling

Zoolander

Some love him.  Some hate him.  It doesn’t change the fact that he was still “ridiculously good looking”.

Zoolander was one of those cult movies that polarised people into “absolutely love it” or “absolutely loathe it” camps.  I admit, I’m one of the former.  (“Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty”  … It still cracks me up!)

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Derek Zoolander was a top male model who was famous for his different looks: “Blue Steel”, “Ferrari”, “Le Tigre” and the famous “Magnum”. They were all the same pose, of course, but everyone thought they were different. Except for evil fashion designer, Mugatu, who in a burst of rage at the climax of the movie, yells, “Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look … Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They’re the same face! Doesn’t anybody notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

There are times when I read Dr Leaf’s social media posts, and I feel the same as Mugatu.

“Dr Leaf isn’t a scientific expert … ‘When we think, we learn because we are changing our genes and creating new ones’ … That’s not scientifically possible! Doesn’t anybody notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

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Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  If Dr Leaf was a legitimate scientist, she would know that our genes do not change when we process new information. Our genes are stable. They do not change unless there’s a mutation, which occurs in one out of every 30 million or so genes. We do not make new genes at will. Last year, scientists at MIT were reported to have shown that DNA breaks when new things are learnt, but in a normal nerve cell, these breaks are quickly repaired. That’s certainly interesting, but that’s not changing the DNA or making new genes. Making claims that we make new genes to hold new information is like saying that pigs fly.

Dr Leaf’s supporters would likely make a counter-argument that she probably didn’t mean that genes really change, or we make new genes, she’s just not worded her meme properly. Well, there are two responses to that, neither of which are any better for Dr Leaf. Because scientists who really are experts don’t make errors so large that you can spelunk through them. And, this isn’t the first time that Dr Leaf has made claims about how our genes fluctuate. She made a similar claim back in September 2014. Saying the same thing several times isn’t a mistake, it shows she really believes that we change our DNA code by the power of our thoughts.

Whether someone thinks DNA is changeable isn’t likely to cause any great harm to that person, but what is concerning is that Dr Leaf has been given her own show on the Christian cable TV network TBN to discuss mental health. She’s already proven that her knowledge of psychiatric medications is dangerously flawed. If Dr Leaf doesn’t know the basics of DNA, then giving her a platform to preach something that can effect whether a person might live or die is particularly perilous.

Dr Leaf’s rise is also a worrying symptom of a Christian church that is intellectually imploding. In a 2013 blog for the Huffington Post, Charles Reid wrote,

“Christians must provide effective witness against both extremes. But before Christianity can engage atheism it must first address the scientific illiteracy in its own house. For the greatest danger Christianity confronts at the present moment is not incipient persecution, but increasing marginalization and irrelevance. If Christians cannot engage reasonably and responsibly with science, there will be no place for them in the public life of advanced societies.”

Reid was paying particular attention to Ken Ham in this blog, but the principle remains the same. Scientifically illiterate Christians quickly lose credibility with people. We can’t meaningfully engage with a person who has a rudimentary understanding of biology by proudly tell them that we create new genes with the power of thought. That makes us sound like a male model.

For the sake of other Christians health and well-being, and for the sake of our credibility and our witness, we need to critically assess Dr Leaf’s work, not promote it as another gospel.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Still Contradicted by the Latest Evidence, Scripture and Herself

Leaf Cognitive Neuroscientist

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, world renowned author, public speaker, and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her influence continues to grow. She is regularly invited to speak at some of the world’s largest churches. She spoke at her first TEDx conference in February, and she’s about to host her own conference for the second time. She has more than 120,000 Facebook followers, with many more on Twitter and other social media platforms. And she continues to top the sales charts of Christian best sellers.

She is a self-marketing machine.

But there are cracks appearing. More and more, people are realizing that beneath the facade of her numerous Instagram posts, happy snaps, and the allure of popular success, Dr Leafs teachings on science and the Bible don’t match up with actual science and good theology. While many in the church adorn themselves with her teaching, a growing minority are starting to realise that the Emperor has no clothes.

Almost two years ago to the day, I sat in the congregation of Kings Christian Church on the Gold Coast, and heard Dr Leaf speak live for the first time. What I heard troubled me, and I blogged about my concerns to open a dialogue on Dr Leaf and her teaching. Her husband, Mr Mac Leaf, dismissed my concerns out of hand, which only steeled me to take further action. Now, two years of intense research, dozens of posts and a book later, people are starting to take notice.

Not that Dr Leaf has changed her tune. Her fundamental teaching still relies on the idea that our thoughts control our physical and mental health, and toxic thinking causes disease because our thoughts change our DNA and the expression of our genes through epigenetics. And, if we ‘detox’ our thoughts, we will be restored to the health that God intended. Dr Leaf is also expanding her ministry to the subject of mental health and she plans to release a book on food in early 2016.

Dr Leaf can spruik whatever she likes, but her claims of expertise and her scientific and scriptural legitimacy are crumbling.

This post is a little longer than usual, but I’ve divided it up for easier reading:

  1. Dr Leaf is contradicted by her own qualifications
  2. Dr Leaf is contradicted by science
  3. Dr Leaf is contradicted by scripture
  4. Dr Leaf is contradicted by Dr Leaf

1. Dr Leaf is contradicted by her own qualifications

In her books, on TV, at churches, and in promotional material, Dr Leaf describes herself as a ‘cognitive neuroscientist’.

However, Dr Leaf does not have formal qualifications in neuroscience, has not worked at a university as a neuroscientist, has not worked in any neuroscience research labs, nor has she published any papers in neuroscience journals.

Actually, Dr Leaf is trained as a communication pathologist. A communication pathologist is an allied health professional which seems to be unique to South Africa where Dr Leaf trained. It’s a synthesis of audiology and speech pathology. It qualified her to work as a therapist, which Dr Leaf did for children with traumatic brain injuries. Dr Leaf also researched a narrow band of educational psychology as part of her PhD, and she also worked in a number of schools and for educational boards in South Africa. Dr Leaf hasn’t performed any university based research since her PhD was published in 1997.

In contrast, true cognitive neuroscientists actively carry out research into the biological basis of thoughts and behaviours – either mapping behaviours to certain brain regions using electrical currents from the brain, or with functional brain imaging like fMRI, or stimulating or suppressing the activity of a region of the brain and seeing how a person responds.

Simply having some training in neuroanatomy and psychology doesn’t make you a cognitive neuroscientist. Completing a PhD that involved a model for learning doesn’t make you a cognitive neuroscientist. Reading a lot of books on neuroscience doesn’t make you a neuroscientist either, just like reading the Bible doesn’t automatically make you a Pastor.

So no matter how much Dr Leaf may try to convince us that she’s an expert cognitive neuroscientist, truth be told, she is not.

Of more concern is that Dr Leaf is also trying to position herself as an expert in the fields of mental health and nutrition. But if she can’t get her facts right in an area in which she’s had some training, then it’s unlikely Dr Leaf’s teaching will be reliable in areas that she’s had no formal training or experience whatsoever.

I might add, Dr Leaf’s insistence that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist and an expert on mental health and nutrition is also quite insulting for real psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists whose opinions are ignored in favour of a self-titled expert whose only ‘authority’ comes by popular demand, not training or experience.

2. Dr Leaf is contradicted by science

There are so many examples of Dr Leaf being directly contradicted by the science that she claims expertise in that I don’t have room in this blog to outline them all. What I can do in this limited space is to outline Dr Leaf’s most egregious and ironic fallacies as a taster.

The 98 percent

One of Dr Leaf’s most fundamental assertions is that “75 to 98 percent of mental and physical illness comes from ones thought life” [1]. She uses this little factoid all the time to justify her belief in the power of thoughts.

However, her statement is completely wrong. When considered in the historical and global context [2], most of human illness is related to preventable diseases that are so rare in the modern western world because of generations of high quality public health and medical care.

For example, Hunter et al state that, “diarrhoeal disease is the second most common contributor to the disease burden in developing countries (as measured by disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)), and poor-quality drinking water is an important risk factor for diarrhoea.” [3]

De Cock et al write, “Recent estimates of the global incidence of disease suggest that communicable diseases account for approximately 19% of global deaths” and that “2.5 million deaths of children annually (are) from vaccine-preventable diseases.” [4]

Routine screening with the much-maligned pap smear has decreased the death rate from cervical cancer in women by as much as 83% [5]. And having a competent midwife and obstetric support during childbirth can decrease the odds of dying in childbirth from 1 in 6 to less than 1 in 30,000 [6].

Midwives, vaccinations, pap smears, clean drinking water and internal plumbing have nothing to do with our individual thought life. We take all of this for granted in the first-world, so the impact of our thought life becomes artificially inflated. In reality, modern medicine and civil engineering, not our thought life, have everything to do with our good health..

Though what makes this meme such a good example of the weakness of Dr Leaf’s teaching is not just because it’s contradicted by actual science, but in trying to justify her conjecture, Dr Leaf has resorted to twisting, misquoting, and generally fudging information from her ‘sources’ in order to make them support her false conclusions.

For example, Dr Leaf quoted a source on genetics that was over thirty years old, from a time when genetic studies were still in the dark ages. She also misquotes her sources, significantly changing the meaning of the quotes in the process. One source didn’t even mention the figure she attributed to it. As if that’s not bad enough, Dr Leaf also cites biased sources, pseudoscientists, and other sources that directly contradict her assertion [7; Ch 10].

This pattern of relying on mistruths and factoids to paper over the gaping cracks in her irrational assertions is repeated throughout her teaching.

The heart is a mini-brain

Dr Leaf believes that the human heart acts as a mini-brain. She states that the heart has its own thought functions, is an electrophysiological regulator of every cell in the body, and is the source of the human conscience.

Such an assertion is ludicrous, and science proves it to be so – the “still small voice” comes from our brains [8-10], and everyday office-based medical tests prove that the electromagnetic signal from the heart is too small to have any meaningful influence on our body’s cells, let alone our thinking [7: Ch 11].

You control your DNA with your thoughts

Dr Leaf believes that our thinking can influence our DNA. She said this in her 2013 book [1: p35], and several times on her social media streams. The problem for Dr Leaf is that there is no credible scientific evidence that DNA is controlled by thoughts.

Her main evidence comes from a poster presentation at a 1993 psychotronics conference titled, “Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA” [11]. She describes this paper as, “An ingenuous experiment set up by the HeartMath Foundation (which) determined that genuine positive emotion, as reflected by a measure called ‘heart rate variability’, directed with intentionality towards someone actually changed the way the double helix DNA strand coils and uncoils. And this goes for both positive and negative emotions and intentions.” [1: p111]

Actually, the experiment was based on faulty assumptions, and so full of flaws in the methodology and analysis, that it could show nothing at all [7: Ch 13]. All it could prove was that Dr Leaf was so desperate to grasp hold of anything that seemed to support her theory that she was willing to use a twenty-year-old study from a group of pseudoscientists that also believe in occult practices like ESP and telekinesis (http://psychotronics.org).

On and on, the same pattern continues. She claims that our thoughts are powerful enough to control our DNA and our brain, except that the opposite is true – it’s our DNA code, with some influence from our environment, that creates our pattern of neurons responsible for our stream of thoughts. She teaches that thoughts cause stress, when again, the evidence is the opposite – psychological stress starts as a subconscious process which changes our stream of thoughts. Dr Leaf teaches that in order to improve our mental and physical health, we need to fight any ‘negative’ or ‘toxic’ thoughts, when studies show that cognitive therapy isn’t effective when compared to behavioural activation. (This is explained in more detail, and with the appropriate references, in my book [7]).

Dr Leaf even goes so far as to say that our thoughts can control physical matter! [1: p33,38]

Over and over again, Dr Leaf’s teaching conflicts with modern science. That Dr Leaf also regularly misquotes her sources and relies on unpublished opinion from pseudoscientists and new-age practitioners also brings her reputation as an expert scientist into disrepute.

3. Dr Leaf is contradicted by scripture

In her books and on social media, Dr Leaf often quotes scripture in an attempt to reinforce her reputation as some form of Biblical expert. Everything’s fine when she simply quotes scripture, but problems arise when she tries to interpret it. Like her use of science, Dr Leaf often misquotes or paraphrases scripture, or uses it out of context, in order to try and Biblically justify her tenuous hypotheses.

2 Timothy 1:7

One of Dr Leaf’s favourites is 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Dr Leaf interprets the phrases of “spirit of fear” and “a sound mind” as “anxiety” and “mental wholeness” respectively. For example, on the 12th of May 2014, she posted to her social media feeds, “Your mind is all-powerful. Your brain simply captures what your mind dictates. 2 Timothy 1:7” And in her book “Switch on your brain” [1], she said on page 33, “For now, rest in the assurance that what God has empowered you to do with your mind is more powerful and effective than any medication, any threat, any sickness, or any neurological challenge. The scripture is clear on this: You do not have a spirit of fear but of love, power and a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7).”

Simply checking the verse in its full context, and in a different translation, shows it in a completely different light to the way Dr Leaf promotes it. From the NIV, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1:5-8)

The Greek word for “fear” in this scripture refers to “timidity, fearfulness, cowardice”, not to anxiety or terror. The Greek word that was translated “of a sound mind” refers to “self-control, moderation”, not to mental wholeness. So Paul is teaching Timothy that God doesn’t make him timid, but full of power, love and self-control. Paul is simply saying that through the Holy Spirit, we have all the tools: power, love and the control to use them, so we don’t have to be afraid.

This scripture has nothing to do with our mental health. It certainly doesn’t say that our minds are “more powerful and effective than any medication, any threat, any sickness, or any neurological challenge”. Dr Leaf’s use of this scripture is misleading.

Proverbs 23:7

Another favourite of Dr Leaf’s is Proverbs 23:7, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”.

She used this scripture a number of times on her social media feeds, including on the 4/2/2015, “‘The more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will. Shawn Achor’ – ‘For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he …’ Proverbs 23:7”, and the 29/5/2015, “Mind In Action: ‘Genes cannot turn themselves on or off. In more scientific terms, genes are not ‘self-emergent’. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.’ Dr Bruce Lipton’ – That ‘something’ is your thoughts! Read Proverbs 23:7”. Dr Leaf also used the same scripture to try and explain how the woman with the issue of blood managed to obtain her healing [1: p111].

What’s interesting is how Dr Leaf only ever uses the first half of this verse. The whole verse (in the King James Version) reads, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.”

So what’s with the second half of the verse? What’s the eating and drinking half of the verse got to do with our thought life?

The explanation is that this verse has nothing to do with our thought life at all. Dr Leaf has simply been misquoting it for years, and no one checked to see if she’s right. According to the Pulpit commentary found on the Bible Hub website, “The verb here used is שָׁעַר (shaar), ‘to estimate … to calculate’, and the clause is best rendered, ‘For as one that calculates with himself, so is he’. The meaning is that this niggardly host watches every morsel which his guest eats, and grudges what he appears to offer so liberally … He professes to make you welcome, and with seeming cordiality invites you to partake of the food upon his table. But his heart is not with thee. He is not glad to see you enjoy yourself, and his pressing invitation is empty verbiage with no heart in it.” (http://goo.gl/nvSYUh)

Thus, the scripture does not prove that our thoughts define us as Dr Leaf would suggest. Dr Leaf’s use of this scripture is misleading.

James 1:21

Another example, on the 26 May 2014 on her social media feeds, Dr Leaf said, “James 1:21 How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions” and then a week later, “James 1:21 Our thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect of the cells of our body” (4/6/2014).

Except that James 1:21 actually says, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls”, and has absolutely nothing to do with our perceptions and our cellular biology.

The same pattern is repeated on social media and in her books. Dr Leaf finds scriptures where one version mentions words like “thinking” or “choice”, isolates them from their context and reinterprets them to suit her meaning, rather the actual meaning of the verse in the original language and the original context.

4. Dr Leaf is contradicted by Dr Leaf

Not only is Dr Leaf’s teaching contrary to science and scripture, but even her own teaching contradicts itself. Dr Leaf also makes claims about her research and achievements that aren’t backed up by her published papers.

To gift or not to gift …

In her 2009 book, “The gift in you” [12], Dr Leaf teaches about the gifts that we have, specifically, our gifts are something uniquely hardwired into our brain, something that we cannot change even if we wanted to, and that it’s our brain structure that gives rise to the way in which we think, the actions that we take, and the gifts we are given from God.

On page 47, Dr Leaf said,

The mind is what the brain does, and we see the uniqueness of each mind through our gifts. This, in itself is delightful and, intriguing because, as you work out your gift and find out who you are, you will be developing your soul and spirit.” (Emphasis added)

This quote in and of itself isn’t actually that significant until we compare it to a quote from the first chapter of Dr Leaf’s 2013 book, “Switch on your brain.” [1]

“The first argument proposes that thoughts come from your brain as though your brain is generating all aspects of your mental experience. People who hold this view are called materialists. They believe that it is the chemicals and neurons that create the mind and that relationships between your thoughts and what you do can just be ignored.
So essentially, their perspective is that the brain creates what you are doing and what you are thinking. The mind is what the brain does, they believe, and the ramifications are significant. Take for example, the treatment of depression. In this reductionist view, depression is a chemical imbalance problem of a machinelike brain; therefore, the treatment is to add in the missing chemicals.
This view is biblically and scientifically incorrect.” [1: p31-32] (Emphasis added)

So … our gifts are hardwired into our brain and can’t be changed because our mind is what our brain does OR our brain is what our mind does, so our gifts aren’t uniquely hardwired into our brain, and we should be able to change our gifting if we want to, based on our choices. Which is it? It can’t be both. Dr Leaf’s fundamental philosophies are mutually exclusive.

Now, we all make innocent mistakes. No one is perfectly congruent in everything they say. But this isn’t just getting some minor facts wrong. These statements form the foundation for Dr Leaf’s major works, and are in print in two best selling books, from which she has used to present countless sermons and seminars around the globe.

To summarise, Dr Leaf has directly called her own beliefs and teaching “biblically and scientifically incorrect”, and not noticed. The confusion and embarrassment are palpable.

But wait, there’s more.

(Not) Making a Difference

From the pulpit, in her books, and in her promotional material, Dr Leaf refers to her ground-breaking research – how her “Switch On Your Brain 5 Step Learning Process” and the Geodesic Information Processing model (which underpins her program), have helped thousands of children to increase their learning and improve their academic results.

For example, Dr Leaf claims that, “The Switch On Your Brain with the 5-Step Learning Process® was assessed in a group of charter schools in the Dallas [sic]. The results showed that the students’ thinking, understanding and knowledge improved across the board. It was concluded that The Switch On Your Brain with the 5-Step Learning Process® positively changed the way the students and teachers thought and approached learning.” (http://drleaf.com/about/dr-leafs-research/ – Original emphasis)

In her TEDx talk, Dr Leaf stated, “I wasn’t sure if this was going to have the same impact cause until this point I’d been working one on one. Well I’m happy to tell you that we had the same kind of results … The minute that the teachers actually started applying the techniques, we altered the trend significantly.” and,
“I stand up here saying this with conviction because I have seen this over and over and over in so many different circumstances … in this country I worked in Dallas for three years in charter schools, and we found the same thing happening.” [13]

Though there is the minor problem of her research results not demonstrating any actual change.

In Dr Leaf’s first case, Dr Leaf herself admitted that the demonstrated improvement of her single patient was just as likely to be related to spontaneous improvement, and not Dr Leaf’s intervention. In Dr Leaf’s PhD thesis, the students improved almost as much in the year without Dr Leafs intervention as they did with her program. In the Dallas charter schools study, Dr Leaf’s intervention either disadvantaged the students or showed no significant difference. In academic circles, Dr Leaf’s research hasn’t so much as generated a stale whimper [14].

So while Dr Leaf may claim that her research has changed the learning and lives of thousands of students all over the world, but her own published research disputes her claims.

The Emperor has no clothes, but no one wants to say anything

In Hans Christian Andersen’s legendary tale, the Emperor was conned by two swindlers into believing that “they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

If you don’t know the story, you can read it here. In the end, the Emperor was duped so badly that he paraded in front of all his subjects au naturel, but “Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.”

My analogy here is not to suggest that Dr Leaf is deliberately conning the church. Rather, our natural instinct is to suppress our own judgement, even when it’s right, in favour of everyone else’s. We assume information to be true because others in authority tell us it is. We assume that the Emperor must be wearing something because the trusted ministers and noblemen are holding his imaginary train high in the air.

Likewise, it’s very natural for Christians to believe that Dr Leaf’s teaching must be ok because our pastors and leaders vouch for it. Our pastors and leaders vouch for Dr Leaf’s teaching because it’s been endorsed by world-renowned Christian leaders like Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer. And no one wants to say anything, because they don’t want to look sheepish (or be ostracised). Dr Leaf’s ministry may look like a complete success, but only until someone finally says, “But, the Emperor has no clothes …”

It’s time to call Dr Leaf’s ministry for what it is. In my humble opinion, I suggest that Dr Leaf’s ministry is not based on scientific acumen, but on popularity and reputation. And her reputation, in turn, is based on slick self-promotion and an availability cascade (a self-reinforcing process by which an idea gains plausibility through repetition).

Dr Leaf’s teachings are not supported by science, nor by scripture. Her own fundamental philosophies contradict each other. Her assertions about her title and the results of her work are in conflict with her own official data.

Our church leaders need to come clean about why they publicly endorse Dr Leaf’s ministry. I can justify why I think Dr Leaf should not be preaching from our pulpits – in this and many other blog posts, and in my 68,000 word rebuttal to Dr Leaf’s published works. Can Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer, or churches such as Cottonwood Church or Hillsong Church, produce evidence where they performed due diligence on Dr Leaf’s scientific credibility before endorsing her ministry? I would be happy to publish any responses they may be willing to make, complete and unabridged.

If Dr Leaf is preaching at your church, politely ask your pastor to produce his or her evidence that Dr Leaf’s teaching is scientifically and scripturally sound. If your church leaders can’t show that Dr Leaf’s teachings are scientifically and scripturally accurate, then politely ask them why she’s been invited to preach from their pulpit or to sell her wares in your church? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Critics and sceptics love to use any opportunity they can to embarrass the church, but by parading our own naivety, we’re simply embarrassing ourselves.

It’s time we dressed ourselves in God’s glory, not our own ignorance and ignominy.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        World Health Organization. GLOBAL HEALTH ESTIMATES SUMMARY TABLES: DALYs by cause, age and sex. In: GHE_DALY_Global_2000_2011.xls, editor. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization,, 2013.
[3]        Hunter PR, MacDonald AM, Carter RC. Water supply and health. PLoS medicine 2010;7(11):e1000361.
[4]        De Cock KM, Simone PM, Davison V, Slutsker L. The new global health. Emerging infectious diseases 2013 Aug;19(8):1192-7.
[5]        Dickinson JA, Stankiewicz A, Popadiuk C, Pogany L, Onysko J, Miller AB. Reduced cervical cancer incidence and mortality in Canada: national data from 1932 to 2006. BMC public health 2012;12:992.
[6]        Ronsmans C, Graham WJ, Lancet Maternal Survival Series steering g. Maternal mortality: who, when, where, and why. Lancet 2006 Sep 30;368(9542):1189-200.
[7]        Pitt CE. Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. 1st ed. Brisbane, Australia: Pitt Medical Trust, 2014.
[8]        Mendez MF. The neurobiology of moral behavior: review and neuropsychiatric implications. CNS spectrums 2009 Nov;14(11):608-20.
[9]        Zysset S, Huber O, Ferstl E, von Cramon DY. The anterior frontomedian cortex and evaluative judgment: an fMRI study. NeuroImage 2002 Apr;15(4):983-91.
[10]      Glascher J, Adolphs R, Damasio H, et al. Lesion mapping of cognitive control and value-based decision making in the prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012 Sep 4;109(36):14681-6.
[11]      Rein G, McCraty R. Local and nonlocal effects of coherent heart frequencies on conformational changes of DNA. Proc Joint USPA/IAPR Psychotronics Conf, Milwaukee, WI; 1993; 1993.
[12]      Leaf CM. The gift in you – discover new life through gifts hidden in your mind. Texas, USA: Inprov, Inc, 2009.
[13]      Leaf CM. Ridiculous | TEDx Oaks Christian School | 4 Feb 2015. YouTube: TEDx, 2015;20:03.
[14]      Pitt CE, The TEDx Users Guide to Dr Caroline Leaf, cedwardpittcom; 2015   Mar 26, https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/

Dr Caroline Leaf – Manhandling scriptures again

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 7.49.02 pm Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 7.50.30 pm

I recently heard a great quote, “If you take the text out of context, all you’re left with is a con.” It’s a quote that seems to describe Dr Leaf’s social media pings quite nicely over the last twenty-four hours.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is also a self-titled theologian.

Today she posted, “3 John 2 = Mental Health ‘Beloved, I wish above all things that thou may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.’ Everything relies on your soul, which is your mind, prospering” (original emphasis).

Except that her statement is blatantly false. The soul isn’t just the mind. A simple search of an on-line Bible dictionary reveals that there are a number of ways in which the word ‘soul’ is used, but more specifically to the meaning in 3 John 2, “the (human) soul in so far as it is constituted that by the right use of the aids offered it by God it can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness, the soul regarded as a moral being designed for everlasting life”. (http://goo.gl/AjhvNO)

It should also be noted that the two words used in ancient Greek that referred to our inner reality were pneuma (‘spirit’) and psyche (‘soul’). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the words pneuma (‘spirit’) and psyche (‘soul’) were often used indiscriminately. The Apostle Paul distinctly used the word pneuma separately to the word psyche in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, but nearly every other New Testament writer wasn’t so precise.

Thus, John wasn’t referring to the mind at all, but probably our spirit, or at the very least, our generic soul, not specifically to our mental faculties or our thoughts. The scripture in 3 John 2 doesn’t have anything to do with our mental health.

Yesterday, Dr Leaf tried to merge one of her favourite authors views with scripture. She posted a quote from Dr Bruce Lipton, “Genes cannot turn themselves on or off. In more scientific terms, genes are not ‘self-emergent’. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.” Dr Leaf added, “That ‘something’ is your thoughts! Read Proverbs 23:7”.

So I did.   Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.”

So what is it with the second half of the verse? If this scripture is all about our thought life, then what’s the eating and drinking half of the verse got to do with our thought life?

The explanation is that this verse has nothing to do with our thought life at all. Dr Leaf has simply been misquoting it for years, and no one checked to see if she’s right. According to the Pulpit commentary found on the Bible Hub website, “The verb here used is שָׁעַר (shaar), ‘to estimate … to calculate’, and the clause is best rendered, ‘For as one that calculates with himself, so is he’. The meaning is that this niggardly host watches every morsel which his guest eats, and grudges what he appears to offer so liberally … He professes to make you welcome, and with seeming cordiality invites you to partake of the food upon his table. But his heart is not with thee. He is not glad to see you enjoy yourself, and his pressing invitation is empty verbiage with no heart in it.” (http://goo.gl/nvSYUh)

The other half of her meme comes from Dr Bruce Lipton, an agnostic pseudoscientist who was a cell biologist before he flamed out, and now teaches chiropractic in New Zealand. He believes that there is a metaphysical link between our thoughts and our cell function [1]. He’s ignored by real scientists (http://goo.gl/cX7Aeg).

As for his quote, it’s a misdirection. Sure, genes aren’t self-emergent – they don’t think for themselves. DNA is just a long chemical string which just carries a code, the biological equivalent to your DVD discs. Like a DVD, DNA isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t have a machine to read it. In every cell, there are hundreds of proteins that read and translate DNA. Those machines respond to the external environment, but they also respond to the cells internal environment, and to other genes themselves. Simply put, DNA is decoded by intracellular proteins, but intracellular proteins are only made by the expression of DNA, which happens all the time. A single-celled embryo becomes a baby because of DNA self-copying and expression that happens a trillion times over by the end of pregnancy. So while a single gene can’t turn itself on and off, the genome as a whole is essentially self-controlling, only being partly modulated by the external environment. Genes are turned on and off all the time by other genes through the proteins those genes make. Lipton’s assertion that “something in the environment has to trigger gene activity” is simply nonsense.

So Dr Leaf uses a flawed quote from a pseudoscientist to try and back up her specious interpretation of an out-of-context verse of scripture.

Somewhat poor from an “expert” theologian and cognitive neuroscientist really.

These memes speak to the issues of trust and legitimacy. Dr Leaf can call herself whatever she likes, but how can church leaders continue to endorse her to their congregations as an expert when she consistently misinterprets science and scripture? Can they honestly look their parishioners in the eye and say that Dr Leaf’s teaching is accurate? Can they stand at their pulpits and confidently support her book sales at their back of their churches?

Dr Leaf needs to re-evaluate. She needs to re-evaluate her claims to be an expert in cognitive neuroscience and the Bible. She needs to re-evaluate the quality of information that she relies on. She needs to re-evaluate what she’s trying to achieve in posting to social media, and re-evaluate the accuracy of her memes.

Because ultimately it’s the truth that sets people free, not errant opinions and misinterpretations.

References

[1]        Lipton BH. The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles: Hay House, Inc, 2008.

Addit: Dr Leaf’s social media post in between the two memes mentioned above was also a doozy. A repeat offender, as it were, since she has posted it several times before, and I have blogged about it here.

Dr Caroline Leaf, behaviour and genetic destiny

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 10.32.41 pm

Today on her Facebook feed, Caroline Leaf posted a quote which said, “Your behavior can and does dictate your genetic destiny”. Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. In isolation, it sounds like she has found confirmation of her view that our thoughts and behaviour control the physical properties of our DNA (Leaf, 2013, p35).

However, I wanted to look at the quote in a broader context, because in the broader context, the quote still doesn’t confirm Dr Leaf’s teaching.

The quote comes from an American doctor, Sharon Moalem. Dr Moalem is obviously a smart man. According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Moalem is an expert in the fields of rare diseases, neurogenetics, and biotechnology. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book ‘Survival of the Sickest’ and ‘How Sex Works’. Moalem has cofounded two biotechnology companies and is the recipient of 19 patents for his inventions in biotechnology and human health.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Moalem)

It’s not that Dr Moalem’s quote is wrong. In the book from which the quote is taken, Dr Moalem discusses the expression of genes (Moalem, 2014). There is no doubt that our behaviour affects the expression of genes. For example, when the body encounters a high level of dietary iron (ie: we eat a big juicy steak), a series of steps activates a gene to promote the production of ferritin, a protein that helps to carry iron in the blood stream (Strachan and Read, 2011, p375-6). These changes in genetic expression are mostly protective (for example, ferritin is used to keep toxic elemental iron from damaging our tissues). There are some behaviours that will override the body’s protection, for example, excessive exposure to UV radiation will eventually lead to skin cancer. But overall, the changes in genetic expression that our behaviour causes are protective, and do not adversely affect our health.

Unlike Dr Leaf, Dr Moalem does not promote the notion that our behaviour changes the genes themselves. Neither does he promote that our behaviour, in isolation, is the only modifier of our genetic expression. The quote that Dr Leaf used came from the second chapter of Dr Moalem’s book, “Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives, and Our Lives Change Our Genes”. Really, the title says it all. Our behaviour influences our genetic destiny, but our genes influence our behaviour just as much, if not more.

For example, small variations in the genes that code for our smell sensors or the processing of smells can change our preferences for certain foods just as much as cultural exposure. Our appreciation for music is often changed subtly between individuals because of changes in the structure of our ears or the nerves that we use to process the sounds. The genetic structure of the melanin pigment in our skin changes our interaction with our environment because of the amount of exposure to the sun we can handle. Our genetic destiny is also largely influenced by our environment, most of which is also beyond our choice (Lobo and Shaw, 2008).

So your behaviour can and does influence your genetic destiny, but your genetic destiny is more influenced by our genes themselves, and the environment that is beyond our control.

Dr Leaf’s quote doesn’t look quite so supportive after all.

References

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

Lobo, I. & Shaw, K. (2008) Phenotypic range of gene expression: Environmental influence. Nature Education 1(1):12

Moalem, S., (2014) Inheritance: How our genes change our lives and our lives change our genes, Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Strachan, T. and Read, A., (2011) Human Molecular Genetics. 4th ed. Garland Science, New York.

Putting thought in the right place, part 2

CAP v2.1.2

In the last blog post, I discussed the Cognitive Action Pathways model, a schematic conceptual representation of the hierarchy of key components that underpin human thought and behaviour.

Small changes in the early processes within the Cognitive-Action Pathway model can snowball to effect every other part of the process. A real life example of this is ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASD has been present since time immemorial. Numerous bloggers speculate that Moses may have had ASD, while a couple of researchers proposed that Samson was on the spectrum (although their evidence was tenuous [1]). Thankfully, autism is no longer considered a form of demon possession or madness, or schizophrenia, or caused by emotionally distant “refrigerator mothers”, nor treated with inhumane experimental chemical and physical “treatments” [2, 3].

The autism spectrum is defined by two main characteristics: deficits in social communication and interaction, and restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour. People on the autism spectrum also tend to have abnormal sensitivity to stimuli, and other co-existing conditions like ADHD. The full diagnostic criteria can be found in DSM5. The new criteria are not without their critics [4-6], but overall, reflect the progress made in understanding the biological basis of autism.

ASD is recognized as a pervasive developmental disorder secondary to structural and functional changes in the brain that occur in the womb, and can be detected as early as a month after birth [7]. In the brain of a foetus that will be born with ASD, excess numbers of dysfunctional nerve cells are unable to form the correct synaptic scaffolding, leaving a brain that is large [8, 9], but out-of-sync. The reduced scaffolding leads to local over-connectivity within regions of the brain, and under-connectivity between the regions of the brain [10]. The majority of the abnormal cells and connections are within the frontal lobe, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex [11], as well as the temporal lobes [12]. The cerebellum is also significantly linked to the autism spectrum [13]. There is also evidence that the amygdala and hippocampus, involved in emotional regulation and memory formation, are significantly effected in ASD [10].

There is also strong evidence for an over-active immune system in an autistic person compared to a neurotypical person, with changes demonstrated in all parts of the immune system, and the immune system in the brain as well as the rest of the body [14]. These immune changes contribute to the reduced ability of the brain to form new branches as well as develop new nerve cells or remove unnecessary cells.

There are a number of environmental and epigenetic associations linked to autism. These include disorders of folate metabolism [15, 16], pollutants [17], fever during pregnancy [18] and medications such as valproate and certain anti-depressants [19, 20] which are linked with an increase in autism[1]. Supplements such as folate [15, 21], omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids [22] and the use of paracetamol for fevers in pregnancy [18] have protective effects.

Although these factors are important, genes outweigh their influence by about 4:1. Twin studies suggest that between 70-90% of the risk of autism is genetic [23, 24]. Individual gene studies have only shown that each of the many single genes carry about a one percent chance each for the risk of autism [10]. It’s been proposed that the hundreds of genes linked with autism [10, 25] are not properly expressed (some are expressed too much, some not enough). The resulting proteins from the abnormal gene expression contribute to a different function of the cell’s machinery, altering the ability of a nerve cell to fully develop, and the ability of nerve cells to form connections with other nerve cells [26]. The effects are individually small, but collectively influential [24]. Autism is considered a complex genetic disorder involving rare mutations, complex gene × gene interactions, and copy number variants (CNVs) including deletions and duplications [27].

According to the Cognitive-Action Pathways model, the triad of the environment, epigenetics, and genes influence a number of processes that feed into our actions, thoughts, perceptions, personality and physiology. In ASD, the starting place is language processing.

New born babies from as young as two days old prefer listening to their own native language [28], which suggests that we are born already pre-wired for language. Auditory stimuli (sounds) are processed in the temporal lobes, including language processing. In neurotypical people, language processing is done predominantly on the left side, with some effect from the right side. But in people with autism, because of the abnormal wiring, there is only significant activity of the right temporal lobe [12]. Even more, from data so recent that it’s pending publication, loss of the processing of information of the left temporal lobe reversed the brains orientation to social and non-social sounds, like the sound of the babies name [7].

The change in the wiring of the left and right temporal lobes then alters the processing of language, specifically the social significance of language and other sounds. So already from a young age, people with autism will respond differently to environmental stimuli compared to a neurotypical person.

In the same way, the fusiform gyrus is part of the brain that processes faces. It’s quite specific to this task in a neurotypical person. However, the altered wiring of the brain in someone with autism causes a change, with different parts of the brain having to take up the load of facial processing [29].

Each time that one part of the brain can’t perform it’s normal function, the other parts take up the load. However that reduces the capacity for those parts of the brain to perform their own normal functions. In the case of the temporal lobes and the fusiform areas, this results in a reduced ability to discern subtleties especially those related to recognizing social cues. A neurotypical person and an autistic person could be standing in front of the same person, listening to the same words, and seeing the same facial expressions, but because of the way each persons brain processes the information, the perception of those words and cues can be completely different. This demonstrates how genetic changes can lead to changes in the perception of normal sensory input, resulting in differences in the physiological response, emotions, feelings, thoughts and actions, despite identical sensory input.

Physiology

The same changes that effect the cerebral cortex of the brain also have an influence on the deeper structures such as the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is largely responsible for transforming working memory into longer term declarative memory. Studies comparing the size of the hippocampus in ASD children have shown an increase in size compared with typical developing children [30]. Combined with the deficits in the nerve cell structure of the cerebellum [13], autistic children and adults have a poor procedural memory (action learning, regulated by the cerebellum) and an overdeveloped declarative memory (for facts, regulated by the hippocampus). This has been termed the “Mnesic Imbalance Theory” [31].

The amygdala is also functionally and anatomically altered because of the changes to the nerve cells and their connections. The amygdala is larger in young children with ASD compared to typically developing children. As a result, young ASD children have higher levels of background anxiety than do neurotypical children [32]. It’s proposed that not only do ASD children have higher levels of background anxiety, they also have more difficulty in regulating their stress system, resulting in higher levels of stress compared to a neurotypical child exposed to the same stimulus [33].

Personality

On a chemical level, autism involves genes that encode for proteins involved in the transport of key neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Early evidence confirms the deficits of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in autism [34]. These neurotransmitters are integral to processing the signals of mood, stress and rewards within the brain, and as discussed in the last chapter, are significantly involved in the genesis of personality.

The abnormal neurotransmitter systems and the resulting deficiencies in processing stress and rewards signals contribute to a higher correlation of neuroticism and introverted personality styles in children with autism symptoms [35, 36].

So people with autism genes are going to process stress and rewards in a different way to the neurotypical population. As a result, their feelings, their thoughts and their resulting actions are tinged by the differences in personality through which all of the incoming signals are processed.

Actions

The underlying genes and neurobiology involved in autism also effect the final behavioural step, not only because genes and sensory input influence the personality and physiology undergirding our feelings and thoughts, but also because they cause physical changes to the cerebellum, the part of the brain involved in fine motor control and the integration of a number of higher level brain functions including working memory, behaviour and motivation [13, 37].

When Hans Asperger first described his cohort of ASD children, he noted that they all had a tendency to be clumsy and have poor handwriting [38]. This is a good example of how the underlying biology of ASD can effect the action stage independently of personality and physiology. The cerebellum in a person with ASD has reduced numbers of a particular cell called the Purkinje cells, effecting the output of the cerebellum and the refined co-ordination of the small muscles of the hands (amongst other things). Reduced co-ordination of the fine motor movements of the hands means that handwriting is less precise and therefore less neat.

A running joke when I talk to people is the notoriously illegible doctors handwriting. One of the doctors I used to work with had handwriting that seriously looked like someone had dipped a chicken’s toes in ink and let it scratch around for a while. My handwriting is messy – a crazy cursive-print hybrid – but at least it’s legible. I tell people that our handwriting is terrible because we spent six years at medical school having to take notes at 200 words a minute. But it might also be that the qualities that make for a good doctor tend to be found in Asperger’s Syndrome, so the medical school selection process is going to bias the sample towards ASD and the associated poor handwriting (Thankfully, those that go on to neurosurgery tend to have good hand-eye coordination).

But if your educational experience was anything like mine, handwriting was seen as one of the key performance indicators of school life. If your handwriting was poor, you were considered lazy or stupid. Even excluding the halo effect from the equation, poor handwriting means a student has to slow down to write neater but takes longer to complete the same task, or writes faster to complete the task in the allotted time but sacrificing legibility in doing so.

Either way, the neurobiology of ASD results in reduced ability to effectively communicate, leading to judgement from others and internal personal frustration, both of which feedback to the level of personality, molding future feelings, thoughts and actions.

Thought in ASD

By the time all the signals have gone through the various layers of perception, personality and physiology, they reach the conscious awareness level of our stream of thought. I hope by now that you will agree with me that thought is irrevocably dependent on all of the various levels below it in the Cognitive-Action Pathways Model. While thoughts are as unique as the individual that thinks them, the common genetic expression of ASD and the resulting patterns in personality, physiology and perception lead to some predictable patterns of thought in those sharing the same genes.

As a consequence of the differences in the signal processing, the memories that make their way to long-term storage are also going to be different. Memories and memory function are also different in ASD for other neurobiological reasons, as described earlier in the blog with the Mnesic Imbalance Theory.

Summary

The Cognitive-Action Pathways model is a way of describing the context of thoughts to other neurological processes, and how they all interact. It shows that conscious thoughts are one link of a longer chain of neurological functions between stimulus and action – simply one cog in the machine. The autistic spectrum provides a good example of how changes in genes and their expression can dramatically influence every aspect of a person’s life – how they experience the world, how they feel about those experiences, and how they think about them.

I used autism as an example because autism is a condition that’s pervasive, touching every aspect of a person’s life, and provides a good example of the extensive consequences from small genetic changes. But the same principles of the Cognitive-Action Pathways Model apply to all aspects of life, including conditions that are considered pathological, but also to our normal variations and idiosyncrasies. Small variations in the genes that code for our smell sensors or the processing of smells can change our preferences for certain foods just as much as cultural exposure. Our appreciation for music is often changed subtly between individuals because of changes in the structure of our ears or the nerves that we use to process the sounds. The genetic structure of the melanin pigment in our skin changes our interaction with our environment because of the amount of exposure to the sun we can handle.

So in summary, this blog was to set out the place that our thoughts have in the grand scheme of life. Thought is not the guiding or controlling force, it is simply a product of a number of underlying functions and variables.

References

  1. Mathew, S.K. and Pandian, J.D., Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament. Ann Indian Acad Neurol, 2010. 13(3): 164-6 doi: 10.4103/0972-2327.70873
  2. Wolff, S., The history of autism. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 2004. 13(4): 201-8 doi: 10.1007/s00787-004-0363-5
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  4. Buxbaum, J.D. and Baron-Cohen, S., DSM-5: the debate continues. Mol Autism, 2013. 4(1): 11 doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-11
  5. Volkmar, F.R. and Reichow, B., Autism in DSM-5: progress and challenges. Mol Autism, 2013. 4(1): 13 doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-13
  6. Grzadzinski, R., et al., DSM-5 and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): an opportunity for identifying ASD subtypes. Mol Autism, 2013. 4(1): 12 doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-12
  7. Pierce, K. Exploring the Causes of Autism – The Role of Genetics and The Environment (Keynote Symposium 11). in Asia Pacific Autism Conference. 2013. Adelaide, Australia: APAC 2013.
  8. Courchesne, E., et al., Evidence of brain overgrowth in the first year of life in autism. JAMA, 2003. 290(3): 337-44 doi: 10.1001/jama.290.3.337
  9. Shen, M.D., et al., Early brain enlargement and elevated extra-axial fluid in infants who develop autism spectrum disorder. Brain, 2013. 136(Pt 9): 2825-35 doi: 10.1093/brain/awt166
  10. Won, H., et al., Autism spectrum disorder causes, mechanisms, and treatments: focus on neuronal synapses. Front Mol Neurosci, 2013. 6: 19 doi: 10.3389/fnmol.2013.00019
  11. Courchesne, E., et al., Neuron number and size in prefrontal cortex of children with autism. JAMA, 2011. 306(18): 2001-10 doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.1638
  12. Eyler, L.T., et al., A failure of left temporal cortex to specialize for language is an early emerging and fundamental property of autism. Brain, 2012. 135(Pt 3): 949-60 doi: 10.1093/brain/awr364
  13. Fatemi, S.H., et al., Consensus paper: pathological role of the cerebellum in autism. Cerebellum, 2012. 11(3): 777-807 doi: 10.1007/s12311-012-0355-9
  14. Onore, C., et al., The role of immune dysfunction in the pathophysiology of autism. Brain Behav Immun, 2012. 26(3): 383-92 doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.08.007
  15. Schmidt, R.J., et al., Maternal periconceptional folic acid intake and risk of autism spectrum disorders and developmental delay in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) case-control study. Am J Clin Nutr, 2012. 96(1): 80-9 doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.004416
  16. Mbadiwe, T. and Millis, R.M., Epigenetics and Autism. Autism Res Treat, 2013. 2013: 826156 doi: 10.1155/2013/826156
  17. Volk, H.E., et al., Residential proximity to freeways and autism in the CHARGE study. Environ Health Perspect, 2011. 119(6): 873-7 doi: 10.1289/ehp.1002835
  18. Zerbo, O., et al., Is maternal influenza or fever during pregnancy associated with autism or developmental delays? Results from the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) study. J Autism Dev Disord, 2013. 43(1): 25-33 doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1540-x
  19. Rai, D., et al., Parental depression, maternal antidepressant use during pregnancy, and risk of autism spectrum disorders: population based case-control study. BMJ, 2013. 346: f2059 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2059
  20. Christensen, J., et al., Prenatal valproate exposure and risk of autism spectrum disorders and childhood autism. JAMA, 2013. 309(16): 1696-703 doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.2270
  21. Suren, P., et al., Association between maternal use of folic acid supplements and risk of autism spectrum disorders in children. JAMA, 2013. 309(6): 570-7 doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.155925
  22. Lyall, K., et al., Maternal dietary fat intake in association with autism spectrum disorders. Am J Epidemiol, 2013. 178(2): 209-20 doi: 10.1093/aje/kws433
  23. Abrahams, B.S. and Geschwind, D.H., Advances in autism genetics: on the threshold of a new neurobiology. Nature Reviews Genetics, 2008. 9(5): 341-55
  24. Geschwind, D.H., Genetics of autism spectrum disorders. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(9): 409-16 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.07.003
  25. Chow, M.L., et al., Age-dependent brain gene expression and copy number anomalies in autism suggest distinct pathological processes at young versus mature ages. PLoS Genet, 2012. 8(3): e1002592 doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002592
  26. O’Roak, B.J., et al., Sporadic autism exomes reveal a highly interconnected protein network of de novo mutations. Nature, 2012. 485(7397): 246-50 doi: 10.1038/nature10989
  27. Stankiewicz, P. and Lupski, J.R., Structural variation in the human genome and its role in disease. Annu Rev Med, 2010. 61: 437-55 doi: 10.1146/annurev-med-100708-204735
  28. Moon, C., et al., Two-day-olds prefer their native language. Infant behavior and development, 1993. 16(4): 495-500
  29. Pierce, K., et al., Face processing occurs outside the fusiform `face area’ in autism: evidence from functional MRI. Brain, 2001. 124(10): 2059-73 doi: 10.1093/brain/124.10.2059
  30. Schumann, C.M., et al., The amygdala is enlarged in children but not adolescents with autism; the hippocampus is enlarged at all ages. J Neurosci, 2004. 24(28): 6392-401 doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1297-04.2004
  31. Romero-Munguía, M.A.n., Mnesic Imbalance and the Neuroanatomy of Autism Spectrum Disorders, in Autism – A Neurodevelopmental Journey from Genes to Behaviour, Eapen, V., (Ed). 2011 Edition 1st, InTech. p. 425-44.
  32. Bal, E., et al., Emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorders: relations to eye gaze and autonomic state. J Autism Dev Disord, 2010. 40(3): 358-70 doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0884-3
  33. Harms, M.B., et al., Facial emotion recognition in autism spectrum disorders: a review of behavioral and neuroimaging studies. Neuropsychol Rev, 2010. 20(3): 290-322 doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9138-6
  34. Nakamura, K., et al., Brain serotonin and dopamine transporter bindings in adults with high-functioning autism. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2010. 67(1): 59-68 doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.137
  35. Austin, E.J., Personality correlates of the broader autism phenotype as assessed by the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). Personality and Individual Differences, 2005. 38(2): 451-60
  36. Wakabayashi, A., et al., Are autistic traits an independent personality dimension? A study of the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and the NEO-PI-R. Personality and Individual Differences, 2006. 41: 873-83
  37. De Sousa, A., Towards an integrative theory of consciousness: part 1 (neurobiological and cognitive models). Mens Sana Monogr, 2013. 11(1): 100-50 doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.109335
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[1] A word of caution: While there’s good evidence that valproate increases the risk of autism, and a possible link between some anti-depressants and autism, that risk has to be balanced with the risk to the baby of having a mother with uncontrolled epilepsy or depression, which may very well be higher. If you’re taking these medications and you are pregnant, or want to become pregnant, consult your doctor BEFORE you stop or change your medications. Work out what’s right for you (and your baby) in your unique situation.

Understanding Thought – Part 1

WHAT IS THOUGHT?

We’re all familiar with thought, to be sure, just like we’re familiar with our own bodies. But just because we know our own bodies doesn’t make us all doctors. In the same way, we might know our own thoughts well, but that doesn’t make us experts in the science of thought.

But understanding thought is important. If we don’t know what thoughts are, then it’s very easy to be conned into believing the myriad of myths about thought perpetuated about them by every pop-psychologist and B-grade life coach.

This series of blogs is taken from my book Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. We will look at some basic neurobiology first, then look at the neurobiology of thought itself. We’ll discuss some psychological models of our thought processing, and finally we’ll discuss the common brain states and functions that are usually confused with thought.

Neurobiology 101

The nerve cell

At the most fundamental level of our thought process is the nerve cell, also called a neuron. Nerve cells, like all cells in the body, have a nucleus containing the genetic material. The nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasm, a watery chemical soup that contains the functional proteins that make the cell run. A thin lipid layer called the cell membrane envelopes the nucleus and cytoplasm. The cell membrane contains important protein structures such as receptors that help the cell receive signals from other cells, and ion channels, which help the cell regulate its internal chemistry.

Compared to other cells, nerve cells have three unique structures that help them do their job. First are dendrites, which are spiny branches that protrude from the main cell body, which receive the signals from other nerve cells. Leading away from the cell body is a long thin tube called an axon which helps carry electrical signal from the dendrites, down to the some tentacle-like processes that end in little pods. These pods, called the terminal buttons of the axon, and then convey the electrical signal to another nerve cell by directing a burst of chemicals towards the dendrites of the next nerve cell in the chain.

In order for the signal to be successfully passed from the first nerve cell to the second, it must successfully traverse a small space called the synapse.

The synapse

Despite being very close to each other, no nerve cell touches another. Instead, the spray of chemicals that’s released from the terminal button of the axon floats across a space of about 20-40nM (a nanometre is one billionth of a metre).

There are a number of different chemicals that traverse synapses, but each terminal button has its own particular one. The most well known are serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.

If the signal from the first nerve is strong enough, then a critical amount of the chemical is released and will make it across the gap to the dendrites of the second nerve cell on the other side. The chemical interacts with specific receptors on the new dendrites, which cause them to open up to certain salts like sodium and potassium. As sodium and potassium move in and out of the cell, a new electrical current if formed in the second nerve cell, passing the signal down the line.

To prevent the chemicals in the synapse from over-stimulating the second nerve cell, enzymes breakdown the chemicals to clear the space before the next signal comes past.

Nerve pathways

Combining nerve cells and synapses together creates a nerve pathway, where the input signal is received by specialised nerve endings and is transmitted down the nerve cell across a synapse to the next nerve cell, across the next synapse to the next nerve cell, and on and on until the signal has reached the destination for the output of that signal.

And that’s it. The entire nervous system is just a combination of nerve cells and the synapses between them.

What gives the nervous system and brain the near-infinite flexibility, and air of mystery, is that there are eighty-six billion nerve cells in the average adult (male) brain. Each nerve cell has hundreds to thousands of synapses. It’s estimated that there are about 0.15 quadrillion (that’s 150,000,000,000,000) synapses throughout the average brain [1]. And that’s not including the nerve cells and synapses in the spinal cord, autonomic nervous system and throughout the body. Each of these cells and synapses connect in multiple directions and levels, and transmit signals through the sum of the exciting or inhibiting influences they receive from, and pass on to, other nerve cells.

Single nerve cells may have the appearances of trees with their axon trunks and dendritic branches. But altogether, the billions of connections would more resemble a box of cobwebs.

Higher order brain structures

But unlike a box of cobwebs, the brain has precise organisation to the myriad of connections. These areas can be defined either by their structure, or by their function.

Structurally, there are areas in the brain that are dominated by nerve cell bodies, formed into a little cluster, called a nucleus (different from the nucleus of each cell). Then there are groups of axons bundled together, called a tract, which behave like a data cable for your computer. Nuclei process multiple sources of signal and refine them. The refined signals are sent into the appropriate tract to be transmitted to either another set of nuclei for further refinement, or to distant structures to carry out their effect. The axons of the nerve cells that make up the tracts are usually covered in a thick white material called myelin. Myelin acts like insulation on a wire, improving the speed and accuracy of the communicated signal. Parts of the brains with lots of myelinated cells are described as “white matter”. The nuclei and the cerebral cortex (the outer covering of the brain) are unmyelinated cells, and are referred to as “grey matter”.

On a functional level, the brain is divided into parts depending on what information is processed, and how it gets processed. For example, the cerebral cortex is divided into primary areas for the senses and for motor functions, secondary areas and tertiary association areas. The primary sensory areas detect specific sensations, whereas the secondary areas make sense out of the signals in the primary areas. Association areas receive and analyze signals simultaneously from multiple regions of both the motor and sensory areas, as well as from the deeper parts of the brain [2]. The frontal lobe, and specifically pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for higher brain functions such as working memory, planning, decision making, executive attention and inhibitory control [3].

Everything our senses detect is essentially deconstructed, processed then reconstructed by our brains. For example, when reading this page, the image is decoded by our retina and sent through a number of pathways to finally reach the primary visual cortex at the back of our brain. The primary visual cortex has 6 layers of nerve cells which simultaneously encode the various aspects of the image (especially colour, intensity and movement of the signals) and this information is sent to the secondary association areas that detect patterns, both basic (lines are straight, curved, angled) and complex (two diagonal intersecting lines form an ‘x’). One part of the secondary association areas in the visual cortex (the Angular Gyrus) processes these patterns further into the patterns of written words. The information on the various patterns that were discerned by the secondary association areas then get sent to the tertiary association area for the senses where those visual patterns are combined with patterns processed from other sensory areas (hearing, touch and internal body sensations) to form a complex pattern of multimodal association [2]. In the case of reading, the tertiary association area allows comprehension of the written words that were previously only recognised as words by the secondary association areas.

In the recent decades, with the widespread adoption of non-invasive methods of studying the active living brain such as PET scanning and fMRI, researchers have discovered that rather than discrete parts of the brain lighting up with a specific task, entire networks involving multiple brain regions are activated. This has lead to the paradigm of neurocognitive networks, in which the brain is made up of multiple interconnected networks that “are dynamic entities that exist and evolve on multiple temporal as well as spatial scales” and “by virtue of both their anatomical and functional architectures, as well as the dynamics manifested through these architectures, large-scale network function underlies all cognitive ability.” [4]

Emotions and feelings

Emotions are a difficult concept to define. Despite being studied as a concept for more than a century, the definition of what constitutes an emotion remains elusive. Some academics and researchers believe that the term is so ambiguous that it’s useless to science and should be discarded [5].

I’ll discuss emotions further in chapter 2, but for now, it’s easiest to think of our emotional state as the sum total of our different physiological systems, and feelings are the awareness, or the perception of our emotional state.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for the awareness of these feelings. The amygdala is often considered the seat of our fears, the anterior insula is responsible for the feeling of disgust, and the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex are involved in a broad range of different emotions [6].

Different emotional states are linked with different neurotransmitters within the brain. For example, a predisposition to anxiety is often linked to variations in the genes for serotonin transport [7] while positive and negative affect (“joy / sadness”) are linked to the dopaminergic system [8].

Memories

Memories, like thoughts, are something that we’re all familiar with in our own way.

Memory is quite complicated. For a start, there’s more than one form of memory. You’ve probably heard of short term and long term memory. Short term memory is further thought of as sensory memory and working memory. Long term memory is divided into semantic and episodic memory. Memory is also classified as either declarative memory, also called explicit memory, and nondeclarative memory, also called implicit memory.

Squire and Wixted explain, “Nondeclarative memory is neither true nor false. It is dispositional and is expressed through performance rather than recollection. These forms of memory provide for myriad unconscious ways of responding to the world. In no small part, by virtue of the unconscious status of the nondeclarative forms of memory, they create some of the mystery of human experience. Here arise the dispositions, habits, and preferences that are inaccessible to conscious recollection but that nevertheless are shaped by past events, influence our behavior and mental life, and are an important part of who we are.” [9]

On the other hand, declarative memory “is the kind of memory that is referred to when the term memory is used in everyday language. Declarative memory allows remembered material to be compared and contrasted. The stored representations are flexible, accessible to awareness, and can guide performance in a variety of contexts. Declarative memory is representational. It provides a way of modeling the external world, and it is either true or false.” [9]

Working memory is a central part of the memory model. Information from feelings, stored memories and actions all converge in working memory. The model of working memory initially proposed by Baddeley involves a central executive, “a control system of limited attentional capacity that is responsible for the manipulation of information within working memory and for controlling two subsidiary storage systems: a phonological loop and a visuospatial sketchpad.”[10] Baddeley later added a third subsidiary system, the episodic buffer, “a limited capacity store that is capable of multi-dimensional coding, and that allows the binding of information to create integrated episodes.” [10]

Working memory is known to be distinct from other longer term memories that are dependent on part of the brain called the hippocampus, because patients with severe damage to the hippocampus can remember a small amount of information for a short time, but are not able to push that information into longer term memory functions to retain that information. Information in working memory doesn’t last for any more than a few minutes [9].

So, there are many forms of memory that are important to our lives and influence our behaviour that are “inaccessible to conscious recollection”. But even declarative memory, which is accessible to thought, doesn’t actually make up the thought itself. Memories are stored representations.

When memories are formed or retrieved, the information is processed in chunks. As Byrne pointed out, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored). But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers. The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [11] Recalling the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes these pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [12]. This is why what we perceive and what we recall are often two different things entirely.

Why do we have memory then, if it’s so flawed at recalling information? Because memory is less about recalling the past, and more about imagining and planning the future. As Schacter writes, “The constructive episodic simulation hypothesis states that a critical function of a constructive memory system is to make information available in a flexible manner for simulation of future events. Specifically, the hypothesis holds that past and future events draw on similar information and rely on similar underlying processes, and that the episodic memory system supports the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event. While this adaptive function allows past information to be used flexibly when simulating alternative future scenarios, the flexibility of memory may also result in vulnerability to imagination-induced memory errors, where imaginary events are confused with actual events.” [13]

References

  1. Sukel, K. The Synapse – A Primer. 2013 [cited 2013, 28/06/2013]; Available from: http://www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=31294.
  2. Hall, J.E. and Guyton, A.C., Guyton and Hall textbook of medical physiology. 12th ed. 2011, Saunders/Elsevier, Philadelphia, Pa.:
  3. Stuss, D.T. and Knight, R.T., Principles of frontal lobe function. 2nd ed. 2013, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York:
  4. Meehan, T.P. and Bressler, S.L., Neurocognitive networks: findings, models, and theory. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 2012. 36(10): 2232-47 doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.08.002
  5. Dixon, T., “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis. Emot Rev, 2012. 4(4): 338-44 doi: 10.1177/1754073912445814
  6. Tamietto, M. and de Gelder, B., Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2010. 11(10): 697-709 doi: 10.1038/nrn2889
  7. Caspi, A., et al., Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 2010. 167(5): 509-27 doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452
  8. Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20
  9. Squire, L.R. and Wixted, J.T., The cognitive neuroscience of human memory since H.M. Annu Rev Neurosci, 2011. 34: 259-88 doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-061010-113720
  10. Repovs, G. and Baddeley, A., The multi-component model of working memory: explorations in experimental cognitive psychology. Neuroscience, 2006. 139(1): 5-21 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.12.061
  11. Byrne, J.H. Learning and Memory (Section 4, Chapter 7). Neuroscience Online – an electronic textbook for the neurosciences 2013 [cited 2014, Jan 3]; Available from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.
  12. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  13. Schacter, D.L., et al., The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron, 2012. 76(4): 677-94 doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.11.001