The confused teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf

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Dr Leaf released her latest e-mail newsletter today.  I decided to follow up with a brief review of this week’s instalment after her last e-mail newsletter completely misrepresented Ephesians 4:16, the function of the hypothalamus and the effect of stress on the population,

Dr Leaf was true to her usual form.  Her fundamental assumptions remain subtly skewed, forcing each layer of argument into an unbalanced and unstable alignment, and the more she tried to justify herself, the more unstable her arguments became, until eventually they toppled.

There was the obligatory dig at the medical profession, another smug ad hominem dismissal claiming that doctors have ‘negligible training in nutrition’, so doctors don’t understand the ‘whole approach’ that Dr Leaf and other so-called ‘progressive’ food thinkers have.  In reality, doctors have a lot of nutritional training, a darn-sight more than communication pathologists and self-titled cognitive neuroscientists.

And again, Dr Leaf demonstrates her paucity of knowledge or respect for the scripture by again misquoting Proverbs 23:7.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to be able to read a verse of scripture in context, and in context, “as he thinks in his heart [mind], so is he” has got nothing to do with our mind or our thoughts (as I’ve discussed before https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/05/30/dr-caroline-leaf-manhandling-scriptures-again/).

But the critical error which invalidates Dr Leaf’s essay this week is the intellectual dissonance she creates by making two paradoxical claims.

“Your mind, or soul, has one foot in the door of the spirit and one foot in the door of the body. The mind creates coherence between the spirit of man and the body of man, and therefore influences and controls brain/body function and health, and influences spiritual development. Your mind, with its intellectual ability to choose and its emotional authority, controls all physical aspects.”

and

“Fasting has been shown to enhance brain function, and reduce the risk factors for coronary artery disease, stroke, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure. For instance, restricting calories can support the induction of sirtuin-1 (SIRT1), an enzyme that regulates gene expression and enhances learning and memory.”

Essentially, Dr Leaf is saying in one breath that the mind is separate to the physical brain but controls all of the function of the physical brain and the body, but then moments later says that changes in the body alters the function of the brain which then alters the function of the mind.

So which is it?  You can’t have it both ways?  It’s impossible for the mind to control all physical aspects of the brain if the mind is vulnerable to changes in the brain and body.

The dilemma of Dr Leaf’s mind-brain paradox stems from her defective set of assumptions on the triune being.

“You are intrinsically, brilliantly, and intricately designed with a spirit, soul and body (Genesis 1:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). This is known as our triune nature.  Our triune nature is divided into different components. Your spirit is your ‘true you’, or what I call your PerfectlyYou. The spirit has three parts: intuition, conscience and communion (worship). Your soul, which is your mind, also has three parts: intellect, will and emotions. Lastly, your body has three parts: the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm, from which the brain and the body form.”

Dr Leaf’s ideas about the triune being are Biblically and scientifically tenuous—more conjecture on Dr Leaf’s part than hard science or solid theology (Read here for more information on this https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/07/25/dr-caroline-leaf-dualism-and-the-triune-being-hypothesis/)  Yet she bases her entire ministry on these shaky assumptions, cherry picking studies and manipulating facts to suit her arguments and ignoring the glaring contradictions that inevitably arise.

So Dr Leaf’s latest offering to her followers again demonstrates the confusion and contradiction that plagues her teaching—layer upon layer of cherry-picked factoids manipulated to prop up her tenuous assumptions. Dr Leaf would do better by listening to scientists and doctors rather than arrogantly dismissing them.

Dr Caroline Leaf – credit where credit’s due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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.

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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.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the struggle spiral

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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.

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

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

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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 …

Dr Caroline Leaf – Rogue Notion

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According to a new study by Rutgers University, “Learning new cognitive skills can help reduce overwhelming negative thoughts”. So said Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also advised that “Intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control is essential to mind health! And learn something new every day – develop your mind!”

So … negative thoughts are what, like an evil spy organisation, running around causing wanton destruction, overwhelming your capacity to function?

If that’s the case, then new cognitive skills must be like Tom Cruise, running, jumping, shooting and kicking their way through the negative thoughts, saving the world and getting the girl.

It’s a popular concept. As I discussed in my previous post, the power of positive thinking is culturally sanctioned Western folk psychology. We implicitly accept the idea that we have to harness positive thoughts and stop negative thoughts if we’re to overcome life’s obstacles.

However, the only rogue notions here are Dr Leaf’s.

Dr Leaf’s post sounds authoritative and sciency, but is nothing else. It’s vague, and with a bit of deeper palpation, it’s actually wrong.

Dr Leaf has gone back to her bad habit of obfuscating her references, maybe because she’s getting lost in her own hubris, or more likely, it’s much easier for her audience to see that she’s just cut-and-pasted the opening by-line of a press release again if she actually disclosed her source.

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In fact, the article is about a study from Rutgers which studied two behavioural interventions (not cognitive ones), a form of mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise. The original publication is in the journal Translational Psychiatry [1], if you want to check it out for yourself. This article isn’t about learning cognitive skills at all. Exercise and mindfulness meditation are tried and true behavioural methods of improving mood disorders like depression, which the authors combined to assess the benefit or otherwise. Neither intervention involved challenging or fighting thoughts, or suppressing ‘negative’ thoughts, or “intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control”.

Indeed, the mindfulness meditation used involves “the practice of attending to the present moment and allowing thoughts and emotions to pass without judgment.” [1] Mindfulness doesn’t try to control anything.  Rather than supporting Dr Leaf’s declaration that intentionally bringing thoughts under control is essential to mind health, this study contradicts it.

Cutting and pasting doesn’t make you an expert. It’s easy to take a sciency-sounding tag line and put it in a pretty little graphic. Everyone does it. 90% of Instagram and Facebook posts these days are faux-authoritative pseudo-science memes that aren’t worth the bytes they’re made of.

Junk science is like junk food. If that’s all you consume, then you eventually become an intellectual blob of lard, stuffed full of mistruths and logical fallacies, and incapable of understanding scientific truth for yourself. Dr Leaf’s audience deserves better than junk science and it’s about time that Dr Leaf stopped pretending to be an expert, and started acting like one.

Reference

[1]  Alderman BL, Olson RL, Brush CJ, Shors TJ. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Transl Psychiatry 2016;6:e726.