Hollywood knows more about cognitive neuroscience than Dr Caroline Leaf

Anyone ever watched the Will Smith movie, “Concussion”?

The movie is based on the true story of Dr Bennet Omalu who is a Nigerian-born pathologist (a pathologist is a forensic specialist who is able to determine the cause of a person’s disease and death).  Dr Omalu became curious as to why otherwise healthy middle-aged men were displaying changes to their behaviour and memory before dying at a young age.

What he found was changes to the brain of these NFL players similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s Disease.  The recurrent physical head trauma sustained by those football players was resulting in abnormal proteins in their brain cells.  The abnormal proteins resulted in the destruction of those brain cells.  As a result of the destruction of those brain cells, the thinking and behaviour of those players changed.

After initially denying the link, the NFL was forced to change their policy on repetitive head trauma under the weight of the avalanche of confirmatory data that followed in support of Dr Omalu’s findings and it’s been reported that “as of the summer of 2015, more than 5,000 former players were involved in a consolidated lawsuit, with a settlement figure of $765 million deemed insufficient by a judge”.

But good news for the NFL … self-titled cognitive neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf reassures us that “Your mind controls your brain.  Your brain does not control your mind.”

Maybe she can act for the NFL as their star witness.

But if I were her, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.  After all, it’s not like she’s able to mount particularly strong logical arguments.  Today she wrote on Facebook, “It’s important to remember that our thinking changes the structure of our brains because our minds are separate from our brains.”

How is the mind going to control the brain if they’re separate?  Suggesting that one thing controls another carries the implication that they are intrinsically linked.  If your hands are separated from the steering wheel of your car, are you in control of your car?

The other reason why Dr Leaf won’t be getting a call from Roger Goodell any time soon is because she isn’t really an expert on cognitive neuroscience as much as she’s convinced the Christian church otherwise.

Oh, and then there’s that minor detail that even Hollywood knows more about cognitive neuroscience than she does.  The whole point of “Concussion” is that brain damage results in disordered thinking which is the exact opposite of what Dr Leaf is trying to claim, and it’s hard to withstand any real scrutiny when your hypothesis has been trumped by a Hollywood screenplay.

The mind is a function of the brain, it does not control the brain.  The fact that Dr Leaf can not or will not bow to the weight of the undeniable scientific evidence means that she is either delusional, ignorant or utterly obstinate.  The fact that the western church is still willing to deify Dr Leaf in spite of these qualities is a stain on the reputation of the church and a blight on it’s witness to a world which only needs to look to Hollywood to find more credible information than what’s coming from Dr Leaf’s pulpit.

On sperm and common sense

I’ve been thinking the last few days about critical thinking, or more specifically, the lack of it.

I’ve written about critical thinking before.  I realise that critical thinking can be difficult, and it doesn’t always come naturally to us humans.  And in discussing it here, I don’t want to give the false impression that I expect everyone to suddenly become Aristotle or Francis Bacon, but I’d like to think we can all have enough critical thinking skills to have some basic common sense.

A case in point came across my Facebook feed tonight.  A Facebook friend had laryngitis and was about to embark on a speaking engagement and was asking the hive mind for some advice.

Now I know that this was a question posed to lay people, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to be giving specific medical advice … but it was interesting that the answers, by and large, didn’t even pass the common sense test.  Most of the answers recommended either gargling or drinking various home-made potions.  Except, when you gargle something or drink something, it doesn’t go anywhere near the voice box – we know that because we know what happens when you get liquid into your voice box, you cough or choke.  So clearly, no matter what you’re gargling or drinking, it isn’t going to affect your vocal cords one bit.  You don’t need a medical degree to know that, you just have to use a little bit of common sense.

The same deficiency in entry-level critical thinking is seen in the church all the time.  It afflicts everyone from pew-warmer to pastor.  Common sense so often escapes us when it comes to understanding scripture.  Christian celebrities skew the text of the Bible to suit their own agendas all the time, and most Christians are too gullible and just accept the incorrect interpretation.  Sometimes a scriptural misinterpretation can be passed down from generation to generation because people don’t question the orthodoxy for fear of appearing divisive or ignorant.

A funny example of how the scripture can be taught with all sincerity but without much understanding is in relation to sperm.  When I was in my final year of high school at a prominent Christian school, one of the male teachers took it on himself to get all the boys together from our year level for a chat about important man things.

One of the things that was mentioned was that we shouldn’t masturbate, because of the story of Onan.  In Genesis 38, Onan ejaculated on the ground rather than in his sister-in-law and God smote him.  Somehow, that was taken to mean that semen is precious, therefore it shouldn’t be wasted.  This lead to a historical view, expressed by Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.”  This lead to the concept that masturbation is evil because it is seminal genocide, which eventually lead to the Monty Python parody “Every sperm is sacred” (https://youtu.be/fUspLVStPbk?list=RDfUspLVStPbk).

Anyway, back to my high school – the teacher wasted our entire morning tea time talking about Onan, and about how we should be chaste and not masturbate because every sperm is sacred.  But he clearly didn’t read the actual scripture, nor did he or anyone else ever consider why, if God was so stressed about wasting semen, He would create men to have wet dreams.  I really wanted to make this point, but didn’t because it was morning tea time and everyone wanted to get out of there, and I also didn’t want to be mercilessly harassed about being pro-masturbation by every guy in my grade.

My high school teacher and the story of Onan is an example of how people can be well meaning and still misguided, and why we need to apply common sense to scripture.  It doesn’t take a great deal of biological knowledge to know that men have nocturnal emissions of semen, yet for centuries, the story of Onan was about how he was smitten because of his treatment of his sperm, not about how he was disobedient.

Another example of how well-meaning but misguided teaching can be perpetuated comes from the Christian course, “Valiant Man” by Australian pastor, Dr Allen Meyer.  The “Valiant Man” program was a ten-week series of small group sessions designed with the intention of helping men develop their Christian character in the area of sex.  In week three, Dr Meyer (not a medical doctor) tried to show that men should respect women more because we all started off in the womb as females, and the Y-chromosome eventually turned us from a girl into a boy.

This little factoid wasn’t the only significant defect in the Valiant Man program, but it was one of the most memorable.   “We all start off female” was one of the things that the other participants in the program all remembered, and it even made it to Sunday morning church as part of a testimonial one of the men gave about the program.  And yet, it was one of the most clearly inaccurate parts of the program – all embryos have the structures to be either male or female.  We didn’t all start off as women.  Men aren’t an aberration of the female default setting*.

In week one of the program, all participants were required to agree to some ground-rules in order to keep going on the program.  Point 2 of this ‘contract’ said, “intellectual opinions play no part in our discussion, except where they are relevant to our growth.”  In other words, don’t challenge the material gentlemen, and don’t think for yourselves.  While this might be conducive to running a smooth program, it meant that gross errors and distortions were left unchallenged.

This pattern of unquestioning acceptance of misguided teaching continues throughout the church.  This is something that Dr Leaf does all the time.  It doesn’t take theological training to see that her use of scripture is inaccurate (like her interpretation of Proverbs 23:7, for example), but the vast majority of Christians simply accept her misguided interpretation and theologically trained church leaders also accept it, or don’t correct it (both of which are just as heinous).

I know that critical thinking is sometimes tricky, but I’m not advocating for anything more than common sense.  Entry level critical thinking doesn’t take much effort but it can be particularly life changing.  Like with “Valiant Man”, a little bit of critical thinking can stop bad teaching from being accepted as truth.  Like the story of Onan, a little bit of critical thinking can stop centuries of incorrect teaching being perpetuated.  Like with my friends Facebook status, a little bit of critical thinking can help a person make the best choice for their own personal health.

As Christians, we need to have some self-respect and stop being so gullible, just accepting something as the truth because some Christian celebrity says it from the pulpit.

Ultimately it’s the truth that sets us free, not some gilded assumption.

* In fairness, I did the program in 2010 and it may have been updated since then … here’s hoping.

Dr Caroline Leaf and Testimonials – Good marketing, poor evidence

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is a pseudoscientist of the highest order. She once wrote a PhD. Now she has episodes of her TV show titled “Surviving cancer by using the Mind”.

This weeks edition of her newsletter started off with some subtle boasting:

“We have received many E-mails over the past years asking for Testimonies with regards to Dr Leaf’s research and teachings. We have summarized eight pages of testimonies received at TESTIMONIES. Be encouraged and feel free to refer them to friends, family, acquaintances, and work colleagues struggling with Mind issues.”

Testimonials are an empty box wrapped in shiny paper and trimmed with a bow. They look really good but offer nothing of substance. They’re simply an old advertising trick.

According to the Market Science Institute, “Testimonial solicitations – in which firms solicit consumers’ personal endorsements of a product or service – represent a popular marketing practice. Testimonials are thought to offer several benefits to firms, among them that participating consumers may strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand, through the act of writing testimonials.” [1]

Who can argue with a person who says that Dr Leaf helped turn their life around? Saying anything negative just makes you sound like a cynical old boot.

And that’s the real problem, because while publishing a whole bunch of positive stories is good for marketing, it makes it very hard for those who had a genuinely bad experience to say anything. No one wants to listen to those people whom Dr Leaf has confused or mislead – it makes for terrible PR. Those people feel devalued, and sometimes worse, because it seems like everyone else had a good result from Dr Leaf’s teaching, except them.

Testimonials also make for very poor scientific evidence. Indeed, testimonials are considered the lowest form of scientific evidence [2]. It’s all very well and good for a bunch of people to share their positive experiences, but as life changing as the experience may have been, they are not evidence of the effectiveness of Dr Leaf’s teaching. Without specific, well-designed research, no one can say if the testimonials Dr Leaf is publishing are the norm. Recent research demonstrates that self-help literature for depression may not have any benefit over a placebo treatment [3]. So it may be that any improvement attributed to Dr Leaf’s teaching was actually the placebo effect. Dr Leaf can list testimonials until she’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t prove that her work is scientific or therapeutic.

Indeed, selectively publishing testimonials is duplicitous, telling half-truths, positively spinning her own story. How many e-mails has Dr Leaf gotten from people who have found her teaching inaccurate, ineffective, unbiblical or harmful? Dr Leaf’s social media minions deliberately delete any negative comments and block anyone from her sites that disagree with her. And over the years, many people have shared with me how arrogant and dismissive her team has been to polite, genuine concern or criticism. I can personally attest to the same treatment. If Dr Leaf was honest with her followers, she would be openly publishing the brickbats as well as the bouquets.

For her readers and followers, the testimonials need to be seen for what they are: just individual stories. Sure, we should rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15), and so good for those who feel Dr Leaf has helped them. But they do not constitute evidence for the therapeutic efficacy or scientific integrity of the work of Dr Leaf.

For people genuinely struggling with “mind issues”, the last thing they need is testimonials collated by Dr Leaf’s marketing team.  They don’t need to be referred to Dr Leaf’s work, they need to be referred to psychologists and doctors.

And if Dr Leaf really wanted to prove her legitimacy, she would rely on independent peer-reviewed published research, not on the list of vacuous, self-serving cherry-picked testimonials that she is currently offering.

References

[1] Marketing Science Institute. Consumer Testimonials as Self-Generated Advertisements: Evaluative Reconstruction Following Product Usage. [cited 2014, Aug 3]; Available from: http://www.msi.org/reports/consumer-testimonials-as-self-generated-advertisements-evaluative-reconstru/.
[2] Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107
[3] Moldovan, R., et al., Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild depressive symptomatology: randomized clinical trial of efficacy and mechanisms of change. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 2013. 20(6): 482-93

Dr Caroline Leaf and her Genesis moment

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Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, had this to say on social media earlier today: “You are constantly creating matter out of mind … so you are always in a Genesis moment.”

Wow! Just wow! She may not have crossed the line into heresy, but she is pretty much right on top of it.

Because again, she has claimed that we can do with our minds what only God can do. We can not create matter.  The only being that has every created matter is God himself, in Genesis. In adding her little “Genesis moment” comment, she’s essentially equating our mind with God’s.

She might as well just come out and say, “We create matter with our minds, so we are like God”.

There’s a real Genesis moment where people thought they were like God: “‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”  We all know how that eventually turned out.

Ultimately it begs the question, where are the church leaders? I don’t hear anyone denouncing Dr Leaf’s comparison of our mind to God’s. How much is too much? When will they say, “Enough’s enough”?

It should have been said already, but sadly, with every unscientific, unscriptural meme that Dr Leaf publishes, the impotence and inaction of the church to becomes more and more painfully obvious.

Please church leadership, please take a stand, before it’s too late.

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.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Maligned Master Mind Meme

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On Facebook today, Dr Leaf published a menagerie of memes, a full house of five of her favourite little nuggets of wisdom that comprise the pillars of her teaching.  For example, “Everything you first do and say is first a thought.” And, “You alone are responsible and can be held responsible for how you react to what happens in your life: your future is open, filled with an eternity of possible situations and choices.”  Too bad that our genes, which are not the result of our choices, are the biggest influence of our personality and our capacity to cope with our external environment (Vinkhuyzen et al, 2012), and that we often do and sometimes say things without thinking (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/11/08/dr-caroline-leaf-putting-thought-in-the-right-place/).

But the most interesting meme in today’s trick is “The mind controls the brain … the brain influences but does not control the mind.”

For years, Dr Leaf has taught that the mind is separate from and controls the brain through social media and through her books.  Take a meme she posted to social media in May 2016.  It said, “As triune beings made in God’s image, we are spirit, mind (soul) and body – and our brain being part of the body does the bidding of the mind …”, and “God has designed the mind as separate from the brain. The brain simply stores the information from the mind and your mind controls your brain.”

With the weight of scientific evidence bearing down on her, Dr Leaf has finally given a little and made a concession.  Now the brain influences, but is still controlled by, the mind.

While it’s a step in the right direction, Dr Leaf’s meme is still wrong.  It doesn’t matter what small changes Dr Leaf makes to the window dressing of her teaching, her ministry is so structurally unsound that it’s derelict.

This is because the mind is a product of the brain.  Yes, the brain influences the mind, because the brain creates the mind.  Actual neuroscientists like Professor Bernard Baars in collaboration with mathematician and computer scientist Professor Stan Franklin have shown that the mind is simply a small projection of a much greater stream of unconscious brain activity (Baars and Franklin, 2003; Franklin, 2013; Baars, 2005)

The relationship of the brain to the mind is a little like the relationship of our cars dashboard to the engine.  We don’t see all of the actions of the engine under the hood of our car, but it powers our car nonetheless.  What we do see is the dashboard.  We can see our speed, and depending on the make and model of the car you drive, the dashboard also shows the engine temperature, revs, fuel and the warning lights for our engine and our electrics.

In the same way, our brain powers us.  It’s the engine purring along under the surface.  Our mind is the dashboard, giving us a tiny glimpse at a much greater process underneath the surface.  Suggesting that our mind is in control of our brain is like suggesting that our dashboard is in control of our engine.  The mind is a product of our brain designed to give us conscious awareness of a small portion of a much deeper stream of activity that senses our environment, alters our moods, plans our actions and then executes them.

By basing her entire ministry on such science fiction, Dr Leaf makes a mockery out of every church that hosts her, of everyone that buys her books, and of everyone who subscribes to her programs.  She also makes a mockery of herself, which is the saddest part of this whole story.  I hope that she stops making changes to the window dressings of her ministry, and starts to make the necessary changes to her foundations before it’s too late and the whole thing comes crashing down.

References

Baars, B.J., Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 2005. 150: 45-53

Baars, B.J. and Franklin, S., How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends Cogn Sci, 2003. 7(4): 166-72  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12691765 ; http://bit.ly/1a3ytQT

Franklin, S., et al., Conceptual Commitments of the LIDA Model of Cognition. Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, 2013. 4(2): 1-22

Vinkhuyzen, A.A., et al., Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2012. 2: e102 doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27

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