Don’t stress about stress – Part 1

Stress gets a bad rap. Everywhere you look, stress seems to be getting the blame. Though as Richard Shweder wrote in the New York Times, “Imprecise and evasive language may be a disaster for science but it is a boon in everyday life. ‘I am stressed out’ is non-accusatory, apolitical and detached. It is a good way to keep the peace and, at the same time, a low-cost way to complain.” [1]

Selye said that, “Everybody knows what stress is, but no one really knows.” [2] Hans Selye is considered the father of modern stress research. He was one of the first scientists to conceptualise and measure this ethereal force.

As with some of the most important discoveries in the history of science, Selye came upon the discovery of what he termed the “alarm reaction” incidentally when he was injecting rats with impure ovarian extract, and noted that they became sick. He looked further at the physical changes in the rats and noted an unusual cluster of changes to their adrenal glands, thymus, spleen and gut [3]. He was able to reproduce the same responses by exposing the rats to cold temperatures, surgical injury, spinal shock, excessive muscular exercise, or intoxications with sublethal doses of drugs such as adrenaline, morphine or formaldehyde [4]. After years of research, he confirmed that ongoing exposure to the same physical conditions or drugs would follow the same three-stage process of initial physical changes, recovery and adaptation, then eventually exhaustion (and death). He called this model the “General Adaptation Syndrome.” [4]

The General Adaptation model was groundbreaking, and the sheer volume of work done by Selye brought his theories to the forefront of the scientific community. With time, the theory slowly descended from its place of adulation as other evidence came to light [5], but it has remained foundational, and Selye is still revered as the father of modern stress research.

The term stress “generally refers to experiences that cause feelings of anxiety and frustration because they push us beyond our ability to successfully cope.” [6] Scientifically, stress has been difficult to define. Different researchers often use different definitions of stress depending on what they’re studying or what field of psychology or science they belong to [7].

I wanted to look at stress from a different perspective. In the next series of posts, I want to look at the basic concepts of stress and its functions in nature. I will spend some time looking at different ways of conceptualising stress, and look at how they offer is life lessons on how to approach our stress. I’ll then have a look at what it is that helps us cope with stress.

A broad concept of stress

To gain a better understanding of stress, it’s useful to step away from the medical concept of stress, and think about what the term means in other fields.

When an engineer thinks about stress, it’s usually in relation to a physical force on a material object. My son is a huge Mythbusters fan. He was watching an episode the other day where the Mythbusters were testing the myth of Pykrete, a material that was nothing but wood shavings and ice. They were testing to see whether it was more durable than ice alone, whether it was bulletproof, and whether it could be used to build a boat! [8] In order to test out these crazy claims, they made some in their workshop and compared it with normal ice. How did they test it? By stressing it – placing weights on the end of the block of the ice/pykrete until it broke. (In the end, pykrete was ten times stronger than ice, was bulletproof, and they made a fully operational motor-boat from it!)

So the mechanical definition of stress is, “pressure or tension exerted on a material object.” [9] There are a few illustrations of mechanical stress, in our bodies and in everyday life, that are good metaphors for stress in our lives.

The Classical Stress/Productivity Curve

I confess I am NOT a musician. I’ve never learnt to read music or play an instrument. But I do know that when you first put a new string on the guitar, it’s unstretched – there is literally no force on it at all. If all you did was tied the two ends of the string to the tone peg and the tuning peg, the string would remain limp and lifeless. It wouldn’t be able to do anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t play a note.

When the tuning peg is twisted a few times, there is some tightness in the wire. The string is now under tension (i.e. stress). It is now able to play a note of some form, so it can do some work and fulfill some of the function of a guitar string. But the pitch isn’t good enough – the note is out of tune.

With a small adjustment, the string reaches its optimal tension and can play the correct note! This is the point where the string is fulfilling its designed purpose. Optimal stress equals optimal function.

With further tightening of the string, the perfect pitch is lost, but the string can still produce a sound of some form. With more tension, the string can still make a noise, but it sounds awful, and the fibres inside the cord are starting to tear. If the string were wound further and further, it would eventually break.

If this ratio of the tension of the string versus the usefulness of the string were to be plotted as a graph, it would look like an upside down “U”. This is the classic stress/productivity curve.


The Exponential Stress/Productivity Curve

The second metaphor that I think illustrates a different concept of the stress/productivity relationship is a car.

As well not being a musician, I am also NOT a mechanic! I know the important things like where the petrol goes, and how to drive them, but otherwise cars are very mysterious and powerful devices, their mystery is only exceeded by their power.

What I do know is that the engine is very much like the guitar string. As more petrol is fed into the engine, the engine gets more powerful. Soon, the engine finds its “power band”, a zone of maximum torque that can be achieved at moderate revolutions. As the engine is given more gas, the power output declines from the middle of the power band. If the engine was maxed out then the amount of functional power coming out is reduced.

This would plot as a similar graph to the U-curve of the stress/productivity curve. But cars not only have engines, but also a gearbox. The gears allow for multiplication of the work done (the productivity) for the same stress on the engine.


As a child, I didn’t dream of becoming an astronaut, but I was interested in space. The beauty of our night sky is as stunning as any forest, river or mountain. I would read of the astronauts in rockets and in space stations, floating around in zero gravity, swimming through the “air”. That sounded like a lot of fun.

But zero gravity isn’t particularly good for you. Some early astronauts had to be carried off their landing craft on stretchers because the effect of zero gravity would render these men weak and atrophied. They boarded the spacecraft at the peak of their physical strength and fitness, but after only a few weeks without gravity, their bodies resembled that of the elderly (although without the wrinkles) [10].

It’s a general principle of the human body that any tissue that isn’t needed shrinks in size – a process called atrophy. In zero gravity, the body doesn’t need as much muscle, so the muscles shrink. The body doesn’t need as much bone strength, so the bones weaken. There is no gravity to pull their blood away from their head, so the blood volume decreases. Because there is less muscle to pump blood to, and less blood to pump, the heart doesn’t work as hard, so the heart muscle atrophies. The net effect of zero gravity is to make you physically weak [10].

On the other hand, too much gravity is not great either. Animals can adapt to small amounts of hypergravity [11]. But large amounts aren’t so good. During astronaut training, NASA subjects the rookie spacemen to rigorous tests including placing them in a large centrifuge and spinning it very fast. The result is an increase in the gravitational forces applied to their bodies. The increased gravity makes everything in the body heavier and their blood is pulled towards the legs and away from the brain, which leads to what is known as G-LOC (Gravity-induced Loss Of Consciousness). In other words, the heart can’t fight the increased force of gravity and the brain loses its blood supply, which makes you pass out. Josh McHugh did an entertaining piece on his experience with G-LOC and the centrifuge in Wired (2003) [12].

In this sense, gravity is to us physically like stress is to us mentally. Without gravity, our physical bodies turn to mush as we slowly weaken from the inside. Too much gravity, and our physical bodies are slowly squashed by the invisible weight of the extra G’s. Our bodies work best at 1G.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at how these different models of stress apply to our everyday.


  1. Shweder, R.A., America’s Latest Export: A Stressed-Out World. The New York Times, New York, 26 January 1997
  2. What Is Stress. [cited 2013, July]; Available from:
  3. Half a century of stress research: a tribute to Hans Selye by his students and associates. Experientia, 1985. 41(5): 559-78
  4. Selye, H., A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. 1936. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci, 1998. 10(2): 230-1
  5. Fink, G., Encyclopedia of stress. 1st ed. 2000, Academic Press, San Diego:
  6. McEwen, B.S., Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 2006. 8(4): 367-81
  7. Hackney, A.C., Stress and the neuroendocrine system: the role of exercise as a stressor and modifier of stress. Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab, 2006. 1(6): 783-92 doi: 10.1586/17446651.1.6.783
  8. Beyond Entertainment / Discovery Channel, The Alaska Special 2 (Season 7, Episode 2), Mythbusters: 2009 Discovery Channel, 44min.
  9. Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition, 2010, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
  10. Gravity Hurts (So Good). NASA Science | Science News 2001 [cited July 2013]; Available from:
  11. van Loon, J.J., Hypergravity studies in the Netherlands. J Gravit Physiol, 2001. 8(1): P139-42
  12. McHugh, J., Surviving 7G. Wired, 2003. November(11),

Bad choices cause brain damage?

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Alexander Pope.

I’m not perfect.  At least, not the last time I checked.  And we’re all the same, aren’t we.  We all know through experience that we all stuff things up on a fairly regular basis.  We make bad choices.  We’re human!

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, believes that these bad choices literally cause brain damage.  Her fundamental assumption is that our thoughts control our brain [1: p33].  These thoughts can be healthy or they can be toxic.  Toxic thoughts “are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.” [2: p19]

Dr Leaf’s assumption is that thoughts and bad choices cause our brain cells to shrivel or die. “Once your body is truly in stress mode and the cortisol is flowing, dendrites start shrinking and even ‘falling off’” [2: p32].  She also says that, “We have two choices, we can let our thoughts become toxic and poisonous or we can detox our negative thoughts which will improve our emotional wholeness and even recover our physical health.” [2: p21]

It sounds a little extreme.  We all make bad choices, and we all experience stress.  When we’re stressed, do our memories really go missing, or the dendrites of nerve cells shake and fall like tree branches in a storm?  If we make a bad choice, do we really get brain damage?  Lets see what the scientific literature has to say.

Imagine walking along a path in a forest and you see a snake, only inches in front of you on the path.  What do you do? When faced with a high level of acute stress, the brain switches into a binary mode – fight/flight or freeze. Self-preservation has to kick in.  The only decision you have to make then and there is whether to run, to try and kill the snake before it kills you, or stop dead still and hope that the snake ignores you and slithers away.

At that point, most memory is redundant, as is a high-level analysis of snake species, or any other cognitive pursuit.  The brain doesn’t need them at that precise moment.  If they did engage, they would just get in the way.  Switching the thinking parts of your brain off focuses your attention on the immediate danger.  It’s an adaptive survival response.  Meantime, your memories and your theoretical knowledge about snakes don’t disappear.  They are still there, unchanged.  It is false to suggest that the memories “shrink”.

We’ve all experienced “mental block”.  Sometimes when we get into a situation, like an exam or a business meeting, our stress levels are high, and binary mode kicks in again, although this time it can be a hindrance.  This phenomenon of mental block under high stress was first proposed in 1908 and is currently known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a fundamental principle of the behavioural sciences [3].  Similar to the stress-productivity curve, Yerkes and Dodson proposed a U-shaped curve to represent the relationship between arousal (which could be either level of consciousness or stress) and behavioural performance.  At low arousal, there is poor performance.  At the mid-point of arousal, there is peak performance, and at high arousal, performance diminishes.

But again, our memories don’t shrink, and our nerve cell branches don’t fall off.  Once we reduce our level of arousal, we move away from the fight/flight/freeze mode, and everything is still there (and we perform better, according to Yerkes-Dodson).

Dr Leaf has a favourite analogy of “neurons as trees”.  And if neurons are trees, then the branches can “fall off”.  But neurons are not trees and dendrites are not tree branches.  The dendrites do not ‘fall off’ the neuron.  The neurons in the brain have mechanisms for ongoing brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to the challenges and changes in its internal and external environment that are constantly occurring.  If the brain needs to build a new circuit to encode a new piece of information, then it grows new dendrites and creates new synapses.  But the brain is limited by the amount of energy it can consume, and therefore the number of synapses it can maintain.  So the brain trims unnecessary dendrites, a process called “synaptic pruning”.

Synaptic pruning is a normal process. Chechik and Meilijson confirm that, “Human and animal studies show that mammalian brains undergoes massive synaptic pruning during childhood, removing about half of the synapses until puberty.” [4]

Synaptic pruning is not deleterious, but beneficial.  Chechik and Meilijson also note that, “synaptic overgrowth followed by judicial pruning along development improves the performance of an associative memory network with limited synaptic resources.” [4] So synaptic pruning is a normal physiological process, and occurs in all of us for many reasons, predominantly to improve the efficiency of our neural networks.  Perhaps synaptic pruning associated with the stress response is also an adaptive process?

Synaptic pruning also occurs in other physiological states that have nothing to do with stress or thought, such as the effects of oestrogen during the menstrual cycle and at menopause [5, 6].

A link between stress and dendrite loss has been discovered, but it is not consistent.  Some authors like Kopp and Rethelyi suggest that “severe stress for a prolonged period causes damage in hippocampal pyramidal neurons, especially in the CA3 and CA4 region and reductions in the length and arborization of their dendrites.” [7] However, Chen et al writes, “Whereas hippocampus-mediated memory deficits commonly were associated with—and perhaps result from—loss of synapse-bearing dendrites and dendritic spines, this association has not been universal so that the structure–function relationship underlying the effects of stress on hippocampal neurons has not been resolved.” [8]

It’s more accurate to think that chronic stress causes dendritic remodeling in animals [9], in which some nerve cells prune their synapses, which others grow them, and energy is diverted away from new nerve cell formation to the new synapses that are needed to cope with the stress.

A number of scientists have pointed out that patients with depression or anxiety, who normally have high levels of stress, have a smaller hippocampus and larger amygdala, so stress and depression must cause the smaller brain regions [9].  There may be some reduction in the number of synapses within the hippocampus and the frontal lobes of the brain, which may account for the change in size observed by a number of researchers.  But the modern thinking on these changes is that they are associated with depression, not caused by depression [10] (Correlation does not equal causation).

So, stress is associated with depression, but this is because genetic defects in one or multiple genes reduce the ability for the brain cells to produce synaptic branches.  It’s this decrease in the number of synapses that contributes to the typical changes in the brain seen at autopsy of patients who suffered from depression or anxiety [11].  The reduced ability of the nerve cells to grow synapses means that new branches can’t grow fast enough to process the stress signals properly [11, 12].  The poor signal transmission leads to a predisposition towards mood disorders like anxiety and depression [10, 11, 13-15], and less synaptic branches means both a smaller volume of the hippocampus, and an inability to process stress signals leads to a larger, overactive amygdala.

In summary, synaptic pruning is not due to toxic thinking or bad choices, unless every one of us engages in nothing but toxic thinking from early childhood to puberty, and menopause causes bad choices and toxic thoughts.  Stress doesn’t cause dendrites to fall off, but causes a reorganization of the dendrites to adapt to the new signals. The reduced capacity to form new dendrites makes those prone to mood disorders more vulnerable to stress, and depression or anxiety is the end result.

We are all bound to make bad choices and to have stress.  They don’t cause brain damage.  Which if you’re not perfect like me, is good news.


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

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

3.         Cohen, R.A., Yerkes–Dodson Law, in Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology, Kreutzer, J.S., et al., Editors. 2011, Springer Science+Business Media LLC: New York ; London. p. 2737-8.

4.         Chechik, G., et al., Neuronal regulation: A mechanism for synaptic pruning during brain maturation. Neural Comput, 1999. 11(8): 2061-80

5.         Chen, J.R., et al., Gonadal hormones modulate the dendritic spine densities of primary cortical pyramidal neurons in adult female rat. Cereb Cortex, 2009. 19(11): 2719-27 doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhp048

6.         Dumitriu, D., et al., Estrogen and the aging brain: an elixir for the weary cortical network. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2010. 1204: 104-12 doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05529.x

7.         Kopp, M.S. and Rethelyi, J., Where psychology meets physiology: chronic stress and premature mortality–the Central-Eastern European health paradox. Brain Res Bull, 2004. 62(5): 351-67 doi: 10.1016/j.brainresbull.2003.12.001

8.         Chen, Y., et al., Correlated memory defects and hippocampal dendritic spine loss after acute stress involve corticotropin-releasing hormone signaling. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2010. 107(29): 13123-8 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003825107

9.         Karatsoreos, I.N. and McEwen, B.S., Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(12): 576-84 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.005

10.       Palazidou, E., The neurobiology of depression. Br Med Bull, 2012. 101: 127-45 doi: 10.1093/bmb/lds004

11.       Karatsoreos, I.N. and McEwen, B.S., Resilience and vulnerability: a neurobiological perspective. F1000Prime Rep, 2013. 5: 13 doi: 10.12703/P5-13

12.       Russo, S.J., et al., Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience, 2012. 15(11): 1475-84

13.       Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

14.       Bradley, R.G., et al., Influence of child abuse on adult depression: moderation by the corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor gene. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2008. 65(2): 190-200 doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.26

15.       Hauger, R.L., et al., Role of CRF receptor signaling in stress vulnerability, anxiety, and depression. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2009. 1179: 120-43 doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05011.x

Dr Caroline Leaf – Contradicted by the latest research

This is my most popular post by far.  I truly appreciate the support and interest in this post, but I’ve discovered and documented a lot more about Dr Leaf’s ministry in the last two years.  I welcome you to read this post, but if you’d like a more current review of the ministry of Dr Caroline Leaf, a new and improved version is here:
Dr Caroline Leaf – Still Contradicted by the Latest Evidence, Scripture & Herself

* * * * *

Mr Mac Leaf, the husband of Dr Caroline Leaf, kindly took the time to respond to my series of posts on the teachings of Dr Leaf at Kings Christian Centre, on the Gold Coast, Australia, earlier this month. As I had intended, and as Mr Leaf requested, I published his  reply, complete and unabridged (here).

This blog is my reply.  It is heavily researched and thoroughly referenced.  I think it’s fair to say that while Dr Leaf draws her conclusions from some scientific documents, there is more than enough research that contradicts her statements and opinions.  I have only listed a small fraction, and only on some of the points she raised.

In fairness, the fields of neurology and neuroscience are vast and rapidly expanding, and it is impossible for one person to cover all of the literature on every subject.  This applies to myself and Dr Leaf.  However, I believe that the information I have read, and referenced from the latest peer-reviewed scholarly works, do not support Dr Leaf’s fundamental premises.  If I am correct, then the strength and validity of Dr Leaf’s published works should be called into question.

As before, I welcome any reply or rebuttal that Dr Leaf wishes to make, which I will publish in full if she requests.  In the interests of healthy public debate, and encouraging people to make their own informed decisions on the teachings of Dr Leaf, any comments regarding the response of Mr Leaf, Dr Leaf or myself, are welcome provided they are constructive.

This is a bit of a lengthy read, but I hope it is worthwhile.

Dear Mr Leaf,

Thank you very much for taking the time out to reply to some of the points raised in my blog.  I am more than happy to publish your response, and to publish any response you wish to make public.


I published my blog posts to open up discussion on the statements made by Dr Leaf at the two meetings that I attended at Kings Christian Centre on the Gold Coast.  As you rightly point out, people should be able to make informed decisions.  A robust discussion provides the information required for people to make an informed choice.  Any contributions to this discussion from either yourself or Dr Leaf would be most welcome.

I apologise if you interpreted my blogs as judgemental, or if you believe there are any misunderstandings.  You may or may not have read my final two paragraphs from the third post, in which I acknowledged that I may have misunderstood where she was coming from, but that I would welcome her response.  If there were any misunderstandings, it is likely because Dr Leaf did not make any attempt to reference any of the statements she made on the day.  You may argue that she was speaking to a lay audience, and referencing is therefore not necessary.  However, I have been to many workshops for the lay public by university professors, who have extensively referenced their information during their presentations.  A lay audience does not preclude providing references.  Rather, it augments the speakers authority and demonstrates the depth of their knowledge on the subject at hand.


It’s interesting that you feel the need to resort to defence by association, and Ad Hominem dismissal as your primary counter to the points I raised.

Can you clarify how attending the same university as Dr Christaan Barnard, or a Nobel laureate, endorses her arguments or precludes her from criticism?  I attended the University of Queensland where Professor Ian Frazer was based.  He developed the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine and was the 2006 Australian of the Year.  Does that association enhance my argument?

Can you also clarify why a reference from a colleague was preferred to letting Dr Leaf’s statements and conclusions speak for themselves?  Dr Amua-Quarshie’s CV is certainly very impressive, no doubt about that, although he doesn’t list the papers he’s published.  (I’m assuming that to hold the title of Adjunct Professor, he’s published peer-reviewed articles.  Is he willing to list them, for the record?)

Whatever his credentials, his endorsement means very little, since both Dr Leaf and Dr Amua-Quarshie would know from their experience in research that expert opinion is one of the lowest forms of evidence, second worst only to testimonials [1].  Further, both he and Dr Leaf are obviously close friends which introduces possible bias.  His endorsement is noteworthy, but it can not validate every statement made by Dr Leaf.  Her statements should stand up on their own through the rigors of critical analysis.

On the subject of evidence, disparaging your critics is not a substitute for answering their criticism.  Your statement, “By your comments it is obvious that you have not kept up to date with the latest Scientific research” is an assumption that is somewhat arrogant, and ironic since Dr Leaf is content to use superseded references dating back to 1979 to justify her current hypotheses.


In the blog to which you referred, Dr Leaf makes a number of statements that are intended to support her case.  These include the following.

“A study by the American Medical Association found that stress is a factor in 75% of all illnesses and diseases that people suffer from today.”  She fails to reference this study.

“The association between stress and disease is a colossal 85% (Dr Brian Luke Seaward).”   But again, she fails to reference the quote.

“The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization has concluded that 80% of cancers are due to lifestyles and are not genetic, and they say this is a conservative number (Cancer statistics and views of causes Science News Vol.115, No 2 (Jan.13 1979), p.23).”  It’s good that she provides a reference to her statement.  However, referencing a journal on genetics from 1979 is the equivalent of attempting to use the land-speed record from 1979 to justify your current preference of car.  The technology has advanced significantly, and genetic discoveries are lightyears ahead of where they were more than three decades ago.

“According to Dr Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief, 2008), gene disorders like Huntington’s chorea, beta thalassemia, cystic fibrosis, to name just a few, affect less than 2% of the population. This means the vast majority of the worlds population come into this world with genes that should enable the to live a happy and healthy life. He says a staggering 98% of diseases are lifestyle choices and therefore, thinking.”  Even if it’s true that Huntingtons, CF etc account for 2% of all illnesses, they account for only a tiny fraction of genetic disease.  And concluding that the remaining 98% must therefore be lifestyle related is overly simplistic.  It ignores the genetic influence on all other diseases, other congenital, and environmental causes of disease.  I will fully outline this point soon.

Similarly, “According to W.C Willett (balancing lifestyle and genomics research for disease prevention Science (296) p 695-698, 2002) only 5% of cancer and cardiovascular patients can attribute their disease to hereditary factors.”  Science is clear that genes play a significant role in the development of cardiovascular disease and most cancers, certainly greater than 5%.  Again, I will discuss this further soon.

“According to the American Institute of health, it has been estimated that 75 – 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems ( Some of the latest stress statistics causing illness as a result of toxic thinking can be found at:”  These websites not peer-reviewed, and both suffer from a blatant pro-stress bias.

You’ll also have to forgive my confusion, but Dr Leaf also wrote, “Dr H.F. Nijhout (Metaphors and the Role of Genes and Development, 1990) genes control biology and not the other way around.”  So is she saying that genes DO control development?


Influence Of Thought On Health

Dr Leaf has categorically stated that “75 to 98% of all illnesses are the result of our thought life” on a number of occasions.  She repeated the same statement in her most recent book so it is something she is confident in.  However, in order to be true, this fact must be consistent across the whole of humanity.

And yet, in a recent peer-reviewed publication, Mara et al state, “At any given time close to half of the urban populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a disease associated with poor sanitation, hygiene, and water.” [2]  Bartram and Cairncross write that “While rarely discussed alongside the ‘big three’ attention-seekers of the international public health community—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria—one disease alone kills more young children each year than all three combined. It is diarrhoea, and the key to its control is hygiene, sanitation, and water.” [3]  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.” [4]

Toilets and clean running water have nothing to do with stress or thought.  We live in a society that essentially prevents more than half of our illnesses because of internal plumbing, with additional benefits from vaccination and population screening.  If thoughts have any effect on our health, they are artificially magnified by our clean water and sewerage systems.  Remove those factors and any effects of thought on our health disappear from significance.  Dr Leaf’s assertion that 75 to 98% of human illness is thought-related is a clear exaggeration.

Let me be clear – I understand the significance of stress on health and the economy, but it is not the cause of 75-98% of all illnesses.  I’m not sure if there is a similar study in the US, but the latest Australian data suggests that all psychological illness only counts for 8% of visits to Australian primary care physicians [5].

In terms of cancer, I don’t have time to exhaustively list every cancer but of the top four listed in the review “Cancer Statistics 2013” [6] , here are the articles that list the gene x environment interactions:

  1. PROSTATE – There are only two risk factors for prostate cancer, familial aggregation and ethnic origin. No dietary or environmental cause has yet been identified [7].  It is most likely caused by multiple genes at various loci [8].
  2. BREAST – Genes make up 25% of the risk factors for breast cancer, and significantly interacted with parity (number of children born) [9].
  3. LUNG/BRONCHUS – Lung cancer is almost exclusively linked to smoking, but nicotine addiction has a strong hereditary link (50-75% genetic susceptibility) [10].
  4. COLORECTUM – Approximately one third of colorectal cancer is genetically linked [11].

So the most common cancer is not linked to any environmental factors at all, and the others have genetic influences of 25% to more than 50%.  This is far from being 2% or 5% as Dr Leaf’s sources state.

Also in terms of heart disease, the INTERHEART trial [12] lists the following as significant risk factors, and I have listed the available gene x environment interaction studies that have been done on these too:

  1. HIGH CHOLESTEROL – Genetic susceptibility accounts for 40-60% of the risk for high cholesterol [13].
  2. DIABETES – Genetic factors account for 88% of the risk for type 1 diabetes [14].  There is a strong genetic component of the risk of type 2 diabetes with 62-70% being attributable to genetics [15, 16].
  3. SMOKING – nicotine addiction has a strong hereditary link (50-75% genetic susceptibility) [10].
  4. HYPERTENSION – While part of a much greater mix of variables, genetics are still thought to contribute between 30% and 50% to the risk of developing high blood pressure [17].

So again, while genes are a part of a complex system, it is clear from the most recent evidence that genetics account for about 50% of the risk for cardiovascular disease, which again is a marked difference between the figures that Dr Leaf is using to base her assertions on.

Atrial Natriuretic Peptide

I am aware of research that’s studied the anxiolytic properties of Atrial Natriuretic Peptide.  For example, Wiedemann et al [18] did a trial using ANP to truncate panic attacks.  However, these experiments were done on only nine subjects, and the panic attacks were induced by cholecystokinin.  As such, the numbers are too small to have any real meaning.  And the settling is completely artificial.  Just as CCK excretion does not cause us all to have panic attacks every time we eat, ANP does not provide anxiolysis in normal day to day situations.  Besides, if ANP were really effective at reducing anxiety, then why do people suffering from congestive cardiac failure, who have supraphysiological levels of circulating ANP [19] , also suffer from a higher rate of anxiety and panic disorders than the general population? [20]

The Heart As A Mini-Brain

As for Heartmath, they advance the notion of the heart being a mini-brain to give themselves credibility.  It’s really no different to an article that I read the other day from a group of gut researchers [21] – “‘The gut is really your second brain,’ Greenblatt said. ‘There are more neurons in the GI tract than anywhere else except the brain.’”  The heart as a mini-brain and the gut as a mini-brain are both figurative expressions.  Neither are meant to be taken literally.  I welcome Dr Leaf to tender any further evidence in support of her claim.

Hard-Wired For Optimism

As for being wired for optimism, the brain is likely pre-wired with a template for all actions and emotions, which is the theory of protoconsciousness [22].  Indeed, neonatal reflexes often reflect common motor patterns.  If this is true, then the brain is pre-wired for both optimism and love, but also fear.  This explains the broad role of the amygdala in emotional learning [23] including fear learning.  It also means that a neonate needs to develop both love and fear.

A recent paper showed that the corticosterone response required to learn fear is suppressed in the neonate to facilitate attachment, but with enough stress, the corticosterone levels build to the point where amygdala fear learning can commence [24].  The fear circuits are already present, only their development is suppressed.  Analysis of the cohort of children in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project showed that negative affect was the same for both groups.  However positive affect and emotional reactivity was significantly reduced in the institutionalised children [25].  If the brain is truly wired for optimism and only fear is learned, then positive emotional reactivity should be the same in both groups and the negative affect should be enhanced in the institutionalised cohort.  That the result is reversed confirms that neonates and infants require adequate stimulation of both fear and love pathways to grow into an emotionally robust child, because the brain is pre-wired for both but requires further stimulation for adequate development.

The Mind-Brain Link

If the mind controls the brain and not the other way around as Dr Leaf suggests, why do anti-depressant medications correct depression or anxiety disorders?  There is high-level evidence to show this to be true [26-28].  The same can be said for recent research to show that medications which enhance NDMA receptors have been shown to improve the extinction of fear in anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, OCD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD [29].

If the mind controls the brain and not the other way around as Dr Leaf suggests, why do some people with acquired brain injuries or brain tumours develop acute personality changes or thought disorders?  Dr Leaf has done PhD research on patients with closed head injuries and treated them in clinical settings according to her CV.  She must be familiar with this effect.

One can only conclude that there is a bi-directional effect between the brain and the stream of thought, which is at odds with Dr Leaf’s statement that the mind controls the brain and not the other way around.


One further thing.  Can you clarify which of Dr Leaf’s peer-reviewed articles have definitively shown the academic improvement in the cohort of 100,000 students, as you and your referee have stated?  And can you provide a list of articles which have cited Dr Leaf’s Geodesic Information Processing Model?  Google Scholar did not display any articles that had cited it, which must be an error on Google’s part.  If her theory is widely used as you say, it must have been extensively cited.

I understand that you are both busy, but I believe that I have documented a number of observations, backed by recent peer-reviewed scientific literature, which directly contradict Dr Leaf’s teaching.  I have not had a chance to touch on many, many other points of disagreement.

For the benefit of Dr Leaf’s followers, and for the scientific and Christian community at large, I would appreciate your response.

I would be grateful if you could respond to the points raised and the literature which supports it, rather than an Ad Hominem dismissal or further defense by association.

Dr C. Edward Pitt


1. Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107.

2. Mara, D., et al., Sanitation and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000363.

3. Bartram, J. and Cairncross, S., Hygiene, sanitation, and water: forgotten foundations of health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000367.

4. Hunter, P.R., et al., Water supply and health. PLoS Med, 2010. 7(11): e1000361.

5. FMRC. Public BEACH data. 2010  16JUL13]; Available from: <;.

6. Siegel, R., et al., Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin, 2013. 63(1): 11-30.

7. Cussenot, O. and Valeri, A., Heterogeneity in genetic susceptibility to prostate cancer. Eur J Intern Med, 2001. 12(1): 11-6.

8. Alberti, C., Hereditary/familial versus sporadic prostate cancer: few indisputable genetic differences and many similar clinicopathological features. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, 2010. 14(1): 31-41.

9. Nickels, S., et al., Evidence of gene-environment interactions between common breast cancer susceptibility loci and established environmental risk factors. PLoS Genet, 2013. 9(3): e1003284.

10. Berrettini, W.H. and Doyle, G.A., The CHRNA5-A3-B4 gene cluster in nicotine addiction. Mol Psychiatry, 2012. 17(9): 856-66.

11. Hutter, C.M., et al., Characterization of gene-environment interactions for colorectal cancer susceptibility loci. Cancer Res, 2012. 72(8): 2036-44.

12. Yusuf, S., et al., Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet, 2004. 364(9438): 937-52.

13. Asselbergs, F.W., et al., Large-scale gene-centric meta-analysis across 32 studies identifies multiple lipid loci. Am J Hum Genet, 2012. 91(5): 823-38.

14. Wu, Y.L., et al., Risk factors and primary prevention trials for type 1 diabetes. Int J Biol Sci, 2013. 9(7): 666-79.

15. Ali, O., Genetics of type 2 diabetes. World J Diabetes, 2013. 4(4): 114-23.

16. Murea, M., et al., Genetic and environmental factors associated with type 2 diabetes and diabetic vascular complications. Rev Diabet Stud, 2012. 9(1): 6-22.

17. Kunes, J. and Zicha, J., The interaction of genetic and environmental factors in the etiology of hypertension. Physiol Res, 2009. 58 Suppl 2: S33-41.

18. Wiedemann, K., et al., Anxiolyticlike effects of atrial natriuretic peptide on cholecystokinin tetrapeptide-induced panic attacks: preliminary findings. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2001. 58(4): 371-7.

19. Ronco, C., Fluid overload : diagnosis and management. Contributions to nephrology,. 2010, Basel Switzerland ; New York: Karger. viii, 243 p.

20. Riegel, B., et al., State of the science: promoting self-care in persons with heart failure: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 2009. 120(12): 1141-63.

21. Arnold, C. Gut feelings: the future of psychiatry may be inside your stomach. 2013  [cited 2013 Aug 22]; Available from:

22. Hobson, J.A., REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2009. 10(11): 803-13.

23. Dalgleish, T., The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2004. 5(7): 583-9.

24. Landers, M.S. and Sullivan, R.M., The development and neurobiology of infant attachment and fear. Dev Neurosci, 2012. 34(2-3): 101-14.

25. Bos, K., et al., Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 2011. 19(1): 15-24.

26. Arroll, B., et al., Antidepressants versus placebo for depression in primary care. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2009(3): CD007954.

27. Soomro, G.M., et al., Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) versus placebo for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2008(1): CD001765.

28. Kapczinski, F., et al., Antidepressants for generalized anxiety disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2003(2): CD003592.

29. Davis, M., NMDA receptors and fear extinction: implications for cognitive behavioral therapy. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 2011. 13(4): 463-74.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Serious questions, few answers (Part 3) – “Flirting with heresy”

Following on from the last 2 posts discussing the various teaching points of Dr Caroline Leaf at Kings Christian Church, here is my final post on the points that she raised.  Tonight, I conclude by proposing that in equating ‘toxic’ thoughts with sin, she seriously weakens her own argument, or she flirts with heresy.


Probably the most disturbing of all she discussed was her point blank statement that, “Toxic thoughts are sin.”

This is an astounding claim, and it was said in such an off-handed manner. It was like she threw a grenade and calmly moved on. Her claim not only has psychological ramifications, but deep theological connotations.

Her statement has the effect of ADDING to the stress response of her audience. Indeed, it sets up a feedback loop of self-perpetualising existential distress – the spiritual struggle switch. Crum et al (2013) showed that negatively framing the concept of stress leads to an increase in the subjects stress response. What could be more stressing that telling a christian that they have sinned every time that have had a persistent stress?  More stress is then equated with more ‘sin’ which then gives rise to even more stress. And so the cycle continues.

She then attempted to redeem her statement by declaring that we can transcend the guilt from the sin of stress, because her 21-day brain detox program would fix it. But on the surface, it seems an arbitrary premise. Inducing guilt to then offer to fix it is like a supermarket marking up a price so they can claim to offer a discount when they reduce it again.

More importantly though, in making the link between stress and sin, she brings herself undone. She either unravels her entire argument, or she flirts with heresy. Because if a thought process which results in prolonged or severe fear/stress is a sin, then Jesus himself sinned.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the gospels record that Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, about to be crucified for the sins of all mankind, was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38), and became so distressed by the ordeal he was about to endure that he literally sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

Where do you think Jesus was on the stress spectrum according to those accounts? I’d wager that it wasn’t “healthy stress”.Rev Bob Deffinbaugh wrote that,

“Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer.” He also noted that, “Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer.” (

There is no other way to explain it – Jesus suffered severe and prolonged mental anguish to the point that it had physical effects. By Dr Leaf’s definition (Leaf 2009, p19), Jesus had “toxic” thoughts. So the crux is: either toxic thoughts and emotions are sinful, in which case Jesus was a sinner and our salvation is invalid, or toxic thoughts and emotions are not sinful, which directly contradicts her teaching.

There is at least one further example from the life of Jesus that significantly weakens Dr Leafs definition of ‘toxic’ thoughts. In her book, Dr Leaf states, “hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions”, and that “Stress is the direct result of toxic thinking.” (Leaf 2009, p29-30)

In John 2:13-17, it says, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So Jesus saw the sellers and the money exchangers, then in a pre-meditated way, took small cords and fashioned a whip out of them, then proceeded to use that whip to violently and aggressively overturn the tables of the merchants and spill the money of the money changers. John adds a post-script – “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  So Jesus wasn’t mincing words. He drove them out of the temple in a rage.

Again, was Jesus acting in sin?  Of course not.  Instead, perhaps God has designed normal human beings to experience rage, anger and stress – emotions that are not curses passed down in genetic material and are not learned behaviours as a result of our sin nature.

Further, God himself displayed anger.  God also made us in his image, and in his likeness. Dr Leaf stated that we were designed to function in optimism and love, and again, negative emotions like anger and fear are learnt from living in sin. Yet it is interesting that God the Father regularly kindled his wrath, and smote Israelites or their enemies (Numbers 11:33, Deuteronomy 11:16-17, and in 2 Kings 23:25-27, “Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.”)

If God regularly displayed anger throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus displayed it in the New Testament, then anger and rage can not be the perversion of God’s ultimate design as Dr Leaf proposes.

Therefore, ‘toxic’ thought is NOT sin, because Jesus suffered prolonged mental stress and anguish and he did not sin.  Emotions that are deemed to be toxic by Dr Leaf and her definition are not toxic, since both God and Jesus displayed them and they did not and do not sin. Such a suggestion is incongruent with the Christian faith.

We were made in the image of God, so therefore we mirror all the emotions of God, which includes anger.  This shows that Dr Leaf’s proposals and the assumptions on which they are based, are incongruent with a logical interpretation of scripture.

In conclusion, Dr Leaf has been gathering quite a following.  From the pulpit at least, her claims of evidence of studies from peer-reviewed sources have been lacking. From what I saw on Sunday last, her reputation is excessive, her arguments unsupported and her theology is questionable at best, dangerous at worst.

Personally, I would welcome Dr Leaf’s response to these posts.  I have written these posts over a few days from her teaching at one church, so perhaps I have misunderstood her.  I have not been able to go through all of her books in such a short time, so she may have references to her teaching.  But she needs to clarify each question that I’ve raised and respond with current peer-reviewed science and sound theological resources.


Crum, A. J., P. Salovey and S. Achor (2013). “Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.” J Pers Soc Psychol 104(4): 716-733.

Karatsoreos, I. N. and B. S. McEwen (2011). “Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability.” Trends Cogn Sci 15(12): 576-584.

Leaf, C. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Southlake, TX, USA, Inprov, Ltd.

Fear: Friend or Foe?

Fear.  Should we run, fight, or think?

I was lazily wasting time at Zarraffas this afternoon, and while I was savouring the richness and depth of my triple masai mocha, I was filling the time by flicking through Facebook.

I came upon a blog post by one of the best thinkers and writers I’m personally acquainted with, one Ruth Limkin, who shared the story of how she was given an opportunity to snorkel in a pristine area of ocean in the South Pacific that is limited to only a handful of people, such is the fragile beauty of the ecosystem there.  As she started swimming into the warm, calm, azure waters, she felt this sudden dread.

Five years ago in a similar situation, she misjudged the current, was swept into some coral, and sustained a laceration to her knee.  This left a lot of blood in the water which, quite reasonably, made her think that she had suddenly become shark bait.  She made it back to shore otherwise unscathed. But it left her with the implicit memory of that event.

This year, despite the obviously calm surroundings, she recalled that fear. Her brain told her to get out of there.  She did manage to overcome her fear though, and enjoyed the snorkelling!

Her lesson was that the pain of yesterday can become todays fear, which robs tomorrow of its promise.

I don’t disagree with Ruth.  I’m not intelligent enough to do that.  But I guess I come from a more medical and analytical perspective of this phenomenon, and I wanted to flesh out her point a bit further.

We all feel it at sometime or another – your heart pounds faster and heavier in your chest. Your breathing gets faster. Your muscles tighten. And your brain either says, “Run” or “Fight”, or sometimes it says nothing at all and we simply freeze up.

The human fear response is both rational and irrational.  We usually don’t understand why we are faced with conflicting realities of internal anxiety and external tranquility, feeling scared while looking at calm clear waters.  Sometimes when we take a step back, we can gain some understanding of why we have reacted the way we did, and cognitively overcome our fear.

B-grade pop-psychologists make us believe that courage is the absence of fear, and that the way to move forward is to eliminate or repress your fears.  But that approach is wrong for a couple of reasons.

There is a good reason why we have fear conditioning.  There is a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is integral to emotional processing.  Central to this is the amygdala, which is responsible for adding emotions to our experiences, especially fear and anger.  When something happens that has real or perceived negative consequences (we experience pain, or we think that there is a high chance that we will experience pain) the amygdala pairs that aversive sensation with the memory of the total experience.  This helps us learn from our mistakes [1].

For example, if a pre-historic man was walking through a forest and came across a sabre-toothed tiger, the fight-or-flight response would help him escape.  But the amygdala would attach the memory of the emotion to the memory of the event itself.  Next time the man walked through a similar forest, or even recalled that event in his mind, the emotion of the memory would also be recalled.  This is why Ruth felt uneasy despite the lack of danger.  Her surroundings triggered the emotional memory of the previous snorkelling experience.

But while unpleasant, fear does confer a survival advantage.  Without the same emotion being recalled, we wouldn’t remember what situations were dangerous and which were safe.  Recalling the emotion and realising there may be sabre-toothed tigers around, or strong currents and sharks, means that there is a much smaller chance of us becoming lunch.

There are two pathways in the brain that are involved in the fear response.  The direct pathway goes from the senses to the amygdala, bypassing the thinking parts of our brain entirely.  Again, this confers a survival advantage as the quicker you can prepare yourself for danger, the more likely you are to survive it.  The signal is not properly analysed, but it doesn’t need to be.  It is better to be wrong and live than to be right and eaten by something.

The second pathway from the senses to the cerebral cortex then back to the amygdala is more precise, but it is slower than the direct path.  It can downgrade the fear response if it is not appropriate.  Well, it can in most people.  Anxiety and panic disorders arise when the balance between the direct and indirect pathways is skewed in the direction of the amygdala.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, you should see a good GP.  There are specific forms of psychological therapy that you may need to engage with.  Some people also need medications to assist with the process.

For most people though, we can simply allow the recalled feeling of fear stop us from engaging in life.  When we sense fear, the natural reaction is to run or fight.  That is the direct pathway talking in our brain. The lesson from our neurobiology is that we have another choice.  We can let our cerebral cortex do its job, we can think about the situation, and allow our higher functions to downgrade our primitive reactions.

We also need to understand that fear is ok.  It is necessary, in fact.  Without it, we wouldn’t adapt to our surroundings or learn from our mistakes.  We should not avoid fear.  We should not fight fear.  But we should not let fear control us.

Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced great fear but greater hope, sums it up beautifully, and so gets the final word, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

[1] Dalgleish, T., The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2004. 5(7): p. 583-9.