Dr Caroline Leaf – The Christian church’s anti-vaxxer

Well, this is my first post for the new year.  2016 was certainly historic!

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was “post-truth”.  Post-truth describes the concept “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

While the popularity of the word rose in step with the popularity of the US President-Elect, post-truth as an idea has been building more and more over the last decade or so.  It’s the driving force behind other cultural phenomena of our modern world, like the alternative health and the anti-vaccination movements.

It’s also the secret to the success of Caroline Leaf.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She’s been riding the wave of our post-truth culture for years.  Dr Leaf has a set of slickly spoken mistruths that form the basis of her ministry, and are repeated constantly (including, but not limited to):

The mind controls the brain
75-98% of all physical, mental and emotional illnesses come from our thought life
The heart is a mini-brain
Our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement
ADHD and depression aren’t diseases
Anti-depressant medications are dangerous placebos

There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims, but that hasn’t stopped her claiming, because Christians and the leadership of the Christian church believe her without question.

In the last twenty-four hours, Dr Leaf put up two separate social media posts which follow the same pattern – repeated mistruths with no basis in fact.

“What an honor to be speaking at the annual Noiva humanitarian foundation conference in Winterthur, Switzerland, which works actively with the Syrian refugees seeking to broker peace in the Middle East.  I spoke about how showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63%!”

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Showing compassion and helping others improves brain health and increases physical and mental healing by around 63% hey?  I’m assuming she’s referring to the study by Poulin et al [1], because she’s posted this to her social media feed before, and there aren’t any other studies out there that show compassion and helping others increases physical and mental health so much … not that the Poulin study showed it either (not even close – https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/10/27/dr-caroline-leaf-credit-where-credits-due/ and https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/01/16/does-helping-others-help-you/)

On the photo she put up on social media to gloat about her little jaunt to Switzerland, the Powerpoint in the background reads, “Can the mind change the brain?”  Again, the answer is a clear ‘No’!  She tried to argue the same nonsense in her TEDx talk in early 2015 (https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/03/26/the-tedx-users-guide-to-dr-caroline-leaf/).  It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now.

Unless Dr Leaf’s found some better resources, NOIVA should ask for their money back.  They could have fed a lot of refugees for the wasted cost of hosting Dr Leaf at their conference.

Dr Leaf’s second social media post was even more egregious.

“Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing.”

WRONG!  Absolutely wrong.  There is NO scientific evidence that supports this statement at all (https://cedwardpitt.com/2014/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-genetic-fluctuations-falsehood/).  DNA is stable.  It doesn’t “fluctuate by the minute”.  It’s not influenced by our thoughts or our choices.

We may be stuck in a post-truth world but science is not, and will never be, post-truth.  Your belief in the cancer-fighting properties of turmeric doesn’t make turmeric cure cancer.  Your opinion that the MMR vaccine causes autism doesn’t change the concrete scientific evidence that it doesn’t.

By the same token, Dr Leaf might believe that our thoughts and choices change our DNA, but it doesn’t matter how many times Dr Leaf repeats the same fiction, it still doesn’t make it fact.  She can repeat ad nauseum her belief that the mind controls the brain, or our mind changes matter through quantum entanglement, or depression isn’t a disease, or all of our illnesses come from thoughts.  None of them were true the first time she made each outrageous claim, and they still aren’t true now. Scientific truth doesn’t change depending on what suits your opinion.

In fact, all Dr Leaf is doing by continually perpetuating her stock of mistruths is to disempower her audience.  Rather than encourage people to follow the facts, they are sucked into a vortex of wasted money and time.  Precious resources are spent chasing wild geese instead of putting them towards something more meaningful.  NOIVA diverting funds to support Dr Leaf’s fees instead of feeding refugees is a perfect case in point.

Worse, Dr Leaf’s teaching discourages people from taking effective medications and seeking effective treatments which can only lead to greater suffering in those who are vulnerable.

In this sense, Dr Leaf is like the anti-vaxxer of the Christian church, discouraging her followers from seeking scientifically sound treatments in favour of belief in erroneous and invalid actions with no proof of efficacy and a real risk of harm.

When will the leadership of the Christian church stand up for their parishioners and stop Dr Leaf’s fictions from infecting their churches?  The answer should be ‘now’, and that’s a fact.

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.

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Dr Caroline Leaf, behaviour and genetic destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Dr Caroline Leaf and the matter of mind over genes

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I think I might have to throw away my genetics textbook.

I was always taught that genes were the main driver behind health and disease, and I always thought it was a pretty good theory.

But not according to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, who said on her social media feeds today, “Our health is not controlled by genetics – our health is controlled by our mind.”

Taking her statement at face value, she appears to be saying that genes have nothing to do with our health. Dr Leaf has made some asinine statements in the past, but to suggest that genes are irrelevant to human health seemed so stupid that no one in their right mind would suggest such a thing.

Perhaps I was taking her statement the wrong way? I wanted to make sure I didn’t jump to any rash conclusions about Dr Leaf’s statement, so I pondered it at length. Could she be referring to ‘control’ in the absolute sense? How much control do genes have on our health? What about the mind?

After deliberating for a while, I still came to the conclusion that Dr Leaf’s statement was nonsense.

Unfortunately, Dr Leaf’s statement is, like so many of her previous Facebook memes, so vague as to be misleading. The meaning of ‘health’ and ‘controlled’ could be taken so many ways … which part of our health? How much regulation constitutes ‘control’? What about genetics?

Looking at her statement in more depth, it becomes clear that no matter which way Dr Leaf meant it, it’s still wrong. For example, all of human health is controlled, in part, by genetics. That’s because life itself is controlled by genetics. The human genome provides a blueprint for the construction of all of the proteins in all of the cells in our entire body. The expression of those genes determines exactly how our body will run. If the genes are wrong, if the translation of the gene code into a protein is wrong, or if too much or too little of a protein is made, all determines whether our body is functioning at its optimum level or not.

The stimulus for the expression of our genes is influenced by the environment in which we live. If I go out into the sun a lot, the UV light triggers my skin cells to make the protein melanin, which makes my skin go darker and helps to provide some protection against the damaging effects of the UV light.

While the environment plays a part of the expression of some genes, it’s wrong to say that genetics doesn’t control the process. If I go into the sun too much, I risk developing a melanoma, because the sun damages the genes in some of my skin cells, causing them to grow without control.

Genes are still responsible for the disease itself. Sometimes the trigger is from the environment, sometimes it’s not. There are some people with genes for melanoma who don’t need an environmental trigger, because they develop melanoma on skin that’s exposed to very little UV light, like the genital skin.

So fundamentally, even taking the environment into account, our health is controlled by our genetics.

The other part of Dr Leaf’s meme is also wrong. Our health is not controlled by our mind. Our genes are influenced by “the environment”, which according to the seminal paper by Ottman, “The environmental risk factor can be an exposure, either physical (e.g., radiation, temperature), chemical (e.g., polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), or biological (e.g., a virus); a behavior pattern (e.g., late age at first pregnancy); or a “life event” (e.g., job loss, injury). This is not intended as an exhaustive taxonomy of risk factors, but indicates as broad a definition as possible of environmental exposures.” [1]

Even if one considers the mind as part of the sub classification of “a behavior pattern”, it’s still pretty clear that most of the factors that make up our environment are not related to our mind at all but are related to the external world, of which we have minimal or no control over. Sure, we make choices, but our choices aren’t truly free. They’re constrained by the environment in which we find ourselves. In the same way, our mind may have some tiny influence on our health, but only insofar as our environment and our genes will allow.

When it all boils down, this meme of Dr Leaf’s is rested on her foundational presumption that our mind can control matter, a very strong theme throughout her most recent book [2], but which is still preposterous. Our thoughts are simply a function of our brain, which is in turn determined by the function of our nerve cells, which is in turn a function of our genes and their expression.

Our mind doesn’t control matter. Matter controls our mind.

I can keep my genetics textbooks after all.

References

  1. Ottman, R., Gene-environment interaction: definitions and study designs. Prev Med, 1996. 25(6): 764-70 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8936580
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Profound Simplicity Paradox

It was a guy called Charles Bukowski that said once, ‘Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way’. It always grabs our attention when something is said that’s easy to understand, yet deeply meaningful. The simple yet profound juxtaposition draws our attention and exercises our cognition in a way that nothing else seems to match. Those that are able to utter pervasive truth in a few syllables are elevated to gurus, and their pearls of wisdom are endlessly reposted on Pinterest and Facebook.

Of course, for something to be profound, it doesn’t just need to be deep, but also true.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her social media feeds are littered with Pinterest profundities, and she adds her own sometimes for good measure. Today, she shared something which I’m sure she thinks is one of those strokes of genius that Charles Bukowski was talking about,

“What we say and do is based on what we have already built into our minds.”

Well, her statement is simple, but it’s certainly not profound. It’s a paint-by-numbers version of the neuroscience of behaviour, based on her underlying assumption that we are in full control of every thought and action that we ever have or do.

It’s nice story to tell. It seems to fit with our experience of our thoughts and of the attribution of every action we take with our feeling of conscious volition. It’s just that it’s not what real neuroscientists actually tell us is going on in our brain.

Our thoughts and our actions are based on a number of things, mostly beyond our conscious control. This is because our perception, physiological responses, and personalities are all strongly genetically determined, our memory systems are predominantly subconscious, and so is the vast majority of the processing our brain does on a second-by-second basis. Our thoughts and our feeling of our conscious ‘free will’ are the subconscious brain simply projecting a small sliver of that information stream to a wider area of the cerebral cortex for fine-tuning (I discuss this in much more detail in chapters 1, 2 and 6 of my book).

So what we say and do is not based on just based on what we have already built into our minds, because our actions are largely built on our genetics and our subconscious memories, which we don’t necessarily have control over either.

There will be some people who think that this sounds like a cop-out, just an excuse to avoid responsibility for our own actions. I would argue that this actually refines our responsibility to that which we can change, taking the focus away from those things that we cannot change. For example, there’s no point in suggesting that I’m a bad father because I can’t breastfeed my children. This is an extreme example of course, but chiding someone for not doing something that they can’t do because of their genetic predisposition is no different.

Rather than focusing unnecessary effort on trying to change what cannot be changed, we should look to work on the things that can be changed. Even then, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take a long time to learn something that another person might pick up straight away.

It’s also important for people to understand that not everything you struggle with is related to your poor choices. There’s no point in wrestling with something that isn’t going to move. All you do is tire yourself, sapping you of energy that you could be using to effect change on the things you do have power over.

So on the surface, Dr Leaf’s statement may be simple, but it’s ultimately erroneous. Instead of being liberating, it can actually be oppressing. Those who are looking for something profound would be better served looking somewhere else on Pinterest.

Reference:
Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848