Strong marketing can’t make up for weak ideas

Well Dr Leaf, 10 out of 10 for persistence.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. In the last month or so, Dr Leaf has been hammering home her foundational belief that the mind is in control of the brain, and indeed, that your thoughts are the key to everything in life, a bit like 42 in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. According to Dr Leaf, your thoughts are the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Dr Leaf has attempted to prove her point through quotes from neuroscientists, from her own teaching, and from some published research. All she’s ended up proving is that she’s so desperate to prop up the concept that she’ll stoop to cherry-picking articles and massaging quotes. Poor form for a woman who promotes herself as a scientist.

Today’s meme is the spiritual justification of her position, expressed as a lovely little graphic with a verse from Proverbs 4:23. It’s a real Pinterest special. Most people would look at the pretty picture and accept the quote without question. It’s good marketing for sure.

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But if you strip back all of the eye-candy, is the meme still worth posting? Is Dr Leaf’s meme an accurate depiction of what Proverbs 4:23 truly means.

First things first, is the meme an accurate quote? In this case, it is. The Good News Bible really does say, “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+4%3A23&version=GNT)

So the next question is, is the Good News version an accurate translation of the scripture? It’s interesting that nearly every other translation doesn’t mention thoughts and thinking at all:

New International Version = Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
New Living Translation = Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.
English Standard Version = Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
New American Standard Bible = Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.
King James Bible = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
Holman Christian Standard Bible = Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.
International Standard Version = Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life.
NET Bible = Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.
Aramaic Bible in Plain English = Keep your heart with all caution because from it is the outgoing of life.
GOD’S WORD® Translation = Guard your heart more than anything else, because the source of your life flows from it.
JPS Tanakh 1917 = Above all that thou guardest keep thy heart; For out of it are the issues of life.
New American Standard 1977 = Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.
Jubilee Bible 2000 = Above all else, guard thy heart; for out of it flows the issues of life.
King James 2000 Bible = Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
American King James Version = Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
American Standard Version = Keep thy heart with all diligence; For out of it are the issues of life.
Douay-Rheims Bible = With all watchfulness keep thy heart, because life issueth out from it.
Darby Bible Translation = Keep thy heart more than anything that is guarded; for out of it are the issues of life.
English Revised Version = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
Webster’s Bible Translation = Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
World English Bible = Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life.
Young’s Literal Translation = Above every charge keep thy heart, For out of it are the outgoings of life.

Nearly every other English translation refers to “the heart”. Obviously not the literal “heart”, that muscular blood pump in the middle of our chests, but the metaphoric heart, the human soul. So even on majority rules, the Good News Bible translation is looking shaky. Is there any further corroborating evidence to help us understand which version is the most correct?

The answer would be in the original Hebrew. The word for ‘heart’ in Proverbs 4:23 is לֵב (leb), and more broadly is a word relating to the soul, ‘inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding’ (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3820&t=KJV). In some verses, the word in used in reference to what would be considered thoughts, but in many others, the word is used to describe a person’s feelings or motivations, or attitudes, or even specific intelligence and manual skills. For example:

Genesis 17:17: “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?”
Genesis 42:28: “And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?”
Exodus 8:32: “And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.”
Exodus 35:35: “Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work.”

So it appears the Good News Bible is actually a poor translation. Again, this is an example of Dr Leaf cherry picking something that suits her theory out of a bulk of divergent views. No matter how she tries to sell the concept, the idea that the mind controls your brain and that your thoughts control your destiny is scientifically and scripturally weak. Persistence and good marketing isn’t going to change that.

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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 on James 1:21

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What causes you to react to things the way you do? According to Dr Leaf, we react to things because of our perceptions, because James 1:21 says so.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. She posted on social media today that,

“James 1:21. How you react to events and circumstances of your life is based upon your perceptions.”

Just like her other social media memes, we’re supposed to smile and nod, and accept that it must be right on face value alone. Remember, “Trust me, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist”.

Ironically, Dr Leaf is on the right track with her meme. Perception is very important to how our brains process incoming information, although it is only one small part in a much larger picture. But that is for a future post.

What made me scratch my head about her post was the scripture reference that she tags onto the meme, as if it gives her factoid some automatic level of credibility. I never knew that James made any reference to reacting to life circumstances, so I looked up the scripture.

James 1:21 says, “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” (KJV)

There are too many big words there for my liking. But I also thought it would be a useful exercise to look at the meanings of the words to translate them into something more understandable, to make sure that I didn’t miss the bit about perception.

Using the Strong’s dictionary and concordance built in to the Blue Letter Bible site (http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jas&c=1&v=21&t=KJV#s=1147021) I was able to translate the original Greek into something more manageable.

“Therefore shed all the morally defiling wickedness and excess malice, and, with meekness, embrace the teaching that is implanted by your mentors, which has the power to rescue your eternal soul.”

Hmmm … perhaps I mistranslated, but I missed the part where James talked about perception, and how we react to circumstances.

Or more likely, it wasn’t in this scripture at all.

Scripture is the inspired word of God, and “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NIV) What James is writing about is essential, and Christians need to embrace what he was teaching.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her imprecise application of scripture doesn’t help anyone. It confuses her readers who look more deeply into either the scripture or the science, and are lost as to why they don’t meet up. Or it damages her reputation as a scientist or a teacher, since it isn’t clear exactly what she is trying to say or how she arrived at her conclusions.

I have not doubt that if Dr Leaf has something to share on social media many people that would like to hear it. But it has to be referenced properly if it is going to carry any weight.

My patient, Kev

I meet a lot of people in my job. Some are not particularly memorable, and some I truly wish to forget. But every now and then, I meet a person who’s memorable for all the right reasons. Kev was one of those people.

Once upon a time, Kev was a business man, a corporate manager who started in the postal service in his late teens, but got more experience and moved into the Commonwealth Bank, where he quickly moved through their ranks and became a regional manager. Towards the end of his career, he moved industries to become the CEO of one of the smaller private hospitals in Brisbane in the 1980’s.

After he retired, his wife developed dementia, and he cared for her at home for many years, before he became too weak. They both moved into a nursing home, but his wife succumbed a couple of years later.

When I met Kev in early 2013, he was dying. His heart and his lungs were failing, and he couldn’t walk ten metres without gasping or needing oxygen. He was gaunt and frail, and extremely thin. I was worried that if he fell, he might snap.

But his intellect remained untouched by the disease ravaging the rest of his body. He was quick-witted, jovial, and always polite. He was the consummate professional – always showing respect, and earning it. I could see why he was so good as a businessman. He was a pleasure to be around – so much so that I spent extra time with him every week just chatting, when I should have been finishing off my work.

In the week before he died, the last time I saw him, as I sat in his room listening to some more of his stories, he looked me in the eye and said,

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. You don’t have to do everything. Let people flow in the things they can do. There are more important things in life.”

He smiled as he looked at the photos on his wall of his wife and kids.

I smiled and shook his hand. “I’ll see you later, Kev”, I said. I never did see him again.

I still remember him now, skinny and breathless, but with a big smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes every time I entered his room. And I remember his advice on living a life driven by values.

New Years Day is a time to start afresh, a celebration of new beginnings, a focal point to take stock and refocus. But if we’ve learnt anything at all from our previous attempts at New Years resolutions, it is that they don’t work. Don’t be mislead by the occasional partial successes. I sometimes hit a golf ball straight, but that still doesn’t mean my golf swing is any good. New Years resolutions are the same – they are fundamentally flawed, in spite of the accidental successes that we sometimes have.

The truth is that etherial statements, or short term goals for self-improvement don’t help us. We don’t need New Years resolutions, we need New Years re-evaluations.

Values are different to goals. A goal is like a destination, where as a value is like a direction. Our individual values are like the direction of the breeze. It’s easier to sail with the breeze of our values than against it.

We often get goals and values confused. Goal orientation means that we move from place to place, sometimes travelling in the same direction as our values, but sometimes against them. When we live according to our values, the goals seem to set themselves as we live according to what we truly believe in, what truly motivates us.

A few things can acts as guides to help us learn what our values are. What are your passions or what makes you mad? Is it justice, or injustice? Is it relationships? Is it children, or family? The environment? What is it that gets your juices flowing?

Another way of understanding your values is to do the eulogy exercise. It’s a little morbid, perhaps. But simply, the eulogy exercise involves writing your own eulogy. What is it that you want others to remember you for? What do you want your epitaph to say?

The eulogy exercise helps us to plan our lives with the end in mind. When you’re on your death bed, will you regret not finishing that report, or will you regret whether you lived according to your values, your deepest desires. Putting your values into perspective makes it much easier to let things go that aren’t truly important. It’s a lesson I’m continually working at too.

May 2014, and the rest of your life, be about the important things. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I hope you have a happy new year.

Cheers, Kev.