Dr Caroline Leaf and the power of prayer

If you’re a Christian, then you believe in the power of prayer.  It’s pretty fundamental … prayer is fundamental to our relationship with God and our daily life with him, and even salvation itself.

So where does the power of prayer come from?  Does it come from the words we speak like some ritual incantation? Does it come from the power of our minds?  Or does the power of prayer rest solely in God and his power when he answers our prayers?

One gets the impression from reading Dr Leaf’s e-mail newsletter today that the power of prayer is less about God and more about the power of the human mind.

Dr Leaf starts by saying that “12 minutes of daily focused prayer over an 8 week period can change the brain to such an extent that it can be measured on a brain scan. This type of prayer seems to increase activity in brain areas associated with social interaction compassion and sensitivity to others. It also increases frontal lobe activity as focus and intentionality increase.”

That may well be true, but the effect isn’t related to prayer itself, it’s simply what happens when the brain does things over and over.  This same effect occurs in people who perform Buddhist meditation [1], or jugglers learning to juggle [2], or London taxi drivers memorising the streets of London by rote [3].  Indeed, the brain has been shown to change simply with hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle [4].  Prayer might change the brain, but so do a lot of other things that have nothing to do with prayer.

Not that these pesky facts stop Dr Leaf from going on to state that, “As well as changing the brain, another study implies that intentional prayer can even change physical matter. Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.”  To start with, this study [5] that Dr Leaf refers to was nothing to do with Christian prayer, and all to do with Buddhist-type meditation … to use this ‘experiment’ as support for prayer is misleading.  It’s also misleading because the results were essentially the interpretation of the experimenter.  The same experimental design performed by independent laboratories showed no effect of thought on laser light [6] (see also “Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread“).

So intentional thought doesn’t change physical matter, and why should that be any surprise?  Prayer might change things, but the effect of prayer has nothing to do with us.  We don’t change physical matter, only God does, since He created matter in the first place.

Dr Leaf is simply setting up a false premise so she can solve it – ‘You cause brain damage by your toxic thinking, but you can heal your brain damage by your non-toxic thinking’.  But toxic thoughts do not cause brain damage, so there is no brain damage from toxic thinking for prayer to reverse.  The pathetic excuse for ’science’ that Dr Leaf relies on to support her ministry doesn’t show any effect for the power of prayer.  As Christians, the power of prayer is a matter of faith and reliance on the power of God, not our own strength.

References
[1]        Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in human neuroscience 2012;6:292
[2]        Scholz J, Klein MC, Behrens TE, Johansen-Berg H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature neuroscience 2009 Nov;12(11):1370-1.
[3]        Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus 2006;16(12):1091-101.
[4]        Hagemann G, Ugur T, Schleussner E, et al. Changes in brain size during the menstrual cycle. PloS one 2011 Feb 04;6(2):e14655.
[5]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 2008;4(1):25-35.
[6]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mental Monopoly Myth

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What’s more important to a person’s health and well being?

Is it their physical attributes – their genes, their fitness, their diet? Is it their psychological state – their mind, their emotional balance? Is it their social context – how they relate and contribute to the communities that they’re a part of? Or is it their spirituality – the depth of their connections to faith and the supernatural?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, it’s the mind that dominates. This is a common theme of her books [1: especially chapter 1] and her social media memes.

Take today’s gem: “Mind action is the predominant element in well being and mental health.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what your genes are, where you were born or the depth of your acceptance in your community. It doesn’t matter whether you have a deep faith either. The psychological dominates the physical, the social and the spiritual. As she said in her books,

“Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” [2: p13]
“Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” [1: p33]
“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioural illness comes from ones thought life.” [1: p33]

Dr Leaf’s philosophy of our wellbeing can be pictured like a pyramid, with our ‘mind action’ (read, ‘choices’) dominating every other facet of our lives.

Leaf Mental Monopoly Model

The problem with this philosophy is that it doesn’t fit with science, scripture, or even common sense.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that Dr Leaf’s assertion doesn’t fit with every day experience. Where you were born and raised, and where you live, significantly impact a persons overall wellbeing, independent of their thoughts and choices.

Does Dr Leaf honestly believe that the wellbeing of a ten year old boy living in rural Sedan, with no access to running water and sewerage systems, living on a subsistence diet and drinking contaminated water from the only well in his village, has the same wellbeing as a ten year old in rural Ohio, who has access to clean water, plentiful food, and an education?

Does Dr Leaf think that the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in Afghanistan, with poor nutrition and limited access to meaningful antenatal care or a trained midwife to deliver her baby, is the same as the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in London, who has access to fresh food, vitamin supplements, GP’s, midwives, and specialist obstetricians in big city hospitals?

These are just two simple examples which demonstrate that the action of your mind has very little to do with your overall wellbeing.

But if you want to be more scientific about it, then look no further than the biopsychosocial model. Modern health professionals moved beyond the idea that only one facet of human existence was responsible for all of your wellbeing way back in the 1980’s. The biopsychosocial model proposes that the overall health of a person was equally dependent not just on the physical, but was part of a broader system of the medical, mental and the social [3]. The model recognised that a person’s overall wellbeing was made worse by social disadvantage as well as physical illness or poor coping skills, and so often, the physical, social and psychological would affect each other in loops – physical illness would often reduce a persons ability to mentally cope, which strained their social connections, making them lonely and reduced the care given to them, which then made them sicker.

Most Christian would recognise that one element is still missing, which is the spiritual. Our faith is a realm beyond rational thinking, and isn’t fairly grouped with the mental, although they are both housed in our brain. Still, faith influences our social interactions, our psychology, and our physical health, as much as each mutually influences our faith.

Putting it altogether, we don’t have a pyramid, but a collection of ponds. Our mind action does not dominate our health and our wellbeing, but is simply one part of a much larger whole, with our health and wellbeing at the centre.

Biopsychosocial spiritual coloured

It’s interesting that a woman with as much influence amongst the western Christian church as Dr Leaf would suggest that the mind is more influential to our wellbeing than our faith. This makes her teaching seem more humanist than holy, more secular than spiritual. It may invite questions about the deepest influences of her ministry – is it humanistic philosophy with a garnish of scripture, or does the Bible really promote thinking over faith? Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to examine the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind.

Irrespective of Dr Leaf’s philosophical foundations, I’d suggest that her hypothesis of the mental monopoly falls down at the level of common sense and good science. Medical science moved beyond the idea of the single dominant facet of humanity more than three decades ago.

It’s time for Dr Leaf to do the same.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        Leaf C. Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.
[3]        Borrell-Carrio F, Suchman AL, Epstein RM. The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry. Ann Fam Med 2004 Nov-Dec;2(6):576-82.