Dr Caroline Leaf and the Two Rights Principle

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They say that two wrongs don’t make a right. And as it turns out, two rights don’t always make a right either.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled neuroscientist. Her last social media post declared, “The power of renewing the mind! Romans 12:2 We have the power to restrengthen, recover, and renormalize our brain even when it has suffered major trauma.”

Each part of her post is technically correct, with a few qualifications.

As Christians, we always accept that scripture is infallible, the inspired word of God. The interpretation of that scripture is not so infallible. Dr Leaf often quotes Romans 12:2, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

When Paul wrote this scripture, what did he mean when he used the word for mind? Well, I guess I can’t speak for the Apostle Paul, but I can say that the Greek word that’s translated “mind” in this verse is “nous”. In modern times we would use this word for ‘brain’ or ‘head’, especially those with a British influence in their upbringing (“use your nous” = “use your brain”). The Greek word means,
“I. the mind, comprising alike the faculties of perceiving and understanding and those of feeling, judging, determining
a. the intellectual faculty, the understanding
b. reason in the narrower sense, as the capacity for spiritual truth, the higher powers of the soul, the faculty of perceiving divine things, of recognising goodness and of hating evil
c. the power of considering and judging soberly, calmly and impartially
d. a particular mode of thinking and judging, i.e. thoughts, feelings, purposes, desires.”
(https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3563&t=KJV)

Hmmm … which one did Paul really mean? Did he mean just our thoughts, all of our mental faculties, or specifically to the perception of the divine? Dr Leaf never really says, although there’s a big difference between perceiving and understanding in general, and the specific capacity for spiritual truth. So Dr Leaf’s interpretation of Romans 12:2 might be correct, depending.

The other half of her post is also true, but in the most vague sense. “We have the power to restrengthen, recover, and renormalize our brain even when it has suffered major trauma” is technically true … the brain can recover from significant trauma. It does this through neuroplasticity, broadly defined as “the ability of the nervous system to modify its structural and functional organization.” (http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/324386-overview#aw2aab6b4) Neuroplasticity is a property inherent to the nervous system of every animal that has a nervous system; humans are not unique in this regard. Given the massive scale of the human nervous system (0.15 quadrillion, or 150,000,000,000,000 synapses throughout the average brain [1]), then there is massive scope for neuroplasticity-mediated regeneration, though it’s not unlimited. Neuroscience is only just starting to unlock the incredible depth of the science of our neural synapses [2], the foundation of neuroplasticity.

However, just because her two statements are separately correct in some vague sense, does not make the combination of the two more correct. If anything, combining them results in a non-sequitur type of false argument – the two separate statements don’t support each other in a logical way. A bit like saying, “My cat has four legs. A cow has four legs, therefore a cow is a cat”. Our ability to “restrengthen, recover, and renormalize our brain” is a capacity built into our nervous system that has nothing to do with “renewing our minds” in the scriptural sense. They only seem similar in the fuzziest of ways because they share a single common element, but otherwise, they really aren’t the same process.

Dr Leaf may appear to be unlocking the hidden mysteries of scripture and science, but just because her statements are vaguely true or vaguely similar doesn’t mean they explain anything … something to be aware of when reviewing Dr Leaf’s teaching.

References

  1. Sukel, K. The Synapse – A Primer. 2013 [cited 2013, 28/06/2013]; Available from: http://www.dana.org/media/detail.aspx?id=31294.
  2. Bliss, T.V., et al., Synaptic plasticity in health and disease: introduction and overview. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2014. 369(1633): 20130129 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0129
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Dr Caroline Leaf and the brain control misstatement

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“Always give credit where credit’s due.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist, and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Yesterday, Dr Leaf made a couple of carefully worded statements on her social media feeds, which given the quality of her previous couple of neuroscience-based factoids, is a definite improvement.

First, she said that, “Your brain is being continuously rewired throughout your life …”. Yep, I can’t disagree with that one. The brain is a very dynamic tissue, constantly remodelling the synaptic wiring to process the information it receives on a daily basis. That’s why the brain is referred to as ‘plastic’, reflecting the property of plastic to be moulded into any shape.

Her next offering sounds really good too. It’s full of encouragement, positivity and hope … the classic feel-good quote: “You can bring your brain under your control, on the path to a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life.” Whether it’s true or not depends on how literally you interpret it.

If you loosely interpret it, then it sounds ok. Sure, we have some control over how we act, and if we live our life in the direction dictated by our values, then we will have a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life. Modern psychological theory and therapies confirm this [1].

However, what Dr Leaf actually said was, “You can bring your brain under your control”. Having some control over our actions is entirely different to bringing our brain under our control. We can control some of our actions, but we don’t control our brain any more than we ‘control’ our car.

When we say that we’re ‘controlling’ the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control, tic disorders for example. These can range from simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) to complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Another common example are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, or sleep eating.

The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control. Our brain is driving, our stream of thought just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much to upset that veneer of control we think we possess.

Ultimately, our brain is still responsible for our action. We don’t have a separate soul that is able to control our brain. Any decisions that we make are the result of our brain deciding on the most appropriate course of action and enacting it [2] (and see also ‘Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis‘ for a more in-depth discussion on the subject of dualism). Therefore, we can’t ever bring our brain under control.

This is important because if we believe that we can bring our brain under control, then by simple logical extension, we can control everything our brain is responsible for – our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our memory, and every single action we make. This is Dr Leaf’s ultimate guiding philosophy, though it’s not how our neurobiology works. If we were to believe that we control our thoughts and feelings, we set up an unwinnable struggle against our very nature, like trying to fight the tides.

We are not in control of all our thoughts, feelings, emotions or all of our actions, and neither do we have to be. We just need to make room for our uncomfortable emotions, feelings and thoughts, and to move in the direction of those things we value.

So if you were to take Dr Leaf at her word, she still missed the mark with her post. It sounds ok in a very general sense, but closer inspection reveals a subtle but significant error.

Giving credit where credit’s due, Dr Leaf has tried to tighten up her social media statements. It’s commendable, but unfortunately she needs to bring her underlying philosophy closer to the accepted scientific position to further improve the quality of her teaching.

References

  1. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497