According to a new study by Rutgers University, “Learning new cognitive skills can help reduce overwhelming negative thoughts”. So said Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also advised that “Intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control is essential to mind health! And learn something new every day – develop your mind!”
So … negative thoughts are what, like an evil spy organisation, running around causing wanton destruction, overwhelming your capacity to function?
If that’s the case, then new cognitive skills must be like Tom Cruise, running, jumping, shooting and kicking their way through the negative thoughts, saving the world and getting the girl.
It’s a popular concept. As I discussed in my previous post, the power of positive thinking is culturally sanctioned Western folk psychology. We implicitly accept the idea that we have to harness positive thoughts and stop negative thoughts if we’re to overcome life’s obstacles.
However, the only rogue notions here are Dr Leaf’s.
Dr Leaf’s post sounds authoritative and sciency, but is nothing else. It’s vague, and with a bit of deeper palpation, it’s actually wrong.
Dr Leaf has gone back to her bad habit of obfuscating her references, maybe because she’s getting lost in her own hubris, or more likely, it’s much easier for her audience to see that she’s just cut-and-pasted the opening by-line of a press release again if she actually disclosed her source.
In fact, the article is about a study from Rutgers which studied two behavioural interventions (not cognitive ones), a form of mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise. The original publication is in the journal Translational Psychiatry , if you want to check it out for yourself. This article isn’t about learning cognitive skills at all. Exercise and mindfulness meditation are tried and true behavioural methods of improving mood disorders like depression, which the authors combined to assess the benefit or otherwise. Neither intervention involved challenging or fighting thoughts, or suppressing ‘negative’ thoughts, or “intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control”.
Indeed, the mindfulness meditation used involves “the practice of attending to the present moment and allowing thoughts and emotions to pass without judgment.”  Mindfulness doesn’t try to control anything. Rather than supporting Dr Leaf’s declaration that intentionally bringing thoughts under control is essential to mind health, this study contradicts it.
Cutting and pasting doesn’t make you an expert. It’s easy to take a sciency-sounding tag line and put it in a pretty little graphic. Everyone does it. 90% of Instagram and Facebook posts these days are faux-authoritative pseudo-science memes that aren’t worth the bytes they’re made of.
Junk science is like junk food. If that’s all you consume, then you eventually become an intellectual blob of lard, stuffed full of mistruths and logical fallacies, and incapable of understanding scientific truth for yourself. Dr Leaf’s audience deserves better than junk science and it’s about time that Dr Leaf stopped pretending to be an expert, and started acting like one.
 Alderman BL, Olson RL, Brush CJ, Shors TJ. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Transl Psychiatry 2016;6:e726.