Dr Caroline Leaf and the genetic fluctuations falsehood

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While idling away on Facebook, as is my usual pass time, I came upon Dr Leaf’s Facebook feed. There were her usual self-indulgent holiday happy-snaps and another couple of Pinterest-style fluffy inspirational posts. Then this: “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing”.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a South African born and trained, US based, communication pathologist. She also claims that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist. Given the quality of the posts on her social media pages recently, no one could ever take such a claim seriously.

To make sure we’re all clear about what she just said, I’m going to say it again: “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute based on what we are thinking and choosing”. It was an astonishing, if not bewildering statement, especially coming from someone with a PhD level education. If Dr Leaf were a medical doctor and publically made a statement like that, her registration would be reconsidered.

The core of the statement, which pushes it so far beyond the boundaries of rational scientific thinking, is the phrase “Our genetic makeup fluctuates by the minute.”

DNA in our cells is like an old audio cassette tape. Audio cassette tape is a long magnetic stripe, storing the code which the tape player decodes as sound. DNA is a chemical string which has a sequence of “bases” off to the side. The full DNA molecule is made of two matching strings joined by chemical bonds between the bases (hence the name, “base pairs”). Depending on what the cell needs, it runs the DNA through a decoder to either copy it, or to ‘play’ it (i.e. using the information stored in the code to build new proteins).

Like the tape in an audio cassette, the code of the DNA is incredibly stable. The rate of DNA mutation is about 1 in 30 million base pairs [1]. DNA doesn’t ‘fluctuate’, (“rise and fall irregularly in number or amount” [2]). It’s not the stock market. The number of genes in each cell of my body does not rise or fall depending on whether I’m having a good hair day.

The other part of Dr Leaf’s statement, that our DNA “fluctuates … based on what we are thinking and choosing” is also scientific nonsense. The only way that your thoughts and choices are capable of inducing genetic mutations is if those thoughts or choices involve cigarette smoking or standing next to industrial sources of ionising radiation.

I think Dr Leaf is trying to say that our thoughts and choices can change our gene expression, which is the construction of new proteins from the instructions in the DNA code. However, gene expression has nothing to do with our thoughts and choices. IVF embryos are expressing genes like crazy as they grow from one cell to an embryo in just a petri dish. It doesn’t think or choose.

More often than not, our thoughts and our choices are the result of gene expression, not the cause of it. We don’t have any specific control over the process either. The process of genetic expression is dependant on a complex series of promoters and tags on the DNA, which are controlled by other proteins and DNA within the cell, not thought or choice.

The truth is that gene expression occurs moment-by-moment, regardless of what we think or don’t think, do or don’t do. Gene expression is simply DNA being read. Our genetic makeup, the DNA code, is stable. It does not fluctuate. There is no part of Dr Leaf’s statement that is scientifically accurate.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf continues on her pursuit of pseudoscience, an affront to the people who trust her to tell them the truth, and the God of all truth that she purportedly represents.

References

  1. Xue, Y., et al., Human Y chromosome base-substitution mutation rate measured by direct sequencing in a deep-rooting pedigree. Curr Biol, 2009. 19(17): 1453-7 doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.032
  2. Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition, 2010, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
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Dr Caroline Leaf and the genetic remodelling myth

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We are all slowly mutating!

Yep, it’s true. Not to the same extent as you might see in shows like X-Files or Dr Who, but still, our DNA is slowly accumulating permanent changes to the pattern of the genes that it contains. Thankfully, it’s only in science fiction that the mutations result in zombie apocalypse scenarios.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Still glowing from the unquestioning adulation of her faithful followers at the Switch On Your Brain conference last week, Dr Leaf has hit social media again. Most of her posts have been innocuous quotes that look borrowed from Pinterest, but today, Dr Leaf has ventured into the pseudoscientific again by claiming that, “Our genes are constantly being remodeled by our response to life’s experiences.”

Unless your response to life’s experiences is to stand next to an industrial microwave generator or live in a nuclear waste dump, Dr Leaf’s statement is pure fiction. Dr Leaf confuses the mutation of our genes with the expression of our genes.

The only way our genes actually change is through mutation. A mutation is a permanent change in the sequence of the DNA molecule. A genetic mutation is a permanent change in the DNA sequence that encodes a gene. DNA is constantly mutating, because of environmental damage, chemical degradation, genome instability and errors in DNA copying or repair [1: p97]. Still, the actual rate of DNA mutation is about 1 in 30 million base pairs [2]. So DNA is very stable, and changes for a number of reasons, only some of which are related to our external environment. And as I alluded to just before, slightly tongue-in-cheek, our responses are not the main contributor to these environmental influences, unless we deliberately expose ourselves to ionizing radiation or smoke cigarettes. Our DNA does not change because of our thought processes as Dr Leaf advocates [3].

What does change more readily is the expression of those genes. Gene expression is the cell machinery reading the genes and making the proteins that the genes encode. The genes are expressed to make the proteins needed for the cell to maintain its function. Which genes are expressed is dependant on the cell’s stage of development and the environment it finds itself in. For example, when the body encounters a high level of dietary iron, a series of steps activates a gene to promote the production of ferritin, a protein that helps to carry iron in the blood stream [1: p375-6]. Gene expression isn’t solely dependent on our environment though, because an embryo is expressing genes like crazy in order to make the proteins to build a human being, but the gene expression in an embryo is largely following a pre-determined time course, not the environment [4] (and certainly not because of responses to life’s experiences).

In summary, our genes are controlled by a myriad of different factors, nearly all of which have nothing to do with our responses or choices. Our genes are not changed by our choices or our responses. Our genes may be mutating, but God designed our cells with mechanisms to repair them. Our genes are not being remodelled by our responses. That’s the realm of science fiction.

References

  1. Strachan, T. and Read, A., Human Molecular Genetics. 4th ed. 2011, Garland Science, New York, USA:
  2. Xue, Y., et al., Human Y chromosome base-substitution mutation rate measured by direct sequencing in a deep-rooting pedigree. Curr Biol, 2009. 19(17): 1453-7 doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.032
  3. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:
  4. Ralston, A. and Shaw, K. Gene Expression Regulates Cell Differentiation. Nature Education, 2008. 1(1): 127; http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/gene-expression-regulates-cell-differentiation-931

Like to read more about Dr Leaf’s teaching and how it compares to current science? Download the free eBook HOLD THAT THOUGHT, Reappraising The Work Of Dr Caroline Leaf

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mixed Message Memes

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If you were talking to your doctor, and she said, “Smoking is bad for you”, while lighting a cigarette for herself, would you be confused? Bit of a mixed message, don’t you think?

When I got back to Facebook last night, I found this interesting post from Dr Leaf: “If you have just spoken or done something … It means you have the physical root thought in your brain.” Perhaps not interesting in an I-never-knew-that sort of way … more interesting in a yet-another-mixed-message sort of way.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a Communication Pathologist and a self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist. She has a habit of posting fluffy pseudoscientific memes to her social media feeds, which sound plausible at face value, but look a little closer, and they crumble like a sand castle at high tide.

Her current post is actually a bit sturdier than usual. We do use information we’ve learned to guide our ultimate behaviour, which include our words and our actions. But that’s not the whole story.

Our brain is an amazing organ. It processes a torrent of incoming information, compares it to previous experience stored in memory, and then delivers real-time instructions to the rest of the body, whilst updating the memory systems with the new information received. However, the brain also has a limited amount of energy that it can utilise – the brain only runs on about 40 watts of power [1: p7] (the same as a low power light bulb). In order to use this limited energy efficiently, the brain automates certain actions, like skills or habits, while retaining the flexibility to handle situations or to perform different actions than the skills or habits that we have developed.

The brain achieves this feat of brilliance by having a number of different types of memory [2] – procedural memory, priming, classical conditioning and non-associative learning make up implicit memory (memory not available to conscious awareness). Declarative memory is the fifth type of memory, which has two sub-components: episodic memory, which is the recallable memory of specific events (that you had coffee and eggs for breakfast), which itself is heavily dependent on semantic memory, the recallable memory for concepts (the abstract concepts of coffee, eggs, and breakfast) [3].

The storage of memories within declarative memory is also done piecemeal, by breaking down the information stored into chunks. Byrne notes, “We like to think that memory is similar to taking a photograph and placing that photograph into a filing cabinet drawer to be withdrawn later (recalled) as the ‘memory’ exactly the way it was placed there originally (stored). But memory is more like taking a picture and tearing it up into small pieces and putting the pieces in different drawers. The memory is then recalled by reconstructing the memory from the individual fragments of the memory.” [4] Retrieving the original memory is an inaccurate process, because sometimes pieces of the memory are lost, faded or mixed up with another [5]. What the memory systems lose in accuracy of recall is more than made up for by the flexibility of the information stored in memory to plan current action, and to imagine possible future scenarios.

Each time the brain decides on an action, it subconsciously performs five different steps to determine the best action to take, although the best way to consider the process is simply to say that “voluntary” action is a flexible and intelligent interaction with the subject’s current and historical context (present situation and past experience) [6].

In a new situation, the brain takes the information from the senses (sight, hearing etc) and compares it with the necessary pieces of information recalled from memory, including previous actions taken in similar situations and their outcome. It then decides on the best course of action, plans what to move, when to move, how to move, and then performs one more final check before proceeding. If the situation is familiar, and the brain has a previous script to follow, like a skill or a habit, it will perform those actions preferentially because it’s more efficient in terms of brain energy used, but if there is no previous script, the brain will plan a novel set of actions appropriate to the situation.

The best example of this is driving a car. I learnt to drive in my parents’ 1970-something, 4-to-the-floor Chrysler Galant. The skills required to handle a manual transmission car with an old clutch was challenging to learn, but once those skills were mastered and road rules learnt, I could drive successfully. But I didn’t need to learn evasive maneuvers. When confronted with an emergency situation for the first time, my brain moved my body very quickly to control the car in ways I’d not practiced, before my conscious mind had a chance to process the incident. So my brain used skills I had learnt in ways that I had not learnt, independent of my conscious will.

Dr Leaf’s underlying assumption is that we are in full control of our thoughts and actions. Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, neuroscience proves that predictable brain activity occurs several seconds before a person is aware of their intention to act [7, 8], which runs counter to her presupposition. To try and patch the enormous hole in her argument, she contends that the brain activity that occurs before we are consciously aware of our intentions is just our non-conscious brain accessing our stored, previously conscious thoughts (see also [9], page 42). The implication is that anything you do is still a choice that you made in either the present, or your past. As she said in the Facebook post, “Everything you say and do is first a thought that you have built in your brain.”

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, cognitive neuroscience disproves her folk-science. It’s way oversimplified to suggest that everything we do is based on our thought life. There are many chunks of our memory that don’t come from a willful, conscious input of information (acquired fear is one example). And the brain can use chunks of memory, often from memory systems not accessible by our conscious awareness, to produce complex actions that are completely new, without needing our conscious input.

Even though cognitive neuroscience disproves her meme, which is embarrassing enough for a woman who calls herself a cognitive neuroscientist, the bigger problem for this meme is that Dr Leaf is again contradicting herself.

About a month ago, Dr Leaf published on her social media feeds, “Don’t blame your physical brain for your decisions and actions. You control your brain!” Now she says that your words and actions are the result of a hardwired “physical root thought”, so your decisions and actions ARE the result of your physical brain. Which is it Dr Leaf? For the sake of her followers, her clarification would be welcome. After all, the more she contradicts herself, the more doubt she casts over the validity of the rest of her writing and teaching. Is she accurately interpreting research, and drawing valid conclusions? Dr Leaf is welcome to comment.

But one thing’s for sure; her mixed message memes are certainly not doing her any favours.

References

  1. Berns, G., Iconoclast : a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently. 2008, Harvard Business School Press, Boston:
  2. Squire, L.R. and Zola, S.M., Structure and function of declarative and nondeclarative memory systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1996. 93(24): 13515-22 http://www.pnas.org/content/93/24/13515.abstract
  3. Binder, J.R. and Desai, R.H., The neurobiology of semantic memory. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(11): 527-36 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.10.001
  4. Byrne, J.H. Learning and Memory (Section 4, Chapter 7). Neuroscience Online – an electronic textbook for the neurosciences 2013 [cited 2014, Jan 3]; Available from: http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter07.html.
  5. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  6. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497
  7. Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
  8. Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
  9. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

(PS: And happy Independence Day, USA! #4thofjuly )