Dr Caroline Leaf – Not a mental health expert


Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She wrote a PhD on a learning program developed for an educational setting.  She is not a medical doctor.  She is not a psychologist.  She has no experience or training in the diagnosis and management of mental illness.  She is no more qualified to give advice on mental illness than my hairdresser is.

And it shows in her latest social media post: “Lets really start loving as a church- true unconditional non judgmental love – pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the the problems of life.”

Her statements is a nonsense, nothing more than a scarecrow fallacy.  Yes, pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the problems of life, that’s why no one does it.  If people were locked up or drugged against their will because of “the problems of life” then we’d all be locked up and drugged.

The only people that are forcibly treated are those with the most serious of mental illnesses whose condition has deprived them of the insight they need to make the decision for themselves.  Even then, the consent for treatment is given by the next of kin, and if no next of kin can provide consent, then the consent is usually made by a independent statutory body so there’s no conflict of interest.

That Dr Leaf continues to make such inane statements about mental illness confirms that she is not fit to give the church, or anyone else for that matter, any advice on mental health.  She may have a PhD in communication pathology but that is a highly specialised field that doesn’t even begin to cross over to clinical knowledge of mental illness.

Dr Leaf has chosen to fill her vacuum of mental health experience with the opinions of Mad In America, a group that’s irrationally biased against modern mental health care.  She regurgitates their creed almost verbatim – mental illness is over diagnosed, psychiatric medications are useless and dangerous, and Dr Leaf also claims that psychiatric medications are only prescribed to bring the cabal of the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical companies more power and money.

Psychiatric medications are more helpful than harmful (Leucht et al, 2012, Torniainen et al, 2015).  I’ve discussed this in blog posts in the past.  Yes, they’re not without their side effects, and they’re not for every patient, but they have their place in psychiatric care.  That Dr Leaf can’t or won’t review this evidence is just another indictment against her ministry.  That she actively promotes the idea that pharmaceutical companies and the APA are actively attempting to harm people for their own power and riches is scandalous.

If Dr Leaf was serious about promoting good mental health through the church, she should stop promoting baseless anti-psychiatric propaganda, and start encouraging Christians with mental illness to seek the best treatment available, whether that be medications or counselling or both.  She should also start teaching the church the truth about mental illness … That mental illness isn’t caused by poor choices or toxic thoughts, but because of genetic abnormalities that make the affected persons brain more vulnerable to external stress.

Because to stop turning pain and trauma into shame, anger, fear and then hate, people need correct information to allow them to offer real loving understanding and nonjudgmental support to move through the pain.  At the moment, Dr Leaf isn’t offering the church anything even close to that.


Leucht S, Tardy M, Komossa K, et al. Antipsychotic drugs versus placebo for relapse prevention in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2012 Jun 2;379(9831):2063-71.
Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the can of worms – UPDATE

Yesterday, Dr Leaf opened a proverbial can of worms with her quote from Gøtzsche, that “Psychiatric Drugs are the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a cognitive neuroscientist. Clearly scrambling, she attempted to placate her growing number of detractors with an unprecedented explanatory statement. But rather than distancing herself from her comments, she still chose to portray psychiatric medications as harmful and ungodly.

Instead of quelling the fire, this seems to have thrown fuel on it. Dr Leaf has continued to try and justify her comments with a further two statements today. Neither of them contain a retraction or an apology.

Earlier today, she wrote:

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 7.02.14 pm

Dear all, regarding the recent two posts I put up on mental health and medications and the flood of positive and negative responses that followed, I would love you to hear my heart: all my posts are lovingly crafted, designed to help, based on my years of extensive research and experience in the field of mind, learning and mental health, including within my immediate and extended family..and {sic} most importantly, they are Holy Spirit led. I work with a team of professionals, that include medical doctors, neurosurgeons, neurologists, neuroscientists, theologians, pastors and historians in order to provide excellent information. I am a messenger: I teach and provide information and encourage you, in turn, not to be reactive, but to read, do your own research and think. To this end, I provide as much help as I can on my web page and TV shows and resources with information and research links and citations. I DO believe in using general medications and surgeries when managed correctly and not abused, I myself have been helped by surgery and used medications when necessary, as have my family. I DO NOT judge anyone. I believe in your right to choose; I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I recommend supported and supervised withdrawal if this is what you choose; I DO encourage you to make Holy Spirit led educated choices about your choices, I DO encourage you to use your love, power and sound mind – your intellect, will and emotions, the way God designed these to be used – led by Him continuously. Please watch this incredible and touching video by Laura Delano on You Tube, which highlights why I do what I do. https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLK_W1lA1BNLk2vbBH2XetI80LDpmaGTUG&params=OAFIAVgF&v=b6ZljUs4Xos&mode=NORMAL Many blessings to you all and my prayer for you is: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in every way and [that your body) may keep well, even as [I know) your soul keeps well and prospers.” 3 John 1:2 AMP see http://www.drleaf.com scientific FAQ’s for more information, citations and links

then later in the day:

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Dear all, some of you have questioned whether or not I have ever dealt with people experiencing severe mental health issues. As someone who has specialized in the mind over the past 30 years, I have been given the opportunity to work, first hand, with people experiencing mental and physical pain in the most terrible life situations, from severe traumatic brain injuries to rape, murder and abysmal poverty. I have seen these individuals choose with their minds not to allow their life circumstances to take control over their identity… through the power of God, love and community they overcame what life threw their way. But, on a more personal level, my eldest daughter (@therascalcook) was severely bulimic, suicidal and depressed for most of her early years due to a chronic illness and traumatic bullying. I have been in hospitals, crying beside her bed when she nearly died. I have experienced her pain…I am crying as I write this. But as a family we supported her and loved her through it, as did her friends and many of our loved ones, (it was not easy but it was worth it!). She never took a single medication nor was she institutionalized, even though doctors were telling me she would never recover if she didn’t. Yet today, after rejecting God and life for many years, she is a graduate student in historical theology, whose life goal is to bring a piece of heaven to earth through sustainable farming communities in disadvantaged areas. There is hope, God is greater than anything, and magic bullets are never the answer. You are not a label or a faulty biological machine. You are a child of God, as we all are. Unless all of us realize what it truly means to be the church, to bring heaven to earth as we love our God and people, to be the community of love that this world is so desperately crying out for, people will continue to have mental health issues, be labeled {sic}, face stigma and suffer. We all have this responsibility, and none of us can do it alone. We were created by God to help each other. Jessica used to call me her Sam. We all need a Sam, because we all know what it is like to be Frodo.

Kudos to Dr Leaf for the bravery and vulnerability that sharing such a personal story took. I’m genuinely happy that Jessica found her way through those dark and distressing days and has once again found peace and success. I have been through the same dank and destructive times of depression, and I know what it feels like. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. When I hear stories of people who have overcome, I truly appreciate their joy.

I also recovered from my depression without ever using medications. What helped me enormously was a psychologist who listened to me without judgement as I unloaded years of emotional turmoil and distress. To this day, I don’t remember what we actually talked about in my first session with him. All I remember is getting ten minutes in and then crying almost uncontrollably for the next forty. Thankfully, I did more talking and less crying over the few months as my mood lifted and I grew to accept my brokenness, just like God does.

Clearly, the story of Jessica Leaf is heart-warming and uplifting. Dr Leaf clearly understands the pain and distress that severe mental illness brings to those who suffer with it, and their families. But all emotions aside, Dr Leaf has still left important issues unresolved. Indeed, those who are more cynical might see such an emotional recollection as a play for sympathy and a distraction from the lingering questions surrounding Dr Leaf’s handling of this issue, and of her expertise in mental health.

Dr Leaf’s expertise, revisited.

Dr Leaf’s experience during those darkest of times may give her a legitimate platform to discuss what worked for her daughter and her family, but however moving, it does not qualify her as an expert in mental health more broadly. Science isn’t about generalising from your personal experience. It’s about looking at the evidence from a number of rigorously designed trials with a minimum of bias, conducted across a broad range of participants.

When women come to see me in the few weeks after giving birth, they’re usually confused. Nearly every woman that’s ever given birth sometime in the last century believes their experience automatically qualifies them as experts in breast feeding and infant health. But their ‘helpful’ advice, given with the best of intentions, often conflicts with the opinion of every other self-proclaimed motherhood expert. By the time the poor new mother comes to see me, they’ve been given so many pieces of conflicting advice that they’re completely lost.

Just living through an experience doesn’t qualify you as an expert. So I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health just because I’ve lived through prolonged periods of anxiety and depression. Nor should Dr Leaf.

Dr Leaf can’t use the fact that she has worked with people who have mental health problems as a claim to expertise either. She may been given the opportunity to work, first hand, with “people experiencing mental and physical pain in the most terrible life situations, from severe traumatic brain injuries to rape, murder and abysmal poverty.” That doesn’t make her an expert in mental health any more than seeing female patients makes me a gynaecologist.

That’s because expertise in medical fields requires specific training. You can read surgical textbooks for thirty years but that doesn’t quality you as a surgeon. You can learn a bit of anatomy and physiology in the same lab as some medical students, but that doesn’t make you equivalent to a medical doctor. You might do some research involving some neurobiology, but that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist.

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist who completed a PhD which included some educational psychology. She is not a counsellor, she is not a psychologist, she is not a medical doctor and she isn’t even a cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf is not qualified to provide an expert opinion on the risks and harms of psychiatric medication.

Dr Leaf’s heart

Coming back to Dr Leaf’s first statement today, Dr Leaf said that she wanted to share her heart:

all my posts are lovingly crafted, designed to help, based on my years of extensive research and experience in the field of mind, learning and mental health, including within my immediate and extended family..and {sic} most importantly, they are Holy Spirit led

If I were Dr Leaf, I’d be careful about blaming the Holy Spirit for her posts. I have rebutted and debunked scores of Dr Leaf’s memes over the last couple of years. The Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of all truth’, not of half-baked facts and misquotes.

Dr Leaf goes on to say

I teach and provide information and encourage you, in turn, not to be reactive, but to read, do your own research and think. To this end, I provide as much help as I can on my web page and TV shows and resources with information and research links and citations.

I respectfully disagree. Dr Leaf rarely references her social media memes, and until recently, her website was bereft of citations. I have never seen her encourage critical thinking before. And if Dr Leaf really wanted to encourage thinking amongst her followers, then why does her team actively block people on social media who dare to disagree with her? That’s not encouraging free thinking, that’s presenting an illusion of conformity.

Dr Leaf’s Do’s and Don’ts

To clarify her position on several issues, Dr Leaf stated:

I DO believe in using general medications and surgeries when managed correctly and not abused, I myself have been helped by surgery and used medications when necessary, as have my family. I DO NOT judge anyone. I believe in your right to choose; I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I recommend supported and supervised withdrawal if this is what you choose; I DO encourage you to make Holy Spirit led educated choices about your choices, I DO encourage you to use your love, power and sound mind – your intellect, will and emotions, the way God designed these to be used – led by Him continuously.

Dr Leaf may say that she doesn’t tell anyone to go off their meds, but I think that’s a little disingenuous.

Sure, Dr Leaf never directly said to stop taking their medications. She just said that psychiatric medications were unscientific and unbiblical [1: p31-32], that psychiatric medications are the third most common cause of death after heart disease and cancer, and admonished her followers to “Take all thoughts into captivity, not drug all thoughts into captivity.” And just yesterday, she also linked psychiatric medications with evolutionary theory and said that they strip 15-25 years off your lifespan.

So it’s more like, “I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I just scare them by telling them the drugs are unholy poison”.

That’s not encouraging “Holy Spirit led educated choices”, it’s encouraging fear-driven poor choices.

Dr Leaf’s support team

One last point. Dr Leaf stated,

I work with a team of professionals, that include medical doctors, neurosurgeons, neurologists, neuroscientists, theologians, pastors and historians in order to provide excellent information.

Really? Dr Leaf’s work consistently conflicts with basic medical and psychological science, and she regularly misquotes scripture. Would they be willing to be named? Because either they’re providing Dr Leaf with terrible oversight or Dr Leaf is ignoring everything they say.

Dr Leaf still hasn’t apologised for, or retracted her statements

It’s no secret that I disagree with Dr Leaf’s teaching, and I have outlined why I think some of her statements today are disingenuous. You may agree with me, or not. I don’t mind. Hey, I could be wrong.

Though when you get down to brass tacks, the most important issue is that Dr Leaf remains legally vulnerable.

Since she opened up the can of worms with her Gøtzsche quote, she has made three separate statements, none of which apologise for potentially misleading nearly 150,000 people about the true risks and benefits of psychiatric medications. Nor has she issued any retraction or taken the posts down.

When Dr Leaf says that psychiatric medications are unbiblical and poisonous, people on psychiatric medications will want to come off them. She may not have said the words “Stop your medications”, but people will still want to come off them because they’re afraid, or because of the stigma, or because of their desire to live true to God. And as I discussed yesterday, there is a very real chance that some of those people who were stable on their medications but who unnecessarily cease them because Dr Leaf told them to, may harm themselves or take their own life, since that’s what the studies tell us [2, 3]. At the very least, they are likely to have a shorter life expectancy because of it [4, 5]. This may open Dr Leaf to law suits, as well as the possibility of having someone’s death on her conscience.

No one wants that scenario. But the only way to avoid it is to:

  1. Take the offending posts down
  2. Issue an apology
  3. Specifically direct those of her followers on psychiatric medications to stay on them until they have spoken to their doctors,
  4. In future, provide a balanced view of the benefits of psychiatric medications as well as their harms.
  5. Better yet, unless Dr Leaf gets a medical degree, it may be better not to publically discuss psychiatric medication at all.

Again, I implore Dr Leaf, for her sake and for the sake of her ministry and those who follow her, please unequivocally apologise, retract your statement, and encourage people to see their doctors if they have concerns about their medication, or their mental health.

This is not a game: people’s lives are at stake. I hope that Dr Leaf sees this before it’s too late.

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        Correll CU, Detraux J, De Lepeleire J, De Hert M. Effects of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers on risk for physical diseases in people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association 2015 Jun;14(2):119-36.
[3]        Tiihonen J, Suokas JT, Suvisaari JM, Haukka J, Korhonen P. Polypharmacy with antipsychotics, antidepressants, or benzodiazepines and mortality in schizophrenia. Archives of general psychiatry 2012 May;69(5):476-83.
[4]        Tiihonen J, Lonnqvist J, Wahlbeck K, et al. 11-year follow-up of mortality in patients with schizophrenia: a population-based cohort study (FIN11 study). Lancet 2009 Aug 22;374(9690):620-7.
[5]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

Remember: This article is a rebuttal of Dr Leaf’s opinion regarding psychiatric medication.  This blog doesn’t constitute individual medical advice.  If you do not like your medication or think you should come off it, please talk to your own GP or psychiatrist.  Do not stop it abruptly or without adequate medical advice.

Don’t stress about stress – Part 3: Coping

In our last two blogs, we’ve been looking at stress, and why stress is usually more helpful than harmful.

It’s not that stress can never be harmful. Stress can be a trigger to some illnesses (although not as many as the popular media often portrays). What is it that makes the difference between helpful and harmful? What is it that causes one person to surf the tsunami of sewerage that often confronts us in life, while another person sinks?

The answer lies in resilience.


Resilience is the term given to the individual’s capacity to cope.

Researchers in the field of psychiatry often use the term resilience, which “is the capacity and dynamic process of adaptively overcoming stress and adversity while maintaining normal psychological and physical functioning” [1] although psychologists and social science researchers would use the term “coping”, which is defined by Compas et al as, “conscious and volitional efforts to regulate emotion, cognition, behavior, physiology, and the environment in response to stressful events or circumstances.” [2] Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck define coping as, “action regulation under stress.” [3]

Considering the definitions used, the terms are essentially interchangeable. The other observation to be made here is that coping/resilience is an active process. It’s not something that happens despite of us – we actively cope with stress. In the face of a situation involving emotional arousal (danger or stress), we take steps to deal with our inner and outer environments (the physiological processes of our body, as well as the environment around us). Sometimes these steps are conscious and/or under our control. But theorists also consider automatic, unconscious, and involuntary responses to also be part of the coping spectrum [4].


Coping Strategies

What makes up those actions? What influences the action steps?

Psychologists have described hundreds of individual methods of coping through recent research, although there have been efforts to consolidate the plethora of individual coping strategies into “family” clusters, based on function. For example, a primary tier is to “Coordinate actions and contingencies in the environment” which involves “finding additional contingencies” which on the third level involves “reading, observation, and asking others.” [3] Table 1 in the paper by Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck [3] summarize the many ways of coping and how they can be grouped together into families, and their corresponding adaptive process.

Personality factors

Coping strategies follow along the lines of personality type [5], as well as the stage of development in children [3]. Personality types such as Neuroticism and Openness have been well studied, with Neuroticism associated with maladaptive coping strategies, and Openness correlated with adaptive coping (in marital relationships [6] and in public speaking tasks [5]).

Further research has shown how personality significantly influences coping, with the severity of the stress, and the age and culture of a person influencing the strategy and strength of the coping response [4]. Of course, personality traits like neuroticism sound bad, but they confer their own strengths. For example, negative affect has protective benefits by enhancing the detection of deception [7].

Biological factors

The shared connection that personality types and coping responses have is in their shared genetics, with personality and coping styles influenced by common genes [8]. This makes perfect sense as it has been shown that changes in individual genes effect the ability of the brain to associate the correct value to rewards [9], which then influences both mood [10], and learning [11]. Even though environmental variables are important in determining personality and learning aspects of coping with stress, the brains underlying capacity to process the incoming signals correctly will significantly influence the direction and outcome of the learning process, which includes learning which coping strategies work best for each individual.

On a deeper level, there are several biological processes that make up the features of resilience. Animal studies on resilience, as a whole, have shown that resilience “is mediated not only by the absence of key molecular abnormalities that occur in susceptible animals to impair their coping ability, but also by the presence of distinct molecular adaptations that occur specifically in resilient individuals to help promote normal behavioral function.” [12] That is, resilient individuals have the full complement of critical components in the resilience pathway, and have some extra tools too.

Human studies thus far have shown strong links to genetic changes that affect the proteins in the stress system. Epigenetic mechanisms are involved, and the role of the environment is also significant, especially uncontrollable early childhood trauma. Wu et al list the current studies of genetic changes that effect resilience in humans [1: Table 1]. The proteins involved are responsible for the growth of new nerve pathways (BDNF), and for their function, especially within the stress system (CRHR1, FKBP5) and in control of mood and reward systems (COMT, DAT1, DRD2/4, 5-HTTLPR, the HTR group).

Wu et al [1] also summarised the currently known facts about epigenetic factors in resilience. Interestingly, they noted an animal study in which chronic stressors increased an epigenetic marker called histone acetylation in the hippocampus in mice, which enhanced the protective effects of the stress (epigenetics will be the subject of a future blog)

Resilience on a personal level

So coping and resilience are known protective factors for stress, and are more commonly deployed than most people realize. Despite all of the publicity that stress has generated, human beings remain remarkably unscathed. It’s estimated that, “in the general population, between 50 and 60% experience a severe trauma, yet the prevalence of illness is estimated to be only 7.8%.” [12] (Note: By ‘illness’, the authors were referring to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not all of human sickness).

But when it comes to recommending different coping strategies on an individual level, it is a much harder thing to do. What is adaptive in some situations and for some people is maladaptive in other situations and for other people.

For example, in animal studies, “stressed females tend to perform better than males on non-aversive cognitive or memory tasks … Conversely, in tests of acute stress or aversive conditioning, stress enhances learning in males and impairs it in females … the literature suggests that in cognitive domains females cope better with chronic forms of stress, whereas males tend to cope better with acute stress.” [12] So animal studies confirm a difference in the biological stress response between men and women. If these studies in animals can be extended to humans, it may explain the tendency for men to engage in “fight-or-fight” responses to stress where women usually move to “tend-and-befriend” mode [13].

Human studies on coping also demonstrate that what is good for one is not necessarily good for another. Connor-Smith and Flachsbart confirm that, “In particular, daily report and laboratory studies suggest that individuals high in sensitivity to threat may either benefit from disengagement or be harmed by engagement in the short term, with the opposite pattern appearing for individuals low in threat sensitivity.” [4]

So in other words, just because engaging may be a positive method of coping does not mean that it should be recommended to everyone. Some people will have more harm from trying to engage. Care should be taken when giving people advice about how to manage their stress. Ill-informed instructions can actually make things worse.


It’s well established that stress can have negative impacts on your physical and mental health. But contrary to the popular view, stress is not always bad. As a number of authors point out, most people go through significant stress at some point in their lives, but only a fraction succumb to that stress.

The difference is the factors that make up resilience. Where we are along the stress spectrum (that is, whether you are wired to be more stressed, or more resistant to stress) depends on our genetic predisposition, which determines the physiology of our stress system and our personality, and the ways we learn to cope.

How we cope best depends on our individual traits and the situation. There is no one-size-fits-all. Pushing a person into a form of coping that’s not suitable can actually cause a lot of harm.

Remember, we normally find what coping strategies work for us automatically as our resilience is mostly innate, and we all go through severe stress at some point or another in our lives, but only a small fraction of us will succumb to that stress.

In the last blog in the series, we’ll have a brief look at what happens when stress overwhelms us … when stress is breaking bad.


  1. Wu, G., et al., Understanding resilience. Front Behav Neurosci, 2013. 7: 10 doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00010
  2. Compas, B.E., et al., Coping with stress during childhood and adolescence: problems, progress, and potential in theory and research. Psychol Bull, 2001. 127(1): 87-127 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11271757
  3. Skinner, E.A. and Zimmer-Gembeck, M.J., The development of coping. Annu Rev Psychol, 2007. 58: 119-44 doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085705
  4. Connor-Smith, J.K. and Flachsbart, C., Relations between personality and coping: a meta-analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2007. 93(6): 1080
  5. Penley, J.A. and Tomaka, J., Associations among the Big Five, emotional responses, and coping with acute stress. Personality and individual differences, 2002. 32(7): 1215-28
  6. Bouchard, G., Cognitive appraisals, neuroticism, and openness as correlates of coping strategies: An integrative model of adptation to marital difficulties. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 2003. 35(1): 1
  7. Forgas, J.P. and East, R., On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2008. 44: 1362-7 http://bit.ly/Jm66a7
  8. Kato, K. and Pedersen, N.L., Personality and coping: A study of twins reared apart and twins reared together. Behavior Genetics, 2005. 35(2): 147-58 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10519-004-1015-8
  9. Dreher, J.-C., et al., Variation in dopamine genes influences responsivity of the human reward system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009. 106(2): 617-22
  10. Felten, A., et al., Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 2011. 1(2): 109-18 doi: 10.1002/brb3.20
  11. Ullsperger, M., Genetic association studies of performance monitoring and learning from feedback: the role of dopamine and serotonin. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2010. 34(5): 649-59
  12. Russo, S.J., et al., Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience, 2012. 15(11): 1475-84
  13. Verma, R., et al., Gender differences in stress response: Role of developmental and biological determinants. Ind Psychiatry J, 2011. 20(1): 4-10 doi: 10.4103/0972-6748.98407

Putting thought in the right place, part 2

CAP v2.1.2

In the last blog post, I discussed the Cognitive Action Pathways model, a schematic conceptual representation of the hierarchy of key components that underpin human thought and behaviour.

Small changes in the early processes within the Cognitive-Action Pathway model can snowball to effect every other part of the process. A real life example of this is ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASD has been present since time immemorial. Numerous bloggers speculate that Moses may have had ASD, while a couple of researchers proposed that Samson was on the spectrum (although their evidence was tenuous [1]). Thankfully, autism is no longer considered a form of demon possession or madness, or schizophrenia, or caused by emotionally distant “refrigerator mothers”, nor treated with inhumane experimental chemical and physical “treatments” [2, 3].

The autism spectrum is defined by two main characteristics: deficits in social communication and interaction, and restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour. People on the autism spectrum also tend to have abnormal sensitivity to stimuli, and other co-existing conditions like ADHD. The full diagnostic criteria can be found in DSM5. The new criteria are not without their critics [4-6], but overall, reflect the progress made in understanding the biological basis of autism.

ASD is recognized as a pervasive developmental disorder secondary to structural and functional changes in the brain that occur in the womb, and can be detected as early as a month after birth [7]. In the brain of a foetus that will be born with ASD, excess numbers of dysfunctional nerve cells are unable to form the correct synaptic scaffolding, leaving a brain that is large [8, 9], but out-of-sync. The reduced scaffolding leads to local over-connectivity within regions of the brain, and under-connectivity between the regions of the brain [10]. The majority of the abnormal cells and connections are within the frontal lobe, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex [11], as well as the temporal lobes [12]. The cerebellum is also significantly linked to the autism spectrum [13]. There is also evidence that the amygdala and hippocampus, involved in emotional regulation and memory formation, are significantly effected in ASD [10].

There is also strong evidence for an over-active immune system in an autistic person compared to a neurotypical person, with changes demonstrated in all parts of the immune system, and the immune system in the brain as well as the rest of the body [14]. These immune changes contribute to the reduced ability of the brain to form new branches as well as develop new nerve cells or remove unnecessary cells.

There are a number of environmental and epigenetic associations linked to autism. These include disorders of folate metabolism [15, 16], pollutants [17], fever during pregnancy [18] and medications such as valproate and certain anti-depressants [19, 20] which are linked with an increase in autism[1]. Supplements such as folate [15, 21], omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids [22] and the use of paracetamol for fevers in pregnancy [18] have protective effects.

Although these factors are important, genes outweigh their influence by about 4:1. Twin studies suggest that between 70-90% of the risk of autism is genetic [23, 24]. Individual gene studies have only shown that each of the many single genes carry about a one percent chance each for the risk of autism [10]. It’s been proposed that the hundreds of genes linked with autism [10, 25] are not properly expressed (some are expressed too much, some not enough). The resulting proteins from the abnormal gene expression contribute to a different function of the cell’s machinery, altering the ability of a nerve cell to fully develop, and the ability of nerve cells to form connections with other nerve cells [26]. The effects are individually small, but collectively influential [24]. Autism is considered a complex genetic disorder involving rare mutations, complex gene × gene interactions, and copy number variants (CNVs) including deletions and duplications [27].

According to the Cognitive-Action Pathways model, the triad of the environment, epigenetics, and genes influence a number of processes that feed into our actions, thoughts, perceptions, personality and physiology. In ASD, the starting place is language processing.

New born babies from as young as two days old prefer listening to their own native language [28], which suggests that we are born already pre-wired for language. Auditory stimuli (sounds) are processed in the temporal lobes, including language processing. In neurotypical people, language processing is done predominantly on the left side, with some effect from the right side. But in people with autism, because of the abnormal wiring, there is only significant activity of the right temporal lobe [12]. Even more, from data so recent that it’s pending publication, loss of the processing of information of the left temporal lobe reversed the brains orientation to social and non-social sounds, like the sound of the babies name [7].

The change in the wiring of the left and right temporal lobes then alters the processing of language, specifically the social significance of language and other sounds. So already from a young age, people with autism will respond differently to environmental stimuli compared to a neurotypical person.

In the same way, the fusiform gyrus is part of the brain that processes faces. It’s quite specific to this task in a neurotypical person. However, the altered wiring of the brain in someone with autism causes a change, with different parts of the brain having to take up the load of facial processing [29].

Each time that one part of the brain can’t perform it’s normal function, the other parts take up the load. However that reduces the capacity for those parts of the brain to perform their own normal functions. In the case of the temporal lobes and the fusiform areas, this results in a reduced ability to discern subtleties especially those related to recognizing social cues. A neurotypical person and an autistic person could be standing in front of the same person, listening to the same words, and seeing the same facial expressions, but because of the way each persons brain processes the information, the perception of those words and cues can be completely different. This demonstrates how genetic changes can lead to changes in the perception of normal sensory input, resulting in differences in the physiological response, emotions, feelings, thoughts and actions, despite identical sensory input.


The same changes that effect the cerebral cortex of the brain also have an influence on the deeper structures such as the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is largely responsible for transforming working memory into longer term declarative memory. Studies comparing the size of the hippocampus in ASD children have shown an increase in size compared with typical developing children [30]. Combined with the deficits in the nerve cell structure of the cerebellum [13], autistic children and adults have a poor procedural memory (action learning, regulated by the cerebellum) and an overdeveloped declarative memory (for facts, regulated by the hippocampus). This has been termed the “Mnesic Imbalance Theory” [31].

The amygdala is also functionally and anatomically altered because of the changes to the nerve cells and their connections. The amygdala is larger in young children with ASD compared to typically developing children. As a result, young ASD children have higher levels of background anxiety than do neurotypical children [32]. It’s proposed that not only do ASD children have higher levels of background anxiety, they also have more difficulty in regulating their stress system, resulting in higher levels of stress compared to a neurotypical child exposed to the same stimulus [33].


On a chemical level, autism involves genes that encode for proteins involved in the transport of key neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Early evidence confirms the deficits of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in autism [34]. These neurotransmitters are integral to processing the signals of mood, stress and rewards within the brain, and as discussed in the last chapter, are significantly involved in the genesis of personality.

The abnormal neurotransmitter systems and the resulting deficiencies in processing stress and rewards signals contribute to a higher correlation of neuroticism and introverted personality styles in children with autism symptoms [35, 36].

So people with autism genes are going to process stress and rewards in a different way to the neurotypical population. As a result, their feelings, their thoughts and their resulting actions are tinged by the differences in personality through which all of the incoming signals are processed.


The underlying genes and neurobiology involved in autism also effect the final behavioural step, not only because genes and sensory input influence the personality and physiology undergirding our feelings and thoughts, but also because they cause physical changes to the cerebellum, the part of the brain involved in fine motor control and the integration of a number of higher level brain functions including working memory, behaviour and motivation [13, 37].

When Hans Asperger first described his cohort of ASD children, he noted that they all had a tendency to be clumsy and have poor handwriting [38]. This is a good example of how the underlying biology of ASD can effect the action stage independently of personality and physiology. The cerebellum in a person with ASD has reduced numbers of a particular cell called the Purkinje cells, effecting the output of the cerebellum and the refined co-ordination of the small muscles of the hands (amongst other things). Reduced co-ordination of the fine motor movements of the hands means that handwriting is less precise and therefore less neat.

A running joke when I talk to people is the notoriously illegible doctors handwriting. One of the doctors I used to work with had handwriting that seriously looked like someone had dipped a chicken’s toes in ink and let it scratch around for a while. My handwriting is messy – a crazy cursive-print hybrid – but at least it’s legible. I tell people that our handwriting is terrible because we spent six years at medical school having to take notes at 200 words a minute. But it might also be that the qualities that make for a good doctor tend to be found in Asperger’s Syndrome, so the medical school selection process is going to bias the sample towards ASD and the associated poor handwriting (Thankfully, those that go on to neurosurgery tend to have good hand-eye coordination).

But if your educational experience was anything like mine, handwriting was seen as one of the key performance indicators of school life. If your handwriting was poor, you were considered lazy or stupid. Even excluding the halo effect from the equation, poor handwriting means a student has to slow down to write neater but takes longer to complete the same task, or writes faster to complete the task in the allotted time but sacrificing legibility in doing so.

Either way, the neurobiology of ASD results in reduced ability to effectively communicate, leading to judgement from others and internal personal frustration, both of which feedback to the level of personality, molding future feelings, thoughts and actions.

Thought in ASD

By the time all the signals have gone through the various layers of perception, personality and physiology, they reach the conscious awareness level of our stream of thought. I hope by now that you will agree with me that thought is irrevocably dependent on all of the various levels below it in the Cognitive-Action Pathways Model. While thoughts are as unique as the individual that thinks them, the common genetic expression of ASD and the resulting patterns in personality, physiology and perception lead to some predictable patterns of thought in those sharing the same genes.

As a consequence of the differences in the signal processing, the memories that make their way to long-term storage are also going to be different. Memories and memory function are also different in ASD for other neurobiological reasons, as described earlier in the blog with the Mnesic Imbalance Theory.


The Cognitive-Action Pathways model is a way of describing the context of thoughts to other neurological processes, and how they all interact. It shows that conscious thoughts are one link of a longer chain of neurological functions between stimulus and action – simply one cog in the machine. The autistic spectrum provides a good example of how changes in genes and their expression can dramatically influence every aspect of a person’s life – how they experience the world, how they feel about those experiences, and how they think about them.

I used autism as an example because autism is a condition that’s pervasive, touching every aspect of a person’s life, and provides a good example of the extensive consequences from small genetic changes. But the same principles of the Cognitive-Action Pathways Model apply to all aspects of life, including conditions that are considered pathological, but also to our normal variations and idiosyncrasies. Small variations in the genes that code for our smell sensors or the processing of smells can change our preferences for certain foods just as much as cultural exposure. Our appreciation for music is often changed subtly between individuals because of changes in the structure of our ears or the nerves that we use to process the sounds. The genetic structure of the melanin pigment in our skin changes our interaction with our environment because of the amount of exposure to the sun we can handle.

So in summary, this blog was to set out the place that our thoughts have in the grand scheme of life. Thought is not the guiding or controlling force, it is simply a product of a number of underlying functions and variables.


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  6. Grzadzinski, R., et al., DSM-5 and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): an opportunity for identifying ASD subtypes. Mol Autism, 2013. 4(1): 12 doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-12
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  8. Courchesne, E., et al., Evidence of brain overgrowth in the first year of life in autism. JAMA, 2003. 290(3): 337-44 doi: 10.1001/jama.290.3.337
  9. Shen, M.D., et al., Early brain enlargement and elevated extra-axial fluid in infants who develop autism spectrum disorder. Brain, 2013. 136(Pt 9): 2825-35 doi: 10.1093/brain/awt166
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  12. Eyler, L.T., et al., A failure of left temporal cortex to specialize for language is an early emerging and fundamental property of autism. Brain, 2012. 135(Pt 3): 949-60 doi: 10.1093/brain/awr364
  13. Fatemi, S.H., et al., Consensus paper: pathological role of the cerebellum in autism. Cerebellum, 2012. 11(3): 777-807 doi: 10.1007/s12311-012-0355-9
  14. Onore, C., et al., The role of immune dysfunction in the pathophysiology of autism. Brain Behav Immun, 2012. 26(3): 383-92 doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.08.007
  15. Schmidt, R.J., et al., Maternal periconceptional folic acid intake and risk of autism spectrum disorders and developmental delay in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) case-control study. Am J Clin Nutr, 2012. 96(1): 80-9 doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.004416
  16. Mbadiwe, T. and Millis, R.M., Epigenetics and Autism. Autism Res Treat, 2013. 2013: 826156 doi: 10.1155/2013/826156
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  19. Rai, D., et al., Parental depression, maternal antidepressant use during pregnancy, and risk of autism spectrum disorders: population based case-control study. BMJ, 2013. 346: f2059 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2059
  20. Christensen, J., et al., Prenatal valproate exposure and risk of autism spectrum disorders and childhood autism. JAMA, 2013. 309(16): 1696-703 doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.2270
  21. Suren, P., et al., Association between maternal use of folic acid supplements and risk of autism spectrum disorders in children. JAMA, 2013. 309(6): 570-7 doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.155925
  22. Lyall, K., et al., Maternal dietary fat intake in association with autism spectrum disorders. Am J Epidemiol, 2013. 178(2): 209-20 doi: 10.1093/aje/kws433
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  24. Geschwind, D.H., Genetics of autism spectrum disorders. Trends Cogn Sci, 2011. 15(9): 409-16 doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.07.003
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  26. O’Roak, B.J., et al., Sporadic autism exomes reveal a highly interconnected protein network of de novo mutations. Nature, 2012. 485(7397): 246-50 doi: 10.1038/nature10989
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  30. Schumann, C.M., et al., The amygdala is enlarged in children but not adolescents with autism; the hippocampus is enlarged at all ages. J Neurosci, 2004. 24(28): 6392-401 doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1297-04.2004
  31. Romero-Munguía, M.A.n., Mnesic Imbalance and the Neuroanatomy of Autism Spectrum Disorders, in Autism – A Neurodevelopmental Journey from Genes to Behaviour, Eapen, V., (Ed). 2011 Edition 1st, InTech. p. 425-44.
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[1] A word of caution: While there’s good evidence that valproate increases the risk of autism, and a possible link between some anti-depressants and autism, that risk has to be balanced with the risk to the baby of having a mother with uncontrolled epilepsy or depression, which may very well be higher. If you’re taking these medications and you are pregnant, or want to become pregnant, consult your doctor BEFORE you stop or change your medications. Work out what’s right for you (and your baby) in your unique situation.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the shotgun approach

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“It has been collectively demonstrated by researchers around the world that just about every aspect of our brainpower, intelligence and control – in normal, and psychiatrically and neurologically impaired individuals – can be improved by intense, efficient, organised and appropriately direct mind training … thank you Jesus.”

Sounds impressive doesn’t it.

Unfortunately for Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, grandstanding does not equate to authority.  It’s all very well and good to publish broad, sweeping generalisations, but it’s like firing a shotgun at a cork from thirty paces.  Sure, you might hit your target, but the scatter pattern of the ammunition misses more times than it hits.

If Dr Leaf wants her statement to be taken seriously, then she needs to do a couple of small things.
(1) Reference her statement.  This should be fairly easy if “researchers around the world” really have demonstrated the power of mind training.  To sum it up more effectively, perhaps Dr Leaf could cite a meta-analysis that proves the value of mind training.
(2) Stop confusing the mind with the brain. This is the biggest problem with her statement. The mind does not control the brain.  If Dr Leaf produced any references in support of her statement, they would be along the lines of training or retraining the brain, not the mind.

It may seem trivial, because most people think the mind and the brain are the same, but they’re two distinct things.  Old psychological therapies were based upon the notion that fixing your thoughts was the key to improving your mental health, but this notion is now outdated, considered part of “Western folk psychology” [1]. By using the concept of “mind” and “brain” interchangeably, Dr Leaf confuses the issue for the average person trying to come to grips with modern science.

I’d be grateful if Dr Leaf could publish some evidence to support her claim, because I’m unfamiliar with research showing that things like intelligence can be improved with brain training. Sure, there’s good evidence for the improvement in the damaged brain with specific physical exercises – it’s one of the primary tools in Rehabilitation Medicine. There is also good evidence for psychological therapies such as ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, in improving mood amongst other things [2, 3]. Though I’ve read a recent meta-analysis of multiple studies that suggests “brain training” for working memory offers minimal benefit which is not maintained and not transferable across categories [4], which means there’s no proof that “brain training” improves intelligence.

In future posts, I hope that Dr Leaf provides something more accurate instead of grandiose shotgun statements.


  1. Herbert, J.D. and Forman, E.M., The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness, in Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. 2011, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 1-25.
  2. 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
  3. Harris, R., The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. 2008, Trumpeter, Boston:
  4. Melby-Lervag, M. and Hulme, C., Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Dev Psychol, 2013. 49(2): 270-91 doi: 10.1037/a0028228


Dr Caroline Leaf – Exacerbating the Stigma of Mental Illness

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It was late in the afternoon, you know, that time when the caffeine level has hit critical and the only way you can concentrate on the rest of the day is the promise you’ll be going home soon.

The person sitting in front of me was a new patient, a professional young woman in her late 20’s, of Pakistani descent. She wasn’t keen to discuss her problems, but she didn’t know what else to do. After talking to her for a few minutes, it was fairly obvious that she was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and I literally mean suffering. She was always fearful but without any reason to be so. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, her heart raced all the time.

I was actually really worried for her. She let me do some basic tests to rule out any physical cause that was contributing to her symptoms, but that was as far as she let me help her. Despite talking at length about her diagnosis, she could not accept the fact that she had a psychiatric condition, and did not accept any treatment for it. She chose not to follow up with me either. I only saw her twice.

Perhaps it was fear for her job, social isolation, or a cultural factor. Perhaps it was the anxiety itself. Whatever the reason, despite having severe ongoing symptoms, she could not accept that she was mentally ill. She was a victim twice over, suffering from both mental illness, and its stigma.

Unfortunately, this young lady is not an isolated case. Stigma follows mental illness like a shadow, an extra layer of unnecessary suffering, delaying proper diagnosis and treatment of diseases that respond best to early intervention.

What contributes to the stigma of mental illness? Fundamentally, the stigma of mental illness is based on ignorance. Ignorance breeds stereotypes, stereotypes give rise to prejudice, and prejudice results in discrimination. This ignorance usually takes three main forms; people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled; or they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character [1].

Poor information from people who claim to be experts doesn’t help either. For example, on her social media feed today, Dr Caroline Leaf said, “Psychiatric labels lock people into mental ill-health; recognizing the mind can lead us into trouble and that our mind is powerful enough to lead us out frees us! 2 Timothy1:7 Teaching on mental health @TrinaEJenkins 1st Baptist Glenardin.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. It’s disturbing enough that Dr Leaf, who did not train in cognitive neuroscience, medicine or psychology, can stand up in front of people and lecture as an “expert” in mental health. It’s even more disturbing when her views on mental health are antiquated and inane.

Today’s post, for example. Suggesting that psychiatric labels lock people in to mental ill-health is like saying that a medical diagnosis locks them into physical ill-health. It’s a nonsense. Does diagnosing someone with cancer lock them into cancer? It’s the opposite, isn’t it? Once the correct diagnosis is made, a person with cancer can receive the correct treatment. Failing to label the symptoms correctly simply allows the disease to continue unabated.

Mental illness is no different. A correct label opens the door to the correct treatment. Avoiding a label only results in an untreated illness, and more unnecessary suffering.

Dr Leaf’s suggestion that psychiatric labels lock people in to their illness is born out of a misguided belief about the power of words over our thoughts and our health in general, an echo of the pseudo-science of neuro-linguistic programming.

The second part of her post, that “recognizing the mind can lead us into trouble and that our mind is powerful enough to lead us out frees us” is also baseless. Her assumptions, that thought is the main driving force that controls our lives, and that fixing our thought patterns fixes our physical and psychological health, are fundamental to all of her teaching. I won’t go into it again here, but further information on how Dr Leaf’s theory of toxic thinking contradicts basic neuroscience can be found in a number of my blogs, and in the second half of my book [2].

I’ve also written on 2 Timothy 1:7 before, another of Dr Leaf’s favourite scriptures, a verse whose meaning has nothing to do with mental health, but seized upon by Dr Leaf because one English translation of the original Greek uses the words “a sound mind”.

So Dr Leaf believes that labelling someone as having a mental illness will lock them into that illness, an outdated, unscientific and purely illogical notion that is only going to increase the stigma of mental illness. If I were @TrinaEJenkins and the good parishioners of 1st Baptist Glenardin, I would be asking for my money back.

With due respect, and in all seriousness, the stigma of mental illness is already disproportionate. Mental illness can cause insurmountable suffering, and sometimes death, to those who are afflicted by it. The Christian church does not need misinformation compounding the suffering for those affected by poor mental health. Dr Leaf should not be lecturing anyone on mental health until she has been properly credentialed.


  1. Corrigan, P.W. and Watson, A.C., Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 2002. 1(1): 16-20 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16946807
  2. Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848

Hold That Thought – Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf

Hold That Thought Cover

It’s been more than a few late nights in the making, but sixteen months and 68,000 words on, the early release of my new book is now available on line through Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848.  Apple iBook, Kindle, and a number of other platforms will come online soon.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a South African communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, now based in the USA.  This book is an in-depth look at the current scientific understanding of thought, stress, free will and choice, as well as a thorough critique of Dr Leaf’s foundational teachings and the evidence she provides as proof of her hypotheses.

In the coming few days, I will make the text of the book available on this blog as well.  If you have any questions, send them in.  I’m happy to put up a FAQ page.  And as always, I’m happy to answer any legitimate criticism of my work, so long as it’s constructive and evidence based, not personal.

And as always, Dr Leaf herself is welcome to comment.  Indeed, I would value her feedback, and I’m sure any comment she wishes to make would be welcome by the Christian community as a whole.