Dr Caroline Leaf and Testimonials – Good marketing, poor evidence

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She is a pseudoscientist of the highest order. She once wrote a PhD. Now she has episodes of her TV show titled “Surviving cancer by using the Mind”.

This weeks edition of her newsletter started off with some subtle boasting:

“We have received many E-mails over the past years asking for Testimonies with regards to Dr Leaf’s research and teachings. We have summarized eight pages of testimonies received at TESTIMONIES. Be encouraged and feel free to refer them to friends, family, acquaintances, and work colleagues struggling with Mind issues.”

Testimonials are an empty box wrapped in shiny paper and trimmed with a bow. They look really good but offer nothing of substance. They’re simply an old advertising trick.

According to the Market Science Institute, “Testimonial solicitations – in which firms solicit consumers’ personal endorsements of a product or service – represent a popular marketing practice. Testimonials are thought to offer several benefits to firms, among them that participating consumers may strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand, through the act of writing testimonials.” [1]

Who can argue with a person who says that Dr Leaf helped turn their life around? Saying anything negative just makes you sound like a cynical old boot.

And that’s the real problem, because while publishing a whole bunch of positive stories is good for marketing, it makes it very hard for those who had a genuinely bad experience to say anything. No one wants to listen to those people whom Dr Leaf has confused or mislead – it makes for terrible PR. Those people feel devalued, and sometimes worse, because it seems like everyone else had a good result from Dr Leaf’s teaching, except them.

Testimonials also make for very poor scientific evidence. Indeed, testimonials are considered the lowest form of scientific evidence [2]. It’s all very well and good for a bunch of people to share their positive experiences, but as life changing as the experience may have been, they are not evidence of the effectiveness of Dr Leaf’s teaching. Without specific, well-designed research, no one can say if the testimonials Dr Leaf is publishing are the norm. Recent research demonstrates that self-help literature for depression may not have any benefit over a placebo treatment [3]. So it may be that any improvement attributed to Dr Leaf’s teaching was actually the placebo effect. Dr Leaf can list testimonials until she’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t prove that her work is scientific or therapeutic.

Indeed, selectively publishing testimonials is duplicitous, telling half-truths, positively spinning her own story. How many e-mails has Dr Leaf gotten from people who have found her teaching inaccurate, ineffective, unbiblical or harmful? Dr Leaf’s social media minions deliberately delete any negative comments and block anyone from her sites that disagree with her. And over the years, many people have shared with me how arrogant and dismissive her team has been to polite, genuine concern or criticism. I can personally attest to the same treatment. If Dr Leaf was honest with her followers, she would be openly publishing the brickbats as well as the bouquets.

For her readers and followers, the testimonials need to be seen for what they are: just individual stories. Sure, we should rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15), and so good for those who feel Dr Leaf has helped them. But they do not constitute evidence for the therapeutic efficacy or scientific integrity of the work of Dr Leaf.

For people genuinely struggling with “mind issues”, the last thing they need is testimonials collated by Dr Leaf’s marketing team.  They don’t need to be referred to Dr Leaf’s work, they need to be referred to psychologists and doctors.

And if Dr Leaf really wanted to prove her legitimacy, she would rely on independent peer-reviewed published research, not on the list of vacuous, self-serving cherry-picked testimonials that she is currently offering.


[1] Marketing Science Institute. Consumer Testimonials as Self-Generated Advertisements: Evaluative Reconstruction Following Product Usage. [cited 2014, Aug 3]; Available from: http://www.msi.org/reports/consumer-testimonials-as-self-generated-advertisements-evaluative-reconstru/.
[2] Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107
[3] Moldovan, R., et al., Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild depressive symptomatology: randomized clinical trial of efficacy and mechanisms of change. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 2013. 20(6): 482-93

Anti-depressants – Not the messiah

 “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!” 

 Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy.  They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered!  Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.

Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies.  It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah.  One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.

The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche.  We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.

Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian.  Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah.  Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications.  The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time.  People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.” [1]  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.

Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently.  Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems.  Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.

“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.

But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?

In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine [2].  It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.

They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.

When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials.  The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group.  In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either.  That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced.  To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.

Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo.  Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.

There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better.  The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.

One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.

The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal.  Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place.  When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression [1].  Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.

This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype.  Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp

So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation.  Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies.  They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.

Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either.  Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades.  Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression [3].

What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6].  Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.

This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk

The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this.  If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around?  Are both together more powerful than each one alone?

In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy.  They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available.  Medication should only be considered if:

  1. a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
  2. a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
  3. talking therapies haven’t worked.

Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck.  While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use [7].  In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.

This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills

At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance.  Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.

With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression.  Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.


[1]        Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
[2]        Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
[3]        Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
[4]        Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[5]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[6]        Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
[7]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.


If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:

In Australia

  • you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
  • BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
  • the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
  • daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
  • email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354

In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.


Dr Caroline Leaf and the Me-Too approach to mental health

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 3.44.33 pm

Since her recent less-than-successful attempt at portraying herself as a mental health expert, Dr Leaf has been laying low on social media, sticking to bland, innocuous quotes or passages of scripture.

Today, she thought it was safe enough to pop her head up from the trenches to fire off another opinionated volley on mental well-being, with a quote from one of her favourite authors, Peter Kinderman:

“It’s our framework of understanding the world, not our brains and not even the events that happen to us – not nature and not nurture – that determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and, therefore, our mental health.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Without any training or professional experience in mental illness, she has also taken it upon herself to act as an expert on mental health within the Christian church.

Unfortunately, posting quotes like today’s offering only further destroys her flagging credibility among those with professional psychiatric experience, and adds to the confusion of the rest of the Christian church when it comes to understanding mental illness.

There are two main problems with Dr Leaf’s meme: the quote itself and it’s source.

The quote itself is wafer-thin, unable to stand up to even the most basic interrogation. For example, we know through basic common sense that the brain changes how we think, our moods, our emotions and our behaviours. We change our mood, our emotions and our alertness every time we have a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine. Hallucinogenic medications like LSD definitely change our framework of understanding the world. Coffee, alcohol, and illicit substances like LSD all change the mood or experience of the person using them because they all temporarily alter the function of the users brain.

Though it’s not just external substances that change how we experience our external and internal worlds, but our own internal hormonal ecosystem changes our emotions, our moods, our thoughts and our behaviours. This isn’t so obvious for most men as our hormones are fairly constant, though testicular failure is known to result in reduced energy, vitality, or stamina; depressed mood or diminished sense of well-being; increased irritability; and difficulty concentrating and other cognitive problems. For the female gender, monthly hormonal changes can sometimes result in sudden, marked changes in emotions, moods, thoughts and behaviours.

There are a lot of other reasons why the brain controls the mind, and our mental health, which I’ve also discussed numerous times in other blogs (here, here and here)

If you aren’t satisfied with a common sense approach, then consider the scientific evidence that personality, the name that we give to our inbuilt ‘framework of understanding the world’ is largely genetic, and dependent on the function of various neurotransmitter systems [1-4].

So to suggest that the brain is not responsible for our moods, our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviours isn’t supported by the weight of scientific evidence.

The quote by Kinderman doesn’t stop there, but suggests that “not even the events that happen to us … determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours”, something that also flies in the face of current scientific evidence. For example, the other forty percent of personality is determined by our environment (specifically the ‘non-shared’ environment, the environment outside of our parental influence) [5, 6]. And common psychiatric illnesses are associated with early childhood adversity, such as schizophrenia [7] and ADHD [8]. So again, the quote is unscientific.

Who then is this Kinderman guy, and why does he disagree with the scientific literature?

Peter Kinderman is a Professor of Psychology at University of Liverpool, and the President-elect of the British Psychological Society. He’s a highly outspoken critic of modern psychiatry and what he perceives to be the medicalisation of normal moods and emotions and overuse of medications to treat these non-existent diagnoses. Kinderman believes that it’s our learning history that shapes the paths that our lives take, and so if we simply understand our personal models of the world and how they were shaped by the events and experiences to which we’ve been exposed, we can simply think our way out of any disease process [9].

Kinderman has come out in favour of talking treatments for psychosis in schizophrenia instead of medication, when there’s no scientific proof of benefit for psychosocial therapies in schizophrenia [10, 11] (and here).

This, and his staunch opposition of the DSM5 as invalid, makes me concerned about his bias against modern psychiatry, despite it’s many advances, scientifically and clinically.

However, I’m surprised that Kinderman would make such a statement because it’s such an asinine argument, I find it hard to believe that it came from a professor of psychology. Kinderman would surely recognise the role of biology in our mental health and wellbeing, even if he doesn’t agree with how it’s managed. Perhaps there’s an alternative explanation. Perhaps Kinderman didn’t say what Dr Leaf has claimed?

The answer is, he does, and he doesn’t.

Dr Leaf has quoted Kinderman correctly. Today’s quote is taken directly out of Kindermans 2014 book, “The New Laws of Psychology” [9], on the penultimate page of his introduction. So he does say that our brains and our experiences aren’t relevant for our mental health. But then again, in a blog on the militant anti-psychiatry blog ‘Mad in America’, Kinderman wrote this:

“I’ve spent much of my professional life studying psychological aspects of mental health problems. Inevitably, this has also meant discussing the role of biology. I hope I’ve made some progress in understanding these issues, in working out how the two relate to each other, and the implications for services. That’s my academic day-job. But it’s not just academic for me. I’m probably not untypical of most people reading this; I can see clear examples of how my experiences may have affected my own mental health, but I can also see reasons to suspect biological, heritable, traits. As in all aspects of human behaviour, both nature and nurture are involved and they have been intimately entwined in a complex interactive dance throughout my childhood and adult life.” http://www.madinamerica.com/2015/03/brain-baked-beans/

So he seems confused, both recognising that biological traits influence psychiatric illness, then denying it.

Personally, I disagree with the quote from his book, although I’m just a suburban GP from Australia, so what would I know, right? Though I think the evidence I’ve cited is on my side, and Kinderman is not without his critics who are more than his academic equal.

It also concerns me because the logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that psychiatric illnesses have no biological basis, and therefore psychiatric medications have no place in treatment of them. But as I outlined previously, there is good evidence for the beneficial effects of medications for schizophrenia and ADHD amongst other mental health disorders.

Dr Leaf continues to ignore the scientific evidence for the biological basis for mental ill-health, medications for their treatment, and even the most basic of all that our mind is a product of our brain. Instead, she’s nailed her colours to her mast and aligned herself with outspoken authors on the fringe of modern neuroscience. Rather than addressing the science behind her opposition to modern psychiatry and neuroscience, she has resorted to hiding behind their quotes, a ‘me-too’ commentator, rather than an actual expert.

Of more importance is the confusion that this brings to the vulnerable Christians who follow her social media “fan sites”. The more Dr Leaf criticises psychiatric medications and condemns their prescription and usage, the more likely it is that someone will come to serious harm when they inappropriately cease their medications. And if Dr Leaf won’t come to her senses, our church leaders are going to have to take action, before it’s too late.


[1]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[2]        Chen C, Chen C, Moyzis R, et al. Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PloS one 2011;6(7):e21636.
[3]        Caspi A, Hariri AR, Holmes A, Uher R, Moffitt TE. Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. The American journal of psychiatry 2010 May;167(5):509-27.
[4]        Felten A, Montag C, Markett S, Walter NT, Reuter M. Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain and behavior 2011 Nov;1(2):109-18.
[5]        Krueger RF, South S, Johnson W, Iacono W. The heritability of personality is not always 50%: gene-environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting. Journal of personality 2008 Dec;76(6):1485-522.
[6]        Johnson W, Turkheimer E, Gottesman, II, Bouchard TJ, Jr. Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current directions in psychological science 2010 Aug 1;18(4):217-20.
[7]        Howes OD, Murray RM. Schizophrenia: an integrated sociodevelopmental-cognitive model. Lancet 2014 May 10;383(9929):1677-87.
[8]        Thapar A, Cooper M, Eyre O, Langley K. What have we learnt about the causes of ADHD? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines 2013 Jan;54(1):3-16.
[9]        Kinderman P. The New Laws of Psychology: Why Nature and Nurture Alone Can’t Explain Human Behaviour: Robinson, 2014.
[10]      Buckley LA, Maayan N, Soares-Weiser K, Adams CE. Supportive therapy for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2015;4:CD004716.
[11]      Jones C, Hacker D, Cormac I, Meaden A, Irving CB. Cognitive behaviour therapy versus other psychosocial treatments for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2012;4:CD008712.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Contradicted by Dr Caroline Leaf

“Who am I?”

It’s one of life’s most fundamental questions. It’s such a quintessentially human question, one that speaks to the importance of our identity as individuals.

It’s a question that Dr Leaf thinks she has the answer to.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Recently she launched an on-line program called “Perfectly You”, based on her 2009 book, “The Gift In You” [1]. In “The Gift In You”, Dr Leaf promised that by using her program, you could enable your gift and increase your intelligence to the level that you desire. According to Dr Leaf, your gift is something that’s hardwired into your brain, which makes your gift uniquely yours. For example, she wrote:

“Your gift lies in something so profound yet so simple that we tend to overlook it: the combination of your life experiences with the measurable structure of how your brain has been wired to think and process information.” (p24)

“Neurologically, you are not wired for someone else’s gift. You can try as hard as you want. You can listen to as many teachings as you possibly can. You can buy all the books with an instant formula for a business mogul’s success. You can adopt all of the popular motivational sayings. But even then, you will never have someone else’s gift.” (p11-12)

“You were not built to struggle. Your brain is wired to function according to a specific sequence. When you discover that sequence, that structure, you unlock great potential.” (p13)

“When you know how your gift is structured, how your brain is uniquely wired, and how to achieve lasting success, you will unlock your truth-value – your gift.” (p17)

“The exciting result of this plasticity of the brain that we hold power over is that no two brains are alike: We are uniquely, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). There is diversity in brain structure and organisation and function, which results in the way we think and approach life.” (p18)

So according to Dr Leaf, our gifts are something that is uniquely hardwired into our brain, something that we cannot change even if we wanted to, and that brain structure gives rise to the way in which we think and the actions that we take.

Then, as I was rereading this book, I came across a sentence that I must have read before when I first got it, but which I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of until now.

On page 47, Dr Leaf said,

The mind is what the brain does, and we see the uniqueness of each mind through our gifts. This, in itself is delightful and, intriguing because, as you work out your gift and find out who you are, you will be developing your soul and spirit.” (Emphasis added)

This quote in and of itself isn’t actually that significant until we compare it to a quote from the first chapter of Dr Leaf’s 2013 book, “Switch On You Brain.” [2]

“The first argument proposes that thoughts come from your brain as though your brain is generating all aspects of your mental experience. People who hold this view are called materialists. They believe that it is the chemicals and neurons that create the mind and that relationships between your thoughts and what you do can just be ignored.
So essentially, their perspective is that the brain creates what you are doing and what you are thinking. The mind is what the brain does, they believe, and the ramifications are significant. Take for example, the treatment of depression. In this reductionist view, depression is a chemical imbalance problem of a machinelike brain; therefore, the treatment is to add in the missing chemicals.
This view is biblically and scientifically incorrect.” [2: p31-32] (Emphasis added)

So … Dr Leaf believes that the mind is not what the brain does. So our gifts aren’t uniquely hardwired into our brain, and we should be able to change our gifting if we want to, since it isn’t our brain structures that give rise to the way in which we think and the actions that we take, but it’s all related to our choices.

This must be really embarrassing for Dr Leaf, to so directly call your own beliefs biblically and scientifically incorrect, and then not to notice.

Now, we all make innocent mistakes. No one is perfectly congruent in everything they say. But this isn’t just getting some minor facts wrong. These statements form the foundation for Dr Leaf’s teaching, and are in print in two best selling books, from which she has used to present to countless churches and seminars around the globe.

Which makes her major self-contradiction important for three reasons:

  1. It calls her self-titled expertise as a cognitive neuroscientist into question.
  2. It calls her teaching into question.
  3. It calls her ministry into question.

Firstly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf shows desperately little basic knowledge about cognitive neuroscience. Even first year neuroscience students consistently know how the brain works, and are able to build on this to grow their knowledge about the brain. The fact that Dr Leaf can’t get her basic facts straight on something so fundamental as the relationship of the mind and the brain clearly demonstrates that she is not the expert in cognitive neuroscience that she claims to be.

Secondly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf undermines all of her teaching. If she can’t be trusted to consistently state basic facts on which she is supposed to have high level training, then how can she be trusted with anything more complicated scientifically. Indeed, how can she be trusted to interpret scripture, in which she has no formal training. Thus, her whole ministry is now thrown into doubt. Dr Leaf may get some facts right in the rest of her writing and in her teaching, but unless you’re an expert in the field, it would be impossible to know. And since she doesn’t reference her work properly, it makes it impossible for the average person to go back to her sources and validate her teaching.

Thirdly, in majorly contradicting herself, Dr Leaf makes it very difficult for churches who have her ministering from their pulpits. Pastors aren’t experts in neuroscience or medicine. How are they supposed to have confidence that what Dr Leaf is saying? How can they be sure that what Dr Leaf is teaching to their congregations is factual or is contradicted by real scientists or her own teaching? How can they be sure that Dr Leaf is not causing some of their more vulnerable parishioners unnecessary harm because her teaching is contradicted by modern science and medicine?

Dr Leaf may believe that she has many answers, and is motivated by the best of intentions. However, to call your own beliefs “biblically and scientifically incorrect” does not instil confidence. Dr Leaf needs to take a serious look at her teaching and the quality of the science that undergirds it, and until that happens, the churches that have invited Dr Leaf to minister from their pulpits should seriously reconsider that decision.


  1. Leaf, C.M., The gift in you – discover new life through gifts hidden in your mind. 2009, Inprov, Inc, Texas, USA:
  2. Leaf, C.M., Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. 2013, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Don’t stress about stress – Part 4: Stress breaking bad

This is the last blog post in my brief series on stress. Today, we’re going to look at what happens when we do hit stress overload, and a few simple methods that may be able to help you through a tough situation.

One of my favourite shows of all time was Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and average family man, who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. To support his wife and disabled son after he’s gone, he uses his knowledge of chemistry to launch himself into an underworld career manufacturing crystal meth.

Allostatic overload is the term modern scientists use for stress breaking bad. Stress moves from an agent of growth and change to an agent of disease and death.

In the last few blogs, we discussed that stress is actually more of a positive than a negative. It’s not that stress can’t be bad, because we know from the stress-productivity curve and from the Yerkes-Dodson Law that too much stress overwhelms our capacity to cope with it. The model used to describe the balance of stress on our body is the theory of Allostasis.


All living things maintain a complex dynamic equilibrium – a balancing act of the many different physiological systems that all rely on the other systems working at an optimal range. Imagine trying to stack ten spinning tops on top of each other while trying to keep them spinning. The body does the chemical equivalent of this very difficult combination of balance and dexterity every day. It’s called homeostasis. This balancing act is constantly challenged by internal or external events, termed stressors. Both the amount of stress and amount of time that the stressor is applied is important. When any stressor exceeds a certain threshold (“too strong, or too long”), the adaptive homeostatic systems of the living thing activate responses that compensate.

The theory of allostasis is related to these homeostatic mechanisms, although not just in terms of stress, but broadly to the concept of any change of the optimal range of these homeostatic balancing processes, in response to a change in the environment or life cycle of an organism [1].

McEwen and Wingfield give an example of some bird species, which change their stress response to facilitate their breeding capacity during mating season. They note that the benefit of the increased chance of breeding is important to the bird, but also comes at a cost of increased susceptibility to some diseases because of the weakening of the stress response at the time [1].

When it comes to stress, we adapt in a similar way. A lack of stress, or an excess of a stressor in some way (either too long or too strong) results in adaptation, which is beneficial, but can come at a cost. This is demonstrated by that broadly applicable U-curve, the stress productivity curve.

Chrousos wrote, “The interaction between homeostasis disturbing stressors and stressor activated adaptive responses of the organism can have three potential outcomes. First, the match may be perfect and the organism returns to its basal homeostasis or eustasis; second, the adaptive response may be inappropriate (for example, inadequate, excessive and/or prolonged) and the organism falls into cacostasis; and, third, the match may be perfect and the organism gains from the experience and a new, improved homeostatic capacity is attained, for which I propose the term ‘hyperstasis’.” [2] And as noted by McEwen, “Every system of the body responds to acute challenge with allostasis leading to adaptation.” [3]

More often than not, we adapt to the stressor, either the same as before, or possibly better. It’s only if the response to the stressor is inadequate, excessive and/or prolonged that stress ends up causing us trouble. This is what people normally think of when they think of stress – called allostatic overload – simply stress breaking bad.

Keeping stress in check

To ensure that we keep our stress levels at the optimum to ensure maximum productivity and growth, here are a few simple techniques. Remember, everyone handles stress differently, and so which of these techniques works best for you will be something you’ll have to learn by trying them.


The simplest tool is breathing. Sounds a little silly really, since you obviously breathe all of the time! But we usually take shallow breaths, so our lungs are not being used to their full capacity. When we focus on our breathing and deliberately take slow, deep breaths we increase the amount of air going in, and therefore allow more oxygen to enter the blood stream. This better fuels our cells and helps them do their job more efficiently. However, it also sets in motion a physiological mechanism that slows our heart rate.

Our heart pumps blood from our body, through the lungs to get oxygenated. As we take a deep breath, more blood is sucked up into our chest cavity from our veins, because breathing in causes a temporary vacuum in our chest cavity. The extra blood then fills our heart more efficiently. A more efficient heart beat reduces the need for the body to stimulate the heart to pump harder. This promotes more of the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system activity, and less of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system, via the vagal brake mechanism.

So, to slow your breathing down simply sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.


Meditation takes the techniques of breathing one step further, in that meditation involves deliberately switching your brain’s focus to something simple, and in the present. Focussing on nothing – just breathing and turning off your thinking for while – does take some practice. Concentrating on something in the present (not thinking about the past or the future), tends to be easier and requires less practice, although ignoring all the other thoughts that routinely clamour for your attention might be hard when you first try it.

Focusing on the present moment is part of the practice of Mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation has been studied quite extensively over the last few decades, and has been shown to have benefits over a large number of psychological symptoms and disease states [4].

Sometimes it is easier to focus on something visual, that you can see easily in your field of view, or listen to something constant, like the ocean, or a metronome. The easiest thing to do is to again, focus on your breathing. Concentrate on the sound, rhythm and feeling of your breathing, but don’t engage your thoughts, or allow others to creep in. Meditation quietens the mind, which is excellent for reducing stress, and can help to revitalise and refresh your mind.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a step along from meditation. Instead of focussing on something tangible, guided imagery lets you imagine that you are somewhere pleasant, relaxing, or rejuvenating. Some people describe it as a vivid daydream.

Get comfortable, close your eyes and start to breathe slowly and deeply. Once you begin to relax, imagine your favourite scene. It could be at the beach, or in a log cabin in the snow-capped mountains, or swimming in the cool waters in a tropical rain-forest. Whatever you choose, try to imagine the scene in as much detail as possible, and involve all five of your senses if you can, like, for example, the cool water of the waterfall on your bare skin, the sounds of the birds in the trees, the smell of the moss-covered rocks, the canopy of tall trees and vines split by the waterfall and stream allowing the sunlight to spill in to the forest floor. Enjoy the details and the relaxation that this brings. To “come back”, some recommend counting back from ten or twenty, and to tell yourself that when you reach one, you will feel calm and refreshed.

Guided imagery allows you to actively replace the harassing thoughts of your daily routine with pleasant soothing thoughts. There is some early scientific literature suggesting effectiveness, although more research is required [5, 6]. Again, with practice, this can be done anywhere, and can be done quickly if you need a short break to unwind.


Visualisations build on the techniques of guided imagery, but instead of the rain-forest or tropical paradise, you imagine yourself achieving goals, which again could be anything from improving your health, closing that deal, or hitting that perfect drive from the first tee. Again, try and imagine the scene in as much detail as you can, and involve all of your senses.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or PMR for short, is similar to meditation, except that you contract, hold, and then relax your muscle groups in turn. You concentrate on the feel of the tightening and relaxing of the muscles instead of, or as well as, your breathing. Like meditation, it can be done anywhere and involves very little training.

The contraction of the muscle groups, beginning in your feet – working your way up the calves and thighs, tummy, chest, arms and neck, sequentially pumps all of the blood back towards your heart, giving you a boost of blood flow to your lungs. The deep breathing oxygenates this extra blood and hence, gives your brain a burst of oxygen.

Using PMR to meditate helps engage the vagal brake, and there is some evidence that it helps to reduce persistent pain [7, 8].


Exercise releases stress and enhances your physical health [9, 10]. It is flexible and easily adaptable – it is usually free and can often be done without any equipment. The downside is that it is not possible everywhere (you can’t go jogging in a plane), but as a daily discipline, it will enhance your physical and emotional wellbeing.

The benefits of exercise are firstly physical. It gets your heart pumping, the blood flowing and your lungs working to their full capacity. It builds physical fitness, which is important to enable the heart and lungs to work efficiently at all times. Exercise has effects on mood, improving depression [11] and anxiety [12].

It can also act as a form of meditation – the solitude of a run or swimming a few laps, concentrating only on the splash of your strokes or the pounding of your feet on the ground – is similar to meditation except that you’re moving (whereas meditation proper involves being still and relaxed). But the outcome is the same, and stress is often reduced by a session of physical exercise.


Music is almost as fundamental to human existance as breathing, and it’s almost as diverse as mankind itself. Listening to ones favourite music can enhance feelings of control and can increase pain tolerance and improve short term anxiety (stress) [13]. The common characteristics of ‘therapeutic’ music was music which had less tonal (pitch) variation, less prominent chord changes, bass lines, or strong melodies [14].

But the key element was personal preference overall, as some of the participants in the study chose music like Metallica. So enjoy music. Make it part of your day. Even Country and Western may be considered therapeutic!


Yoga is an ancient practice that has several components including physical postures (asanas), controlled breathing (pranayama), deep relaxation, and meditation.

It’s not for everyone, but it has clearly defined and scientifically validated benefits to your physical and psychological well-being. “It is hypothesized that yoga combines the effects of physical postures, which have been independently associated with mood changes and meditation which increases the levels of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Other effects that have been noted include increased vagal tone, increased gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) levels, increase in serum prolactin, downregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and decrease in serum cortisol, and promotion of frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) alpha wave activity which improves relaxation.” [15] So, translated: Yoga is good for stress relief!

Most gyms and community centres will have yoga instructors, so go ahead and make some enquiries.


I love massage! The first time I had a proper massage was in the small city of Launceston in the tiny Australian state of Tasmania. After just 30 minutes of the therapist kneading my muscles with her fingers of iron, I felt pretty good, but when I sat up, I was actually light-headed for a little while. My heart rate and blood pressure had reduced so much that it took me a while before I could stand up properly!

Deep pressure massage has also been shown to help release the vagal brake enhancing the activity of the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) part of the autonomic nervous system. There is good evidence of this effect in pre-term infants [16]. The evidence for adults isn’t so strong, although that’s probably because of a lack of quality research [17]. The good studies that have been done show a reduction of cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate after massage, with some studies showing small persistent effects [17].

The data might be thin, but there is enough evidence to make it worth trying at least once.


I add probiotics to this list as a reference for the future. There is good evidence of the anxiolytic effect of having a friendly bacteria garden in your intestines that interacts with your gut and your immune system in positive ways. But there is, at this point, very little in the way of good quality human clinical trials. And we still don’t know exactly which strains of probiotics are the most helpful for different conditions [18, 19]. But given that they are unlikely to be harmful, it may be worth trailing a course of probiotics, and see how you feel in 30 days.

The bottom line – stress is not the enemy. Sure, if it isn’t handled right, stress can overwhelm us and make us sick, but most of the time, stress makes us productive and strong, and helps us to grow. So, don’t stress about stress.


  1. McEwen, B.S. and Wingfield, J.C., What is in a name? Integrating homeostasis, allostasis and stress. Horm Behav, 2010. 57(2): 105-11 doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.09.011
  2. Chrousos, G.P., Stress and disorders of the stress system. Nat Rev Endocrinol, 2009. 5(7): 374-81 doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2009.106
  3. McEwen, B.S., Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? J Psychiatry Neurosci, 2005. 30(5): 315-8 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16151535
  4. Keng, S.L., et al., Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev, 2011. 31(6): 1041-56 doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
  5. Jallo, N., et al., The biobehavioral effects of relaxation guided imagery on maternal stress. Adv Mind Body Med, 2009. 24(4): 12-22 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20671330
  6. Trakhtenberg, E.C., The effects of guided imagery on the immune system: a critical review. Int J Neurosci, 2008. 118(6): 839-55 doi: 10.1080/00207450701792705
  7. Baird, C.L. and Sands, L., A pilot study of the effectiveness of guided imagery with progressive muscle relaxation to reduce chronic pain and mobility difficulties of osteoarthritis. Pain Manag Nurs, 2004. 5(3): 97-104 doi: 10.1016/j.pmn.2004.01.003
  8. Morone, N.E. and Greco, C.M., Mind-body interventions for chronic pain in older adults: a structured review. Pain Med, 2007. 8(4): 359-75 doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2007.00312.x
  9. Fletcher, G.F., et al., Statement on exercise: benefits and recommendations for physical activity programs for all Americans. A statement for health professionals by the Committee on Exercise and Cardiac Rehabilitation of the Council on Clinical Cardiology, American Heart Association. Circulation, 1996. 94(4): 857-62 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8772712
  10. Warburton, D.E., et al., Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ, 2006. 174(6): 801-9 doi: 10.1503/cmaj.051351
  11. Rimer, J., et al., Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2012. 7: CD004366 doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub5
  12. DeBoer, L.B., et al., Exploring exercise as an avenue for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Expert Rev Neurother, 2012. 12(8): 1011-22 doi: 10.1586/ern.12.73
  13. MacDonald, R.A., Music, health, and well-being: a review. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being, 2013. 8: 20635 doi: 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20635
  14. Knox, D., et al., Acoustic analysis and mood classification of pain-relieving music. J Acoust Soc Am, 2011. 130(3): 1673-82 doi: 10.1121/1.3621029
  15. Balasubramaniam, M., et al., Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders. Front Psychiatry, 2012. 3: 117 doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00117
  16. Field, T., et al., Preterm infant massage therapy research: a review. Infant Behav Dev, 2010. 33(2): 115-24 doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.12.004
  17. Moraska, A., et al., Physiological adjustments to stress measures following massage therapy: a review of the literature. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2010. 7(4): 409-18 doi: 10.1093/ecam/nen029
  18. Bested, A.C., et al., Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances: Part II – contemporary contextual research. Gut Pathog, 2013. 5(1): 3 doi: 10.1186/1757-4749-5-3
  19. Bested, A.C., et al., Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances: part III – convergence toward clinical trials. Gut Pathog, 2013. 5(1): 4 doi: 10.1186/1757-4749-5-4

Going green – why envy is an adaptive process

The Bible says, in Job 5:2, “For wrath kills a foolish man, And envy slays a simple one.”

A German proverb goes, “Envy eats nothing, but its own heart.”

Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, posted today on her social media feeds, “Jealousy and envy creates damage in the brain … but … celebrating others protects the brain!”

Yes, sometimes envy isn’t good for us. Emotions guide our thought process, and like all emotions that are out of balance, too much envy can cloud our better rational judgement and bias our perception of the world. Thankfully, envy doesn’t literally eat out our hearts or literally cause brain damage.

If anything, envy when experienced in a balanced way can actually improve our brain functioning. According to real cognitive neuroscientists, envy and regret are emotions that help us because they both fulfil the role of effectively evaluating our past actions, which improves our choices in the future. As Coricelli and Rustichini noted, “envy and regret, as well as their positive counterparts, share the common nature that is hypothesized in the functional role explanation: they are affective responses to the counterfactual evaluation of what we could have gotten had we made a different choice. Envy has, like regret, a functional explanation in adaptive learning.” [1]

When it comes to the human psyche, there is no black or white, good vs evil distinction between different feelings or emotions. B-grade life coaches and slick pseudoscience salespeople dumb down our emotions into a false dichotomy because it helps sell their message (and their books). Every emotion can be either helpful or unhelpful depending on their context in each individual.

As Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck wrote, “Emotion is integral to all phases of the coping process, from vigilance, detection, and appraisals of threat to action readiness and coordinating responses during stressful encounters. However, adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of emotional reactions. In fact, emotions like anger have important adaptive functions, such as readying a person to sweep away an obstacle, as well communicating these intentions to others. Adaptive coping profits from flexible access to a range of genuine emotions as well as the ongoing cooperation of emotions with other components of the action system.” [2]

If you find your thoughts and feelings tinged by the greenish hue of envy, don’t worry, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your heart isn’t going to consume itself and you won’t sustain any brain damage. Use envy or regret as tools of learning, tools to help you evaluate your choices so that you make a better choice next time. Having balanced emotions is the key to learning and growing, coping with whatever obstacles life throws at us.


  1. Coricelli, G. and Rustichini, A., Counterfactual thinking and emotions: regret and envy learning. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2010. 365(1538): 241-7 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0159
  2. 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

Dr Caroline Leaf and the law of great power

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Tonight as I was flicking through Facebook one last time, a post caught my eye. It read,

“The thought you are thinking right now is impacting every single one of the 75-100 trillion cells in your brain and body at quantum speeds”

Dr Leafs social media gem gave me an eerie sense of deja vu. It was only the end of October when she posted the same factoid on social media. Today’s version has been tweaked slightly, although in all fairness, I can’t describe it as an upgrade.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. On the 23rd of October 2014, she posted this on her social media stream, “Every thought you think impacts every one of the 75-100 trillion cells in your body at quantum speeds!”

On comparing the pair, Dr Leaf has added “brain” into the number of cells under the influence, and then massaged the opening slightly. I already had significant concern about the scientific validity of the previous meme in October. That hasn’t changed. Rather than improving the accuracy of her meme, Dr Leaf’s changes have left it missing the mark.

The fundamental fallacy that thoughts are the main controlling influence on our brain is still there. Thought is simply a conscious projection of one part of the overall function of our brain. Our brains function perfectly well without thought. Thought, on the other hand, doesn’t exist without the brain. Our brain cells influence our thoughts, not the other way around.

The myth of “quantum speeds” is still there. Our neurones interact with each other via electrochemical mechanisms. Like all other macroscopic objects, our brains follow the laws of classical physics. It’s not that quantum physics doesn’t apply to our brains, because quantum mechanics applies to all particles, but if you think you can explain macroscopic behaviour using quantum physics, then you should also try and explain Schrodingers Cat (see also chapter 13 of my book [1] for a longer discussion on quantum physics). Dr Leaf is particularly brave to make such bold statements about quantum physics when even quantum physicists find it mysterious.

What made me slightly embarrassed for Dr Leaf is the new part of her statement. In my blog on Dr Leaf’s previous attempt at this meme, I pointed out that Dr Leaf’s estimate of the number of cells in our body was more than three times that of the estimate of scientists at the Smithsonian (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/there-are-372-trillion-cells-in-your-body-4941473/?no-ist). The fact that Dr Leaf so badly estimated, when all she needed to do was a one line Google search, suggested that she just made the number up. Failing to cite her source eroded at her credibility as a scientist.

Today, Dr Leaf still claims that there are 75-100 trillion cells in the brain and the body. The Smithsonian still hasn’t changed its estimate. Dr Leaf still hasn’t cited her source, and has ignored a world-renowned scientific institution. Perhaps Dr Leaf believes she knows more than the scientists at the Smithsonian? Perhaps she has a better reference? We’ll never know unless she cites it.

Taken as a whole, her meme is no closer to the truth than it was six weeks ago. Some may ask if it really matters. “Who cares if we have 37.2 trillion cells or 100 trillion cells or even 100 billion trillion”. “So what if our thoughts influence us or not.” If this was just a matter of a pedantic argument between some scientists over a coffee one morning,then I’d agree, it wouldn’t be so important. But Dr Leaf claims to be an expert, and more than 100,000 people read her memes on Facebook and many more on Twitter, Instagram, and the various other forms of social media she is connected to. Nearly every one of those people take Dr Leaf at her word. Ultimately the issue is trust.

If Dr Leaf can misreport such a simple, easily sourced fact, and not just once but twice now, then what does that mean for her other factoids and memes that she regularly posts on social media? If Dr Leaf incorrectly says that every thought we think impacts every cell in our body, then hundreds of thousands of people are wasting their mental and physical energy on trying to control their thoughts when it makes no real difference, and if anything might make their mental health worse [2, 3].

This is more than just a pedantic discussion over a trivial fact.  These memes matter to people, and can potentially influence the health and wellbeing of many thousands of lives.

Peter Parker, quoting Voltaire, said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Just because Spiderman said it doesn’t diminish the profundity of that statement.  This law of great power applies to Dr Leaf as much as it does to Spiderman.  I hope and pray that she gives this law of great power the consideration it deserves.


  1. 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
  2. Garland, E.L., et al., Thought suppression, impaired regulation of urges, and Addiction-Stroop predict affect-modulated cue-reactivity among alcohol dependent adults. Biol Psychol, 2012. 89(1): 87-93 doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.09.010
  3. Kavanagh, D.J., et al., Tests of the elaborated intrusion theory of craving and desire: Features of alcohol craving during treatment for an alcohol disorder. Br J Clin Psychol, 2009. 48(Pt 3): 241-54 doi: 10.1348/014466508X387071