Dr Caroline Leaf and Zombie Chemical Imbalance Myth

Sometimes if you tell a story often enough, people forget that it’s just a story and it takes on a life of its own. It’s like a zombie … the story isn’t real but it continues to wander around eating people’s brains and it’s very hard to kill off.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also believes that reading a few blogs from fringe psychologists entitles her to call herself a mental health expert. She is the Christian church’s pin-up girl for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Dr Leaf recently posted a blog on “The Chemical Imbalance Myth”. It’s a zombie. She’s posted on this before (on the 26th of October 2015 to be precise) but her blog post in 2015 was so inaccurate that she later took it down, only for it to resurface later on her website (in the section dubiously titled “Scientific FAQ”).

And like every good zombie, it’s resurfaced again. Dr Leaf hasn’t changed any of the inaccuracies that forced her to take down the original post, but instead added a couple of extra bits in, mixed it up a little and then just served it up, like a reheated bowl of rancid Christmas scraps.

I won’t go through each and every point like I did with her previous iteration of this blog, although if you want to review my more in-depth analysis of this subject, then please feel free to read my previous blog post: https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/26/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-myth-of-chemical-imbalances-myth/. But I thought it was worth highlighting a couple of key things from this year’s fetid reincarnation which are so flawed that not even a B-grade science fiction writer would seriously entertain them.

THE MIND AND THE BRAIN

Dr Leaf says:

“In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life.” This is based on her underlying assumption that the brain doesn’t control the mind, but instead the mind controls the brain.

However, she also says that “Psychotropic drugs can directly affect our health, with side effects such as an increased risk of suicide, loss of sexual ability, potential brain shrinkage, agitation, insomnia, weight gain and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, lethargy, mental fog, emotional apathy, homicide”.

This statement is really ignorant and prejudiced; psychiatric drugs don’t make people into murderers for a start.

But the most striking flaw of all is that Dr Leaf is contradicting herself. She confidently asserts that psychotropic medications and their terrible chemical imbalances have ghastly side effects on emotional and cognitive functions such as “mental fog” and “emotional apathy”. But how can that be? After all, if the brain does not control the mind as she says, then the medications affecting the brain would not have any effect on the mind.

Dr Leaf can’t have it both ways – either her entire ministry is built on a false premise (the brain really controls the mind after all) or her dire assertions about psychiatric medications are unfounded (chemical imbalances in the brain can’t cause effects on the mind).

One way or the other, Dr Leaf has a serious problem in her reasoning.

Real science has clearly demonstrated that the mind is a product of the brain. Things that alter the structure of the brain (trauma, tumours) or the function of the brain (medications like ropinirole, every day drugs like caffeine, or illicit drugs like LSD) can all cause changes in how the mind functions with resulting changes in behaviour.

If Dr Leaf isn’t able to get the basics of science right and make even the most basic cogent argument then how can she be trusted to speak to more complicated issues surrounding mental health and illness.

DR LEAF’S RESEARCH

Dr Leaf has never been one to undersell her scientific work. Accordingly, in her blog post she says:

Following a similar research path, I have also demonstrated, using my research on the power of mind-action in changing the brain, that mental disorders are primarily based in the mind …

I have researched the effectiveness of mind action techniques (which are thought-based) in overcoming the negative effects of neurological issues such as TBI, dementias, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma as well as various cognitive, emotional and mental health issues …

My Geodesic Learning Theory has been shown not only to be effective in mental health care, but also treating physical damage to the brain that occurs in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disabilities and to improve learning techniques in both schools and the corporate world …

my research and experience indicated that many of these conditions were influenced by, or originated in, a disorder of the mind that was either caused by a trauma or negative thinking patterns. In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life.

And yet the reality is that Dr Leaf only did one PhD in South Africa, and has not done any other university based research since. Her PhD did not look at “the power of mind-action in changing the brain”. In fact, her research didn’t focus on mental health or illness at all, and it certainly didn’t focus on dementias, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma, cognitive, emotional or mental health issues.

Her PhD was the evaluation of her Geodesic Learning Theory on a group of very normal students in a South African School. None of them had dementia. None of the other conditions were mentioned either. The overall results were likely due to chance, and in some cases, her intervention made the students grades worsen. The only other research that Dr Leaf performed was a similar intervention in come schools in Dallas, but the results were much the same as her PhD and given the unflattering results, this study was never published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dr Leaf should know what she studied for her own research, and yet her description in her current blog post is so strikingly different from what is on the public record. So again, this begs the question – how can someone who is so wrong about her own research be trusted with any level of authority in any other subject?

PREJUDICE AGAINST MENTAL ILLNESS

For someone who claims to be an expert on mental health, Dr Leaf is extremely callous and dismissive of those people who suffer from mental illnesses. She repeatedly uses quotation marks to refer to mental illnesses, like ‘“diseases” like depression’ as if to suggest that they aren’t illnesses at all. Can you imagine if this same level of disrespect was applied to someone with a physical disability? That people in wheelchairs have the “disability” of paraplegia, for example. It’s extremely disrespectful and intolerant whether it is speaking about a physical disability or a mental illness.

The other thing which is highly inappropriate is her scare-mongering about psychiatric treatments. Psychiatric patients are not imprisoned, drugged, locked in solitary confinement and compelled to “live their days marinating in their own excrement.” I doubt whether Dr Leaf has ever set foot in a psychiatric facility. She is simply regurgitating the information fed to her by alarmist groups such as Mad In America, a group of psychologically trained rogue extremists – the Taliban of the world of psychiatry. It’s propaganda in it’s purest form, but Dr Leaf takes it at face value and repeats it no matter how inaccurate it actually is.

Dr Leaf’s criticism of modern psychiatry is breathtaking in it’s ignorance, especially in the face of published science, but what makes it more concerning is that it is internally inconsistent her own teaching, and this isn’t the first time that she’s contradicted herself.

Dr Leaf should take down this ignorant, inaccurate and intolerant post. This particular zombie myth needs to be buried once and for all.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the genetic remodelling myth

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We are all slowly mutating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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