Who, what, when, where and why? Five words. Five good questions to start any book.
Who am I? My name is Dr Christopher Edward Pitt MBBS FRACGP, but I write as Dr C. Edward Pitt to honour my father, Edward Pitt. I am a General Practitioner (or Family Physician in some parts of the world). I work in the booming northern growth corridor of Brisbane, Australia. I have been studying and working in medicine over 20 years.
What is this book about? As the title suggests, it is a reappraisal of the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, a South African communication pathologist now residing in the US. Dr Leaf states she is a cognitive neuroscientist, and is one of the most popular Christian authors in the western world. While Dr Leaf has published many works, my review centres on the two books that encapsulate her core teachings.
When and where: This book is the culmination of sixteen months of research and writing in my spare time (usually in the middle of the night and on weekends, much to my wife’s chagrin). This book is available worldwide via the major eBook distributors and the Internet.
Most importantly, why?
“Why criticise Dr Leaf? She is a global Christian phenomenon, teaching from pulpits around the world, endorsed by some of Christianity’s most famous leaders. Surely there’s nothing to reappraise? Is it even Biblical to publically speak against an anointed leader?”
These are just some of the questions I have been asked by my friends during the last year and a half as I have shared some of my research with them.
These are important questions to answer straight off the bat. I want to start by looking at the difference between critique and criticism. The words sound so much alike, it’s easy to assume they’re the same thing. Actually, they’re poles apart.
Criticism is fault finding on a personal level, “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.”  Attacking Dr Leaf’s personal beliefs or intentions would be criticism. A critique, on the other hand, is “a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.”  We all need ideas to be critiqued. That is how ideas are tested and knowledge grows. Without critique of scientific theories and findings, we would still be living in mud huts as hunter-gatherers.
Just because Dr Leaf is a Christian leader does not preclude her from critique. She is a scientist, writing about scientific facts and theories. Her work deserves interrogation and analysis like any other scientific work. There is also a Biblical imperative to question, not just to implicitly accept, what we are taught by Christian leaders. In 2 Peter 2:1-3, Peter notes that there are many false prophets that we need to be wary of. Without critique, how do Christians see both sides of an argument and make up their own minds? And 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “test everything; hold on to the good”. How is one supposed to know what is good if no critique is offered, if only one position is provided? Don’t stress, I’m not saying Dr Leaf is a false prophet. But scripture is clear; it’s ok to ask questions, to look at both sides of a discussion, to critique and to be critiqued.
It’s my intention to be as impartial as possible. Some people may interpret what I say as more personal than objective, and if I do slip from critique into criticism, I apologise. But I am still human after all.
The other question that I’m asked is why I even need to critique Dr Leaf’s work at all? She must have her facts straight if she is preaching at some of the biggest churches on the planet, right? To be honest, I started reading her books with the same assumption in mind. But as my first consultant told me, on my very first ward round, on my first day as a doctor, “When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’”. Keep an open mind as you read this book. In fact, I encourage you to look at the quotes from Dr Leaf’s work to satisfy yourself that I’m not misquoting her, and check out my references for yourself so that you know I’m not misinterpreting the science. Decide for yourself whether what I’ve said is right or not.
I have written the book in four sections. In the first section, I outline the basics of neurobiology especially as it applies to thought, from the nerve cell all the way through to the complex interplay of neural networks. I define what a thought is, and what are often mistaken for thoughts. I discuss the current scientific theory of the neurobiology of thought – where thought is housed in our brains, and how the neural networks influence it. I also outline some of the key psychological models of thought.
I spend some time in fleshing out a model which I call the Cognitive-Action Pathways model, a generic paradigm of the human neurophysiological information processing system, encompassing the different components that form the basis of our thoughts and actions. I use Autism Spectrum Disorder as an example of how changes in genes, the most fundamental part of the model, flow on to effect every other part of the sequence, influencing every action taken by a person on the autism spectrum.
Within this model, I propose that thoughts aren’t actually integral to the sequence from initial sensory input to the final action, but instead act as a monitor allowing us some conscious awareness of the ongoing neural activity underneath.
This model shows that thought has, at best, a small impact on the rest of the neurocognitive system. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the underlying problem common to mental health disorders is not thought, but the processes that underlie thought. Therefore, treating the mental health disorders does not involve targeting thought any more than fixing your computer software involves replacing your monitor.
Secondly, the model demonstrates that Dr Leaf’s concept of thought is critically flawed. Thought is a form of output from the system, not the controlling force. Thought in and of itself does not control our lives. Neither can we ever be fully in control of our thoughts, because our thoughts are dependent on a number of other components in the system, most of which we do not have any control over. Nor does thought cause stress. We may be aware of stress changes within our internal processing systems because of certain patterns of thoughts but those thought patterns are the end result, not the cause.
In section 2, I consider the topic of stress in more detail. I discuss the various concepts of stress, and I demonstrate that stress is not toxic in the majority of circumstances. Indeed, stress is beneficial more times than it is harmful.
In the very short section 3, I bring the first two sections together, comparing what science currently says with Dr Leafs fundamental assumptions, highlighting the weakness of Dr Leaf’s foundational concepts.
Section 4 speaks to the numerous errors that Dr Leaf makes in trying to build a case for her assumptions. I show that Dr Leaf’s “evidence” for her assumptions and arguments are archaic, biased, or outright contradictory. I also fact-check Dr Leaf’s chapters on epigenetics and quantum physics, highlighting the factual errors presented and the false conclusions drawn. I review another of Dr Leaf’s long held theories, that the heart is a mini-brain.
The book is long, and can be heavy going at times. If it’s too much to digest all at once, break it up into sections, or use it as a reference to review Dr Leaf’s books, or ongoing posts on social media.
If you still agree with Dr Leaf at the end of the book, that’s fine. The aim of this book isn’t to win an argument, but to be the alternative voice, to collate the scientific evidence that doesn’t necessarily unite with Dr Leaf’s various theories, so that you could more easily decide for yourself. If that’s what I’ve achieved, I’m satisfied.
“Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
It was a cold night in July 2013. I took up my position at my computer at the end of the day to do something important, and as usual, I wound up flicking through Facebook instead. A link to a Time article caught my attention.
“Rick Warren Preaches First Sermon Since His Son’s Suicide.
Almost four months after their son committed suicide, Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay addressed their congregation for the first time, promising to remove the stigma of mental illness from the church.”
Reading the article moved me immensely. It took me quite a long time to finish the article, as the flood of emotions was overwhelming, and the stream of tears made it difficult to read the words.
I was moved by Rick Warren’s remarkable courage and vulnerability. I was also moved by his openness in confronting depression, a phenomenon that is overwhelming our culture despite our best attempts to ignore or suppress it.
Depression remains largely hidden by our outward displays of invincibility or perfection. No one wants to see our pain, our tears or our weakness, and wearing our mask of social acceptability helps us to hide them. But while we try and keep depression out of sight, it doesn’t make it out of mind. It is widely prevalent among us. For every seven people that you see around you, one of them will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. Six percent of people are clinically depressed at this moment. Considering the numbers, you would think that people would have learnt to deal with depression in an understanding and sensible way. But still, people without depression think people with depression are weak, malingering, or mentally unstable.
It’s these sorts of assumptions, or just plain old ignorance, that keep people from identifying their depression, from seeking help when they know that something is wrong, or from accepting treatment when they’re given a diagnosis. It’s the voice of their friends or family in their heads telling them that they’re ok. Just have a laugh or have a drink, you’ll be fine. It’s remembering how their co-workers vilified that girl in the office when she said she was depressed, and not wanting the same treatment. It’s the shame and self-condemnation of not being able to cope. It’s the internal conflict of having everything, and yet feeling like you have nothing.
Depression is a dark, lonely and tormenting place. I know, because I suffer from it. In the two years that I was at my lowest, I was moody. I was emotional. I exploded in anger or melted in tears. I was sullen. I hardly ever laughed, because I didn’t find anything funny. It felt like my soul had been drained from me.
I couldn’t face anyone socially. I am not a socialite at the best of times, but the thought of having to go out to engage with friends and family was draining, sometimes physically distressing. When I was dragged out, I was withdrawn.
This is where the stigma of depression, and depression itself, feed into each other. I was so depressed that I didn’t want to interact with people, and when I did, I was sullen and withdrawn. This was not interpreted as depression by other people, but as arrogance. Besides, even if they knew I was depressed, it’s not exactly an endearing quality. Who would want to hang around with someone who had the charm and charisma of a dead fish?
The complete absence of joy and pleasure in anything was difficult enough. But the existential angst was even more tormenting. I questioned my salvation. I questioned God’s love. I was plagued by the fear that I would die a lonely useless failure, unloved and unlovable. I occasionally questioned the existence of God himself.
I knew what the Bible said, and if anything, that haunted me more. I couldn’t understand why I could love God, serve Him and live for Him, and still not have any joy. God is perfect, so the obvious conclusion was that it was my fault that I was feeling this way. It must have been my sin, my selfishness, my … something! The self-loathing that resulted from this way of thinking compounded my already poor mood and made me feel even worse than I already was.
Ironically, all of this was aggravated by church. Incessantly chirpy people with permanent beaming smiles were everywhere. In a typical large church, you can be peppered by the standard church greeting up to twenty times before you even reach your seat. It always follows the same pattern: “Hey! How are you today? Isn’t it a great day to be in church? / Isn’t God good? / Isn’t it wonderful to be alive?”
Despite being rhetorical questions, they still reminded me just how awful I felt. I toyed with the idea of replying truthfully, but answering, “Oh, I’m just having an existential crisis” would have ended in explaining myself to some well-meaning but ill-equipped wannabe-counselor, or being assessed as a dysfunctional twerp. So I just kept suppressing my pain and lied, “Oh, I’m just a bit tired … you know … work …”.
Thoughts of “It would be so much easier if I wasn’t here” came to me at different times. I never seriously contemplated suicide, but I understand why people do. Depression deprives you of hope. I was literally hope-less. Paul wrote that there abides three things - faith, hope and love. I had none of them.
During all of this time I kept working. I didn’t go to work because I gained any satisfaction from it. I went more out of mindless habit. I could smile for patients, carry on a pithy conversation, and even counsel people about their own depression, all the while hiding my own.
The first meaningful step in my recovery came when I went to see a psychologist. I don’t actually remember what we talked about specifically, although I do remember going through most of the tissues he had in his office as I unloaded years of emotional turmoil and despair with someone who accepted me without judgment or disdain.
I also came to understand “the wilderness”. I was depressed, but I was in good company. Moses, David and Elijah spent time in the physical wilderness, and each of them went through periods of mental destitution as well as physical deprivation. But I identify with Peter most of all.
Peter was with Jesus, the Messiah himself, everyday for nearly three years. He heard all of Jesus’ words, he saw the miracles and even witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus where the physical and spiritual realms blended together in magnificent glory. He must have felt the surge of the Holy Spirit’s power as he watched Jesus teach, heal, and love the people that swarmed him. Such a privileged place in history must have made the pain of his crash all the more intense. Peter must have experienced some of the deepest loss, most abject sense of failure and most profound alienation that any human could feel when he rejected the Messiah, his friend. Even seeing the empty tomb on Resurrection Sunday couldn’t overcome his sense of despair and worthlessness. He drifted back to his old life of fishing, giving up on life with God completely.
I found hope in Peter’s restoration. Jesus went to Peter and found him desolate and frustrated, toiling all night with absolutely nothing to show for it. Jesus not only gave Peter the biggest catch of fish in his life, but showed him such a profound depth of understanding and kindness over breakfast on the shore. Peter may have abandoned Jesus, but Jesus never abandoned Peter. If Jesus still loved Peter in spite of all his flaws, then surely Jesus still loved me.
I have come out the other side of my depression now, with a much deeper, fuller appreciation of what it is to be human. The textbook description of depression that I was familiar with was nothing compared with actually experiencing it. When I talk to people with depression now, I can wholeheartedly empathize.
Rick Warren talked about the stigma of mental health. I can sincerely relate with this as well. It’s hard enough for non-Christians to admit they’re depressed, but there’s an extra layer of misunderstanding when it comes to the church, especially the charismatic churches. It’s a passion, perhaps even my calling, to help bridge the gap. People with depression, and indeed, all those who suffer any form of mental distress, need to be understood and accepted without judgement, not written off as weak or worthless.
Dr Leaf has been writing about toxic thoughts since the mid-1990s. Just as Dr Leaf was formulating her theory of toxic thoughts based on the dominant psychological model of the time, a new wave of understanding our thoughts and actions was gathering momentum. In the last twenty years, the “third wave” of cognitive and behavioural therapies, specifically a therapy called ACT, has overtaken the previous concept of thought. But while the rest of the world has begun to adopt a new way of understanding the relationships of thought and behaviour, Dr Leaf has remained steadfastly attached to the old model.
It’s important that Dr Leaf is acknowledged for the good she has brought to the church. Dr Leaf has brought awareness of psychological issues to the Christian church, and there’s no doubt that Dr Leaf’s writing and teaching have helped some people through difficult situations.
But health and life relies on renewal. Our skin cells, our blood, our muscles, even the synapses between our brain cells, are all constantly replenished – old is replaced by new. Science is the same, each new level of knowledge building upon the old. Unfortunately, Dr Leaf has not kept up. Dr Leaf’s theories may have had a place in the past but they have now been superseded. Dr Leaf has forced new facts to fit her old theory, rather than develop her theory to fit the facts.
The Bible says it’s like new wine in old wineskins. In everyday life, it’s like trying on your old skinny jeans from ten years ago. You may think they still fit, but your new body doesn’t quite match your old shape, and even if you get those pants on after struggling for half an hour, they’re tight, restrictive, and just plain uncomfortable. New information may seem like it still fits into the old theories, but like those skinny jeans, forcing new into old is difficult, restrictive and uncomfortable. New information needs new theories to hold them best.
So that’s what this book is about – fitting the growing body of scientific evidence on thought and stress into concepts that fit best, and displaying them for everyone to see. In doing so, I hope that the mental health knowledge gap would continue to shrink, and that one day in the not-to-distant future, pastors like Rick Warren won’t have to stand in front of their congregations and promise to remove the stigma of mental health from the church, because it will have already gone.
Just as I was about to publish the book on-line, I heard the tragic news of the death of Robin Williams. The world has lost a truly remarkable man. I saw him perform live only the once. Such was the piercing sharpness and rapidity of his humour that my mind couldn’t keep up, but he enlivened my soul in a raw, pre-cognitive way that I’ve never experienced, before nor since.
Williams was a man conflicted in the most ironic of ways - one of the funniest people to ever grace the earth, at the same time, tormented by the depths of despair and darkness. It was like his soul was a pair of theatre masks.
If there’s any good that can come from in this profound loss, I hope it’s this: That we understand that depression is serious, it kills people if not properly treated, and sometimes all the positive emotion in the world is not enough to pull you out of the darkness.
If you’re feeling depressed, anxious, morbid, low or distressed, make sure you get the best help you can get from your doctor or psychologist.
~ Vale Robin Williams, 21/7/1951 ~ 11/8/2014. You will be truly missed ~