Rewiring the Brain through Neuroplasticity, with Dr. Caroline Leaf
In this episode, we discuss:
- Caroline’s background in neuroscience
- The mind–brain connection
- How the conscious mind and nonconscious mind help to dictate our actions
- Using the mind: managing our responses to uncontrollable circumstances
- Building resilience and grit through neuroplasticity and mind management
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome Dr. Caroline Leaf as a guest. She’s a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a master’s [degree] and Ph.D. in communication pathology and a bachelor’s [degree] in logopedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.
Since the early 1980s, she’s researched the mind–brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in the field to study how the brain can change, which is neuroplasticity. We’ve discussed that several times, one of my favorite topics, with direct mind input. Dr. Leaf has helped hundreds of thousands of students and adults learn how to use their mind to detox and grow their brain to succeed in every area of their lives, including school, university, and the workplace through her theory called the Geodesic Information Processing Theory of how we think, build memory, and learn.
I’m really looking forward to this conversation. I’m fascinated by neuroplasticity and the implications of that very exciting field for both physical and mental health. So let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Dr. Caroline Leaf, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
Caroline Leaf: Oh, thank you, Chris. I’m really excited to be on your show. Love what you do.
Chris Kresser: So, before we dive into the topic of your most recent book, I want to learn a little bit more about you and your background and what brought you to the work that you’re doing right now. You were really a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity, which is definitely an interest of mine, and I’ve talked a lot about it on the show. So how did you get interested in that? And I’d love to hear, as well, I know early on, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of neuroplasticity in the field of neuroscience. Old ideas die hard, right?
Caroline Leaf: Oh gosh.
Chris Kresser: So tell us a little bit about that experience that you had getting into that early on and the resistance that you faced and what unfolded from there.
Caroline Leaf: Thank you, that’s such a great question, Chris, because it’s exactly what happened. Back in the ‘80s, when I was studying and started out as a young scientist, the going philosophy of that time was that the brain couldn’t change. And it just didn’t make any sense. I remember sitting in my neuroscience lectures, and I was doing a super interesting degree that was a combination of neuroscience, medicine, linguistics, communication, all these different led, kind of experimenting with this degree and that mixed two degrees together, and it was really heavy going. And I remember thinking, why am I doing this to myself?
But in retrospect, I’m so pleased I did because I would never have gone into … I was going to be doing neurosurgery, I was going to do that and then go into neurosurgery. And I’m so glad I didn’t because I was sitting in a lecture once, and one of the professors said, “Maybe there is a difference between the mind, and maybe we can change your brain even though we don’t think we can.” And that was all I needed. And I started asking the questions, started my research. Most of my professors said that’s a ridiculous question. I actually did a TEDx Talk on that. But I pursued [it]. I took an area of research; I worked with people with traumatic brain injuries. There was very little research done on them in that time period because they believed that, well, why work on a brain that can’t change. So why do research? Which is such a crazy question.
So I was like, well, give me the worst situation. So they said, “Okay, take traumatic brain injury, [and] see what you could do.” And that was, as I said, the challenge I needed. And I ran with it and developed, started researching what is [the] mind, what is [the] brain, what’s the relationship. What is a thought, what is a memory, and how can we systematically drive our mind to change our brain to change our behaviors? And I did, as you mentioned, some of the first neuroplasticity research in my field [at] that time. And by the mid-’90s, it was accepted that the brain could change. And so I watched over the 38 years of my career so far, and I saw the change happening of people recognizing that, hey, we can change our brain.
But then an interesting thing happened, Chris. In the ‘80s, even when they said the brain couldn’t change, there was still this idea of the whole person and the narrative of the whole person and person’s suffering in terms of context and mind and brain potentially being separate and that sort of understanding. And then, as we became more neuro-focused and neuro-reductionistic, everything became about the brain. Everything was, “Well, the brain made me do it.” So we’re currently in an era where, and it’s wonderful that we have this research on the brain, but it has been at the expense of the mind. And the mind, research has been very much relegated to the realm of the philosopher and saying that this is the hard question of science. We need to focus on what we can see and touch and hear and feel, and the mind was pushed aside. And now the narrative is that the brain produces the mind, and their thoughts are generated from the brain. And that’s not even accurate.
It’s not, if you look at the actual research studies, people are doing things. They’re in the studies doing stuff, being told to respond to a picture or talk about their life or something. So they’re thinking and feeling and choosing, and then the brain is being measured in response. So it’s kind of back to front, because then they say, “Oh, the brain made them do that.” So that worried me a lot. That trajectory really concerned me, and it’s why I pursued the avenue that I went into, which was to develop a theory of mind and understand how it works. What is a thought, what is memory, what is the difference between the mind and the brain, how do they relate, and the biggest question of all, can we control our mind? Do we have a sense of agency? And if we do, how, what, what do we do?
And for my [patients with traumatic brain injury], it was phenomenal, because they were going from literally being written off to being able to go back to school or get university degrees and go back to work. And I was working in all kinds of environments. War-torn Rwanda and apartheid, South Africa and post-apartheid South Africa, and all different socioeconomic classes and groups and corporates and schools, and I went everywhere in every situation that I could get into to do behavioral research and clinical application to understand the human mind and how people basically function. And that’s basically, I ended up, and I’ve written 19 [books]. This is my 19th book, and this is the pinnacle of my books because it really hones in on the accumulation of my research over the years of what mind is and so on, and how we can manage it, how we do have a sense of agency, and how we need to develop that and train this through for our kids. We need to be teaching our kids as young as two and three about their mind and how to develop their mind, because your mind is always with you.
You wake up with your mind, you go to bed with your mind, you eat with your mind, [and] we’re using our mind now. So we need to know how to, we need to understand our mind, and that’s really what this book is about.
Chris Kresser: Great. Yeah, this is something that I’m, as I mentioned, really fascinated with, and we could go down a number of different rabbit holes. But I recently read [Annaka] Harris’s book Conscious. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it.
Caroline Leaf: [I’ve] heard[of] it, but I haven’t read it yet.
Chris Kresser: It’s very good. She summarizes a lot of the current dialogue and debate around consciousness and what it is and the hard problem, which you just referred to. The hard problem of consciousness.
So, just to frame the discussion that we’re going to dive into for folks maybe who haven’t given this as much thought, can we at the risk, again, of going down some rabbit holes, can we come up with some definitions for the mind, the brain, how the mind is distinct from the brain, how the mind is connected to the brain, and maybe even consciousness if that’s something we can do realistically in a short period?
Caroline Leaf: Oh, absolutely. Yes, it’s a great angle to go down, Chris. And I think it’s vital because, in order for a person to realize they have agency of their mind, you have to know what it is. So I’ve worked very hard to simplify, as you mentioned, the hard question of science. And I don’t think it’s the hard question of science. It’s the obvious question of science. Because just to ask that question, you’ve used your mind. So you can’t get away from your mind. These are quotes in my book that I say, “You can go three weeks without food, you can go three days without water, you can go three minutes without oxygen, but you don’t even go three seconds without using your mind.” It’s 24/7 your mind is going.
So [in] the first part of my book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, I explain a lot about mind. And basically, after all these years of research, we can define mind as something, I’m going to explain it in two ways. I’m going to give you the psychological definition, very simplistic, and then a little bit of a sciency visual to help people put it into perspective. Essentially, your mind is how you think and feel and choose. Those few things always go together. You’re always thinking, and when you think, you’re always feeling. You can’t think without feeling. And then, if you think and feel, you’re choosing. So you’re always thinking, feeling, and choosing, and that is mind. Mind is how you think and feel and choose. And during the day or when you’re awake, you’re very consciously doing this. And then, when you go to sleep at night, obviously your conscious mind is not operating, but your nonconscious is operating 24/7.
So right now, as we’re talking and the listeners are listening, the nonconscious mind and the conscious mind are operating simultaneously. The subconscious is the bridge between the nonconscious and the conscious mind. So the nonconscious mind is the biggest part of us, the most intelligent part of us where all of our experiences of life have been converted into thoughts with all the embedded memories, right from when at a certain point in the womb to the age that we are today. So we all have these trillions and trillions of thoughts that are holding all our experiences, our belief systems, are nurturing everything that’s been converted by our mind.
So right now, to give perspective, as the listeners are listening, they are hearing sound waves. They’re hearing my words, but those are actually sound waves. The reason that you can hear words and make sense of what I’m saying is because of your mind. So your mind has taken the sound waves and you’ve been thinking, feeling; you think, feel, and choose. You receive it, think, feel, and choose to process it. So you’re thinking, feeling; choosing is your mind processing the sound wave, [and] then [it] pushes that through the brain. The brain then responds electromagnetically, chemically, and genetically, and that activates the growth of proteins and the little branches called dendrites in the brain. And my words are being converted as we speak at 400 billion actions per second and faster into these little protein branches in the brain. So as I add more information, you grow more branches because it’s more information.
But it’s the thinking, feeling, choosing mind that is doing the converting process. The brain, on the other hand, is the physical substance that the mind works through. So the physical brain and body, we could say, if you want an estimate, is around about one to 10 percent of who we are as humans. And the mind, the nonconscious, conscious, and subconscious are about 99 percent of who we are. And a lot of work [has] been done in physics and quantum physics and gravitational fieldwork. A couple of Nobel Prize-winning scientists a couple of years back won the Nobel Prize for their work in gravitational fields, which is opening up enormous doors and avenues for us to start understanding the force of the mind. But it’s like the mind is this gravitational field around you and in you, and its relationship to express your mind, you have to have your brain and your body. For your brain and your body to be alive, you have to have your mind.
So it’s this relational force. Another easy way of visualizing this is to imagine a piece of white paper. And if you put a pile of iron filings on it (you may have done this at school), and then you take a magnet, and you put it in the middle of the iron filings, suddenly, the iron filings have arranged themselves into this beautiful pattern around the magnet. I don’t know if you recall ever doing anything like that, Chris.
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Caroline Leaf: Well, that pattern is an electromagnetic field that is the relationship between the gravitational force and the properties of the magnet. So if you imagine the magnet’s your brain and the mind is the gravitational field around the magnet, you can’t see that gravitational field until you actually have something like iron filings in that shape, which then show you that there’s actually a field there. Because the iron filings are arranging themselves in the field that is surrounding the magnet. And that’s kind of what the mind is like. The mind is this gravitational field, the brain is the magnet, and we have got this unique field, and there’s this relationship. And the iron filings shape, you could equate that to the behaviors that people see. So what you say and what you do is the result of the interaction between your mind and your brain.
That’s just another analogy to help put that into perspective: mind and brain being separate, but having this inseparable relationship. And when you understand that, you start getting a handle that I’m not just physical, because if you did, your brain can’t do anything. I can hold up a dead brain in my hand all day long; it’s never going to produce a thought. What’s producing the thought is the relationship between the mind and the brain. You’ve got your own unique gravitational field, and I’ve got mine. Einstein did work on this back in the early 20th century where [he talked] about the photons that we, and the electromagnetic fields that we basically have around us as humans. And when people are dead, they don’t have that anymore. So it’s not something weird. This is hardcore science that we’re talking about. And it’s so beautiful because it’s so unique to each of us. So mind is how you think, feel, [and] choose, and brain is the physical, and they work together to produce what you [do] as a functioning human in society.
And this process can be directed. You can direct your mind; you use your mind to systematically direct your mind. So it’s like you’ve got a wise mind and a messy mind. And in that way, you direct the neuroplasticity of your brain, and also, the DNA of every cell of your body responds to what’s going on in your brain and your mind. So it’s quite an interesting relationship. And a lot of that I’ve put in the book in the first half. I put a summary of my clinical trials in a very simple way so that people can start seeing the evidence of this mind–brain relationship.
Chris Kresser: That’s fascinating. And it’s so exciting to see how the science and understanding of the relationship between the mind and the brain has evolved over time. What about consciousness? I know this is an area of still considerable debate in the scientific community. So what is your thought and your position on what consciousness is?
We cannot control events and circumstances, but we can control our responses. In this episode of RHR, I talk with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf about neuroplasticity, the changing or “rewiring” of the brain, and the mind–brain connection to positively impact our behaviors. #chriskresser #neuroplasticity
Caroline Leaf: Okay. So I have a whole section in the book, too, about that. And it’s one of my favorite things to talk about. Because consciousness is what we’re in at the moment. It’s the ability to consciously and deliberately and intentionally be aware of our surroundings and to respond in a very experimental way. We are all operating like little mini-scientists every moment of the day. Because if you open your eyes, you’re experiencing life. The emails, the texts, the conversations with your family, your work, your exercise, food, all of that is you, us, you, as a person interacting with your environment. And every experience is consciously perceived. And you think, feel, and choose and convert it into these thought trees in your brain, which then become the source of what you say and what you do. So consciousness is the conscious process of doing this. Nonconscious is the 24/7 powerhouse behind dynamic, what I call, it’s dynamic self-regulation where it’s ongoing where all of your thoughts are also embedded.
So, in your brain, you’re going to have physical little trees that are protein-like structures with chemicals and so on that you’re building right now as you’re listening to me, and that’s what a thought is. A thought has all these branches, which are memories like a tree has branches. So you’re building these physical trees of inflammation as a response to experiences. And this is done consciously. So conscious is the conscious awareness of that. But in order to do that, you have to draw on the nonconscious mind, which is awake 24/7. It never stops. So when you go to sleep at night, your consciousness switches off, but your nonconscious and your subconscious [are] still working. And your nonconscious is basically everything about every experience you’ve ever had that’s been converted into these physical protein structures in your brain that are always changing because of experience always changing. And then in the gravitational field of your mind, which surround[s] and flow[s] through your brain and your body, you’ve got these waves. It’s hard to understand it scientifically, but for making it simple for the listeners, it’s like waves of energy forces each layer upon layer. The complex gravitational fields that are holding all these memories.
So like, right now, as you’re listening to me, and as the listeners are listening, I’m speaking these things about mind and consciousness. As I’m speaking, other thoughts are coming into mind, like maybe things about mental health or things about toxic thoughts and trauma and how to get my mind under control. Whatever. I don’t know what’s coming to their heads, but I do know that what is moving up from the nonconscious to the conscious mind are existing thoughts with embedded memories related in some way to this topic. And we draw on those, the conscious mind literally draws on the nonconscious mind to help understand the incoming information.
So we see the present through their eyes of what they’ve already experienced. That’s pretty much what I’m saying. So the nonconscious mind is where it all is, where it’s all stored; [the] conscious mind is when you’re awake and you deliberately and intentionally monitor the process. But we’re not always very good at using our conscious mind as well as we could, because the conscious mind is going all day long; [the] nonconscious mind is going 24/7. What we’re not that good at, unless we train [ourselves], is to self-regulate the conscious mind. And that’s where my work comes in is what is, if the conscious mind is this conscious thinking, feeling, and choosing, and the nonconscious mind is this nonconscious, incredibly fast 400 billion actions per second thing that’s happening 24/7 driving the conscious, how can we correlate this and how can we draw on the wisdom of the nonconscious? Because in the depths of our nonconscious is that survival instinct, which the scientists call wired for (lovmodal?17:28) optimism bias that we instinctively know the right thing.
If you really think about it, we know what to do, we know what the right thing to say is, those aha moments, those bursts of wow. I just gave the most amazing piece of advice, or this wonderful thing happened. We’ve got the depths of this wisdom inside of us. And we can consciously and deliberately tap into that. And we can consciously and deliberately be very conscious about how our mind is being managed.
For example, right now, I know we can’t see each other, but whoever’s listening, you can see yourself. And if you just now be aware, what are your hands doing? What is your facial expression? What are you thinking at this very moment while I’m speaking? How are you sitting? By saying that, I’ve stimulated you to sort of stand back and observe yourself. And that’s very much a conscious action that you can deliberately improve. It’s self-regulation. We can deliberately train ourselves to be much more aware of how we think, feel, and choose, which would then translate into monitoring a conversation. What’s my body language? What’s the impact of what I’m saying on whoever I’m speaking to? What’s the impact of what I’m saying and how I’m thinking on myself in this moment? Is it good for my work? Is it bad for my work? Is it bad for this relationship? Should I say it in a different way? That is a very conscious process that we can upscale and train ourselves. The mind is very malleable as the brain. So the mind’s always going. I’m proposing that we manage the conscious mind very deliberately.
Chris Kresser: Yes, to me, that’s the promise of neuroplasticity. And I think, also a tricky area, because a lot of people have seen movies like The Secret, or what I’m going to go ahead and call a kind of New Age philosophy that we have, we manifest our own reality. And, to me, it’s a kind of egocentric view where we’re in full control of everything that’s happening around us, which is absolutely not what you’re saying.
Caroline Leaf: No, it’s not. No, not at all.
Chris Kresser: This is evidence-based, grounded in rigorous neuroscience. So, just.
Caroline Leaf: What is the difference? Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. For the folks that might be a little confused about the difference there, if you could distinguish between what you’re saying and what this more kind of New Age mentality that’s been pervasive is, that would be helpful.
Caroline Leaf: Absolutely. You can even categorize that under sort of pop psychology or the very positive psychology movement. Although there’s a ton of stuff that’s good in positive psychology, it has created this thing that, oh, I can control events and circumstances where we cannot. We cannot control events and circumstances. The only thing we can control [is] our responses.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, COVID[-19]’s a great example of that, right? For everybody.
Caroline Leaf: Exactly. We can’t control that. So what I am saying is that it is perfectly human to feel depression or anxiety in response to something like COVID[-19], where we’ve been thrown completely, on a health, financial, and global perspective in absolutely every level. So if people are feeling anxiety and depression and terror and fear and grief in response, it’s absolutely normal that as a human, we experience that in response, because we’re having a normal response to an adverse circumstance.
So we can’t use our mind to go and make COVID[-19] go away. We can use our mind, as scientists, to study and to get knowledge in order to try to manage the situation. That’s the difference. You’re not just going to throw some magic out there and make it go away. We’re going to be very logical and [do] exactly what scientists are doing. They’re studying the COVID[-19] virus, and they’re creating vaccines, and that’s all scientific work; it’s hardcore work to try and get more knowledge in order to be able to manage the situation. In terms of us as humans [with] the day-to-day responses to things like that, we have to be able to manage our responses in that. Yes, I am having grief. I’ve lost someone. That’s quite normal, acceptable, and [you need] to be able to manage that so that it doesn’t cripple your life. Yes, you’re depressed because maybe your business has gone for a loop and so many people are down huge percentages in their business income, which is tremendously worrying. And obviously, that’s a normal response.
If you’re worried about your financial status because of COVID[-19], that’s a very normal response. It doesn’t give you a neuropsychiatric brain disease, and no magic potion is going to make that go away. But what you can do is learn to manage your emotional reactions so that you can actually think clearly. And that’s the key, Chris, is to not try and create this attraction thing. I’m not talking about that at all. I’m talking about in the moment-by-moment, how do I live with myself when I’ve got this grief or this depression or this anxiety or this worry about these circumstances. And it’s a process of embracing it, as opposed to running from it, giving yourself permission to feel. It’s okay to feel depression because of this or okay to feel anxiety because of this. And then trying to, going through the process of processing this and reconceptualizing it. Seeing it in a different way in order to bring clarity to your mind and your brain.
In other words, what I showed in my research is that if you are terribly anxious and you’re letting it get out of control, you’re going to reduce blood flow to the brain, you’re going to have less oxygen in the brain, [and] you’re going to have this tsunami of energy waves, what we call the theta delta, alpha, beta, gamma, I know you know about those, in the brain. It’s going to affect the structural processing of information through the brain, etc.. And that’s not going to bring clarity of thought. So then your wisdom in that situation is not going to be there.
So I’m talking about managing that. Seeing those emotions as helpful messages, and then processing [them] in order to see [them] in a different way so you can bring clarity of thought, to find out what is the different way that I should be looking at the situation. So very quickly, you get, we’re all familiar with the algebraic equation, x plus y equals zed. We all learned that basic algebraic equation when we were at school. So the zed implies that there’s a whole new thing. In terms of what I’m teaching, I’m teaching x plus y equals xy. In other words, x is your situation, y is this unforeseen that COVID[-19], what are we going to do? Not zed. We’re not going to obliterate and imagine it’s going to go away and attract something positive. It’s xy. What am I going to do with a story, my narrative now, my context? This is my life. I have this grief or I have this financial issue, or I have this. I accept that. How am I now going to reprocess this and reconceptualize [it]? How am I going to deconstruct and reconstruct this in order to find the wisdom of how I can move forward in this situation? So it’s x plus y. You don’t obliterate the story. Does that make sense?
Chris Kresser: It makes great sense. Yes, it’s really helpful. And that’s a good segue to move on to talking a little bit about how people can apply this from your book, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess. I discussed many different applications of neuroplasticity from stroke rehabilitation to the way this is being applied in the context of behavioral disorders and mental health issues. And there [are] some outcomes that might even seem miraculous if you don’t understand what’s happening in the brain, right? People had this notion for so many years that if you had a stroke, and you lost the function of some part of your body as a result of that, there is no possible way you were ever going to get that back. And now we have lots of documented cases where people are regaining some of that function. And this is through the application of neuroplasticity.
So that’s a pretty visceral example of the power of neuroplasticity. But how can people apply that power to things that they’re dealing with in their own life? Most people listening to this are probably not rehabilitating from a stroke. But, of course, everybody’s dealing with some level of challenge in their life, especially now during the COVID[-19] pandemic. So how can they use this approach to help build resilience and grit and find more peace and joy in the difficult circumstances that we’re facing?
Caroline Leaf: Very good question. I started out my work in the more medical arena with people with stroke and traumatic brain injuries and learning disabilities, autism, dementias, and showed that you can change your brain, but the brain doesn’t change itself. This is very key here, Chris, is that the brain’s not going to just automatically change itself; the brain is changed in response to something. And once again, I remind the listeners that if I held a brain in my hand now, someone took a brain out of your head, which I’m obviously not going to do, and I’m holding it in my hand, we could stare at this brain all day long, [and] it would never produce anything. But the fact that it’s in your head and you’re alive, you are able to drive this brain.
So it’s this energy of your thinking, feeling, and choosing that is driving the functionality of the brain, driving the quality of the (cell? 26:43), the millions of cells that you make every second. And that’s key. So neuroplasticity can be directed by the mind. And it’s also going, touching into your world, [and] what we put into and onto our bodies is huge in affecting the neuroplasticity of the brain, too. So basically, it just means the brain is always changing, and that change can be driven. And I showed you my early research that when you’re very deliberate about how you manage your mind, mind management, and through the process I developed called the neurocycle, which I’ve refined over these past 38 years, is you actually can improve your cognitive, social, and emotional functioning by huge factors of 35 to 75 percent.
In my most recent clinical trials, which I put the summarized version [of] into the first half of the book, I show that you can improve your management of anxiety and depression by up to 81 percent, which is with no drugs. I’m not talking about drugs; I’m talking about [the] pure mind. So this is not the law of attraction. This is not some weird voodoo thing. This is not some wellness fad or anything. This is hardcore science where if we are very deliberate about how we self-regulate in the moment, then we can change. So in someone who’s, these two situations. You’ve got two extreme, two kind[s] of categories. We’ve got two extreme situations of trauma that is maybe established from the past from childhood or early adulthood or whatever. COVID[-19], where we’ve had some kind of trauma. So trauma can be big T trauma, small t trauma, acute trauma, which is sudden trauma. So obviously, all of us [were] thrown into acute trauma when the pandemic hit last year, and then there [have] been all the subsequent traumas as a result of that.
But prior to that, we came into this COVID[-19] era already with massive trauma as a society where for decades, we’ve been living longer, as you know, from advances in medicine and technology. But this trend reversed between ‘96 and 2014. There was a trend being observed of people dying younger. So now we hit COVID[-19], where people were dying 8 to 25 years younger from preventable lifestyle diseases, which I know is also a huge area of yours. So preventable lifestyle diseases and disorders. And now we hit COVID[-19], and that’s just chopped another year off this life expectancy. And people are dying from what we call deaths of despair and all that stuff. So that’s all the negative stuff. But there’s so much hope in this because if it’s preventable and it’s a lifestyle, it means that if we understand with our mind about our lifestyle choices, which relates obviously to diet and exercise and food and that kind of thing, but it’s also related to what’s the mind behind that.
I can know the best diet in the world that’s going to help me, and you’ve written a lot about this with your book on Paleo and how to change your life and all that stuff and so many people. But I can read your book with my mind, but if I don’t shift my mind perspective and become deliberate and intentional about shifting my attitude, it’s just going to be another book I read.
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Caroline Leaf: So that’s where you want your mind to say, okay, I’m going to read this because I really do want to change. And that’s that sense of agency that I can change. And that’s what I try to bring to the table is that you can change. You can take your books on how to eat in a more healthy way and live a more functionally controlled life and take my book, whatever how to use your mind and actually study that information. And I have a whole section on how you can use the concept I’ve developed called the neurocycle to build your brain, to learn new information. And it’s one of the most powerful mental health tools that we don’t talk about. Hardly anyone talks about it. I think I don’t know who else besides myself talks about brain building as a, and I’m not talking about building in terms of putting nutrients in. I’m talking about putting knowledge into the brain as you study. So don’t just read your book and my book, but actually study it [so] you could go and write an exam or teach a session on it. As you learn information to the point where you know it so well, you’ve then grown mental resilience in your brain that has then created a stronger brain physically, and a stronger body, because your brain and body collectively are made of 37 to 100 trillion cells, and every cell responds to brain building, mind management. And as you said, as you build knowledge in [the] brain, you’re increasing that brain health, that body health, and mind health, which then helps you with the acute stuff, the hard stuff, like dealing with a trauma from the past. Maybe a trauma as a child, or bullying, or abuse of some sort, or war trauma, or whatever. Trauma of grief, loss, COVID[-19], etc., these all can be managed with the neurocycle, as well.
So it’s actually three phases. One, we want to build our brain. Whenever I saw a patient, the first thing I would do is teach them how to neurocycle to build their brain. So we’ll obviously talk about all their issues that they were dealing with, whatever it was, learning problems or dementia or trauma from whatever. So first, I’d established that. But then, the treatment would start with brain-building, which is why it’s the first section in the book. And that then builds resilience in the brain. Then we would work on if it was a toxic trauma from the past that can really, whatever, and/or toxic habits that are so established that it’s keeping you stuck. So then that’s the second application of the mind of this neurocycle, this mind management tool, is that we’ve got to manage those toxic traumas from the past.
So once you’ve got brain building as a process established, we also should be dedicating time to detoxing. So you brain build every day, as much as you can. I try [to] do an hour or two of brain building a day. And if people say [they] can’t do that, well, people go on Facebook [for] that long. And you’re reading the news that long. So turn your reading of the news into a brain-building situation. I detox every day. The detoxing is, you work in cycles of 63 days, because that’s how long it takes to actually build a habit that would result in behavior change, not 21. So I’ve done the scientific research on that, too, which I’ve put in the book. So if it’s the big stuff like a toxic trauma or toxic habit, you’re going to have to work through a daily 15 to 45 minutes, very limited time, and there’s a reason behind that, over a period of 21 days. And then from day 22 to day 63, you just spend a minute or two a day. And you do that per toxic area that you’re working on, per toxic thought. I mean, you finish that, then you work on the next one.
So it’s a lifestyle of detoxing the traumas and the toxic habits. I’m always personally doing that. I do that when I get ready in the morning. That 15 minutes or 30 minutes is when I do my detoxing. The brain building I do prior to that, just when I wake up is when I normally do my brain building. So it’s like research-based or whatever. And then the other application is building a good habit. That also takes 63 days. So you may choose to convert to a Paleo diet or convert to build a new way of running your business. That also takes cycles of 63. And then there’s the moment-by-moment stuff like you live in. You wake up, and you’re in a great mood, and then you read this email, and it’s a terrible email about something related to your work or family or something, and it throws you completely. And now you’ve got to get your head back on or get yourself together because you have to go and do whatever, a Zoom meeting or a presentation or a business meeting or something, and you’ve now been thrown. You can use the neurocycle in that moment-by-moment.
Let’s say you catch yourself people-pleasing and that’s taking so much of your time and destroying you, or you’re ruminating or you’re overthinking things, or you’re sabotaging yourself with anger. The neurocycle can be used to help with all of those, as well. So pretty much your mind is always working. As I said, you don’t even go three seconds without using your mind. All I’m saying is that you can learn to manage the process. This doesn’t mean that I’ve got it all together yet. But I have a tool to get it. I am so much more efficient. If I, for example, have an argument with my husband or something, because we all work together. We’ve got four kids. Three are in the business and my husband, and it’s super easy to get irritated with your family.
Chris Kresser: Oh yeah, sure.
Caroline Leaf: Super easy. And I’ll use the neurocycle if I have an argument, I catch it quickly. So my ability to self-regulate and to get out of a situation and out of something that would have consumed my day of worrying about if this one’s (inaudible 34:56) or this happened or that happened. I don’t do that anymore. I get myself back under control so that I can have my mind and brain working at their peak performance. It doesn’t mean I solve everything immediately. But because I’m mind managing, I’m going to get to those solutions more efficiently. And that’s what we saw with our clinical trial. People that were extremely depressed, suicidal, [had] given up, [had] tried everything, [had] done everything in terms of treatment, the current treatments and not being able to even function. Within 21 days, they had shifted from saying, “I am depression at day one, I am clinically depressed, I am depression, my life’s going nowhere, [and] I’ve got no hope” to within three weeks saying, “I’m not depression, I am depressed because of the sense of agency.” By day 63, they said, “I know now, why I’m depressed. I know now how to manage it.” And behavior was changing in terms of cognitive, social, emotional functioning back at work, etc. So this is science-based stuff; it’s just practical day-to-day what do I do with my mind. It’s constantly going; all my thoughts that are constantly going. I’m giving you a system to help you organize that so that you can respond in the most efficient way. It’ll keep your mental peace.
Chris Kresser: I love it. And particularly the part about habit formation is so important because so much of what we do is habitual, right?
Caroline Leaf: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: Seeing different statistics thrown around, but a large majority of the actions that we take on a daily basis. And as I’ve argued, of course, in the context of our health coaching program, helping people to be able to change their habits is probably one of the most important steps we can take in terms of addressing the public health challenges that we’re facing. Because it’s not just a question of information. A lot of people know what they should be doing. It’s a question of actually being able to do that and develop that new habit, like you said, which takes time. It’s not something that happens overnight. It takes at least 63 days, according to your research. And it’s been horrifying to me to witness how the pandemic of COVID-19 is intersecting with the pandemic of lifestyle-induced chronic disease.
Caroline Leaf: It’s unreal.
Chris Kresser: Of course, we know diabetes and obesity put you at two- to three-fold greater risk for hospitalization and death from COVID[-19]. We have to get a handle on this urgently, and it’s not.
Caroline Leaf: Exactly.
Chris Kresser: It’s no longer a question of just, oh, this is something that might happen to me 10, 20, 30 years down the line. Human beings have a really hard time, I think, responding to threats in that time frame.
Caroline Leaf: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: Thirty to 50 years, or 100 years away, like climate change, or I might die five years earlier 30 or 40 years from now. That’s a difficult circumstance for humans to respond to. But COVID[-19] has made this so much more immediate and time-sensitive.
Caroline Leaf: So true, Chris, and what you were just saying that I actually put a whole chapter in the book on exactly [is] what we’re talking about now, in terms of how we entered the pandemic, with this reversal of lifestyle trends, as I mentioned earlier on. And you can track it back literally to about 40 years ago with the trend changing, which was the mid-’90s, mid- to late ‘80s, and at that time was when we introduced processed foods, the industrialized food movement. It became huge, and then also the psychiatric change in that mental management. Where mind management shifted from the narrative of the whole person in context and team,to a brain disease. And that shift has impacted people dramatically. And now we’re sitting all these years later with a lot of mitogenic brain issues, where we’ve got medications shortening lifespans, and that kind of stuff where you’re not having enough informed consent about what these drugs do to the brain and so on. So we entered into the pandemic with that.
So we do have to, and as you quite rightly said, and I also talk about that in the book, there’s so much data. How do we shift attitude? There’s knowledge out there and there [are] skills out there, but we’ve got to shift people’s attitudes in order to—you’ve got to have all three factors, knowledge, attitude, and skills, before people will actually make the change. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with my research and with this neurocycle. You can feel the immediate effect. It’s unbelievable when you start using it in a little thing, like people-pleasing, which [is] not a little thing; it’s a big thing. But in a moment where you have an argument and you’ve got to go on a podcast, or you’re in a situation where someone responds how you don’t expect them to respond and you don’t quite know what to do in the next moment, you can use the neurocycle in those moments and you can experience the benefits immediately or basically mind managing. And then apply that, get into that,and then apply that on a greater basis so that they then take the content, and if we can get on, that’s where the brain building also comes in. Brain building is, this is the knowledge out there to improve. Let me study this and really understand this and build this into my brain and recognize that I need this knowledge in order to change.
And then the third factor is the fact that we in this quick-fix mentality, technology has brought this philosophy of thinking where everything’s got to be quick. Just give me a tablet and suppress the pain, and give me five steps, boom. I want my mind right in five steps. Your mind won’t come right in five steps. Your mind is going to take the rest of your life to come right. So we’re going to have messes all the time. We need to accept that it’s okay as long as you manage them. As I said earlier on, I still have mental messes, but I know what to do and (inaudible 40:46) I get back on track much quicker. And you can be proactive in building the kind of resilience in your mind and brain because your brain just does what your mind tells it to do. You can become much more resilient in your mind and brain when you self-regulate. And when you use, which is what the neurocycle teaches you, it teaches you to be very conscious. And we spoke about consciousness early on, but very conscious and deliberate about what am I thinking? What am I feeling? What am I choosing? Is this going to work for me? Do I need that? What impact is that going to have? And that kind of shift and the recognition that it’s not a quick fix, that, for behavior change, you have to do a minimum of 63 days, nine weeks, which is cycles of three weeks, three-week cycles, 63 days, nine weeks, in order for change to happen.
And we see that in a body, as well. You’d know this. If you have a blister, it’s going to take you more or less three weeks for that blister to heal. If you have a major surgery, it may take you three lots of three weeks, but our body physically heals in these cycles. But in order for full manifestation, and so the mind also goes through these three-week cycles. But for behavior change where you actually are doing that new thing, you are eating in that way, you are exercising, you are getting that pattern of arguing that keeps getting you into trouble at work under control, and you’re not as triggered to argue in that way, you now have it under control, and you don’t argue in that way. So now you’re progressing at work, and you’re getting more creative and you know that your relationship is improving because you’re not doing whatever. You’ll see the benefit. If you want to see the benefit, you have to work in cycles of 63 days for behavior change.
Most people, interestingly, Chris, will give up around day three to seven, somewhere between day four and day seven. And that’s a pity. Then you remember, oh, I did work on that. Why has it not changed? Why am I stuck? But most of the time, it’s because it hasn’t been a systematized rigorous process of actually attempting to go through the process of changing your mind. That’s what I’ve laid out in this book; [I] give you the “this is what you do.” Your mind’s going anyway, so you may manage it. Otherwise, it’s going to go anywhere, but it’s going to be a mess. So you may as well recognize when it’s messy and then manage it.
Chris Kresser: Such a fascinating conversation, Dr. Leaf. It’s been a pleasure to have you on the show.
Caroline Leaf: Thank you.
Chris Kresser: And I just want people to know where they can go to learn more about your book, Cleaning Up the Mental Mess, and where they can learn more about your work in general.
Caroline Leaf: Absolutely. Well, they can go to DrLeaf.com, which is my website. My Instagram handle is Dr. Caroline Leaf. The books are available wherever books are sold. And there’s also a website CleaningUpYourMentalMess.com. And then I’ve got a podcast [called] Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
Chris Kresser: Okay. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show, and I look forward to a future conversation.
Caroline Leaf: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I enjoyed it, too. Thanks, Chris.
Chris Kresser: All right, everybody. Thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll talk to you next time.
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