Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist. She is the bestselling author of “Switch on Your Brain,” “Think, Learn, Succeed” and “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” among many others. Leaf speaks to audiences around the world at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences and churches. She and her husband, Mac, have four children.
Why do you think we tend to separate spirituality from mental and emotional health?
Many Christians tend to feed their spiritual appetites with much learning, but little lifestyle change.
“We’re in a day and age where the accessing of knowledge is certainly not an issue,” Leaf said. “We tend to gather knowledge like pieces of a puzzle, but we’re not actively building the puzzle. We think, ‘If I listen to this sermon, if I read these Scriptures, read this book, do this leadership course or go to this conference,’ but it’s all external gathering of data. Are we stopping to actually process? We’re not thinking deeply about information. We’ve been so driven to get, get, get; consumerism is like an avoidance of having to do the work.”
Sometimes, we sing over our sin and use Scripture to spiritualize our emotional struggles.
Leaf said we need to get to the source of our struggles.
“When we have a negative thought, we use Scripture almost like a Band-Aid,” Leaf said. “You’ve got to face the challenges of daily life or your bad habits, you can’t just put a Band-Aid on them with Scripture. You actually have to face, deal with, process and redesign them.”
Why is it important that our brain and mind are distinct?
Since the 1980s, Leaf has researched the question, “Can the mind change the brain?”
Studies show how life experiences can change our brains, which can be positive or negative.
Leaf defines the mind-brain connection this way: The brain is the physical part of our body; the mind makes up the non-physical, mental and spiritual part.
She said that our brains have the power to change, which is called “neuroplasticity.”
“The brain is responding to the mind,” Leaf said. “As we think, we change our brain. Mind changes matter. We actually change our brains when we are thinking.”
How do our thoughts impact us?
Leaf said our internal responses are powerful.
“A thought becomes something that’s very real and will grow,” Leaf said. “The more you consider certain thoughts, the more energy you give them, then the more they grow. As soon as your thoughts gain sufficient energy, that’s when you’ll start speaking and doing things.”
We must search and scan our thoughts, otherwise they tend to travel around the world and back.
“Your conscious energy, which is when you’re awake, is limited,” Leaf adds. “If you choose to spend the time that you’re awake worrying about what could happen, what has happened, what this person will say or how terrible you are, you’re wasting energy. You’re going to exhaust yourself. Choose to take your thoughts captive and recognize that you can’t control those things, but you can control your reactions.”
Leaf said that when we put this into practice, we can shift our minds from toxic thoughts to true thoughts of who we are and who God is.
How can people transform thoughts into new habits?
Leaf said we need to reflect rather than react.
“No matter what you focus on or spend your energy and time on, you’re using your mind,” she said. “We use our minds to build memories and change our brains. It’s very important to understand this. People tend to just react instead of being deliberate and intentional about what they want to think about, but that’s really what renewing the mind is all about.”
Though it may feel safer to skip over them in the short-term, Leaf said we need to process emotionally-charged thoughts.
“We’re getting into constant negative cycles and don’t know how to handle things,” Leaf added. “But if we dig deep enough, we’re going to find an underlying cause. This is how the process of our minds work. And this is something we’re supposed to do every single day, not just one-off. This is a lifestyle. We’ve got this brilliant mind, but we need to manage it, otherwise we’re going to have chaos.”
Leaf said it isn’t a light thing to create new habits.
“It takes about 63 days to build something into your life that will make a change,” Leaf said. “Are people prepared to do that work and run the race? We want a quick fix, but then we complain when we don’t get the results.”