For most of us, our brain is an unknowable thing, and the landscape and pattern of our minds is as foreign as the bottom of the ocean. We tend to stumble through our mental processes on instinct, chasing our thought life wherever it goes and assuming there’s little else we can do.
That’s a perception Dr. Caroline Leaf hopes to change. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who’s been researching the connections between our minds, our brains and our bodies for almost 40 years, and she’s been using her studies to teach people how to manage their minds and organize their “mental messes.”
Mental Health Matters is a fall article series from RELEVANT, presented by UHSM.
Dr. Leaf recently spoke about her research and how she has “spent these years working out how to capture thoughts or bring those thoughts into captivity and renew our minds, using all the science that God has given us.”
This talk has been edited for length and clarity.
So science comes from the word scientia which means knowledge, and God is the source of all knowledge. So science and spirituality are important in understanding how we function, but are also two sides of the same coin. My focus has been on mental health. How can we manage our mental health?
A few little points that are really amazing to understand: All of us, since the beginning of time, have been battling with our mental health. Anxiety, depression, frustration, irritation, even the severe stuff like psychotic breaks, and disassociation and extreme states of mood swings. All these things are responses to the adverse circumstances of life. We all battle with these to varying degrees. And sometimes in our life, things are worse than at other times.
So mental health is not just affecting a few people. It’s affecting 100 percent of us. And what we need to realize is that it’s OK to be battling, but we need to know how to manage that battle and how to work together as a community to support each other.
We know that prior to the pandemic, extreme anxiety was affecting about 30 percent of the population. That has tripled since the pandemic. People are responding to the adverse circumstance of the pandemic with the warning symptom of anxiety. Anxiety and depression are not brain illnesses. They are not neuropsychiatric brain diseases. They are warning symptoms, signals telling us that we need to find out and sort out the root cause and find a way of coping.
The way I explain this is that we need to embrace our warning signals and see them as helpful messengers. And when we do that, we can then deconstruct and reconstruct our thought patterns. In other words, change the wiring of our brain with our mind in order to be able to cope, in order to be able to manage this, in order to be able to change how the past has played out into our future.
We can’t change the past. We can’t change the trauma. But we also can’t suppress it because these are real experiences. And we need to be able to manage them. We need to be able to capture those thoughts that are producing the signals, find the origin source, and then reconceptualize them into something that we can manage. It takes a little bit of time. Mind management takes a bit of skill and development, but that’s why I do what I do.
You are not your brain. You control your brain. Your brain is part of your physical body.
Your brain and body collectively make up around about one to ten percent of who you are. Your mind makes up the other 90 to 99 percent of who you are. So your mind and your brain are different, but they work together. And there is an absolute, incredible connection that happens when the mind and the brain work together.
Your mind could be seen as your aliveness: our ability to listen, to think and feel and choose. The ability to experience life as you wake up in the morning, and as we go through the day, all the way through the day, till we go to sleep again, we are in the environment of life being impacted by the events and circumstances and people of our life.
And that impact is absorbed by the mind and processed by the mind, into the brain and then the brain in response, processes all the signals that the mind has centered.
The Mental Detectives
We store our memories in our brain, our body and our mind. When we re-experience things like trauma, we feel it coming through our body. So that is why there is memory in the body as well, and why we need to do work to get it out of our body too. So when we’re talking about capturing thoughts and renewing them, we are becoming detectives. We are literally learning to look at the patterns of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, frustration, a combination of the above. We are designed to be able to look at that.
We get these prompts from our wise mind. Our wise mind is this inner core made in God’s image, where we know what we should be doing. We recognize that there’s a better way. We don’t always know the details, but as we tune in, as we stand back and observe our own thinking and tune in to our inner wisdom, we can then look at these signals and patterns in our life for what they are. They are messengers. They are your brain and your body trying to tell you: “Hey, pay attention. Don’t suppress.” These are volcanic. There’s something going on.
So when you become a thought detective and you see all these anxiety and things like that as helpful messengers, you embrace them instead of suppressing them and pushing them away. When you embrace them, you shift the power balance, you get control. You stand back, you observe your own thinking.
And it’s not you alone. You also connected to the wisdom of God. So now, when you stand back and observe your own thinking, you’re stepping into the arms of love. You get kind with yourself, kind to yourself. You create this whole change in how you view this, which then shifts the 1,400 neurophysiological responses to work for you and not against you. And that increases your resilience and your ability to look at those signals.
You can rewire the brain, but in order to rewire the brain, you have to see the signals for what they are: Helpful messengers in my life that are telling me something. I pay attention. I stand back, I observe my own thinking. I tap into my messy mind. You’re in the arms of God. It’s a helpful messenger.