In the 1980s, many scientists believed that a damaged brain couldn’t change. We were taught to help patients compensate for brain disabilities and mental ill-health. Total recovery was, for the most part, out of the question.
As a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, I believed in the power of the mind to change the brain — and, therefore, also someone’s cognitive, emotional, social, and academic behaviour. The patients I encountered in my private practice and in the disadvantaged schools that I worked in showed me that the human mind was far more resilient, and far more formidable, than science was claiming.
One turning-point came when I encountered a 16-year-old girl who had had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car accident. She’d recently come out of a two-week coma, and was operating at about a fourth-grade level at school instead of a 12th-grade level, like her peers. Using the self-regulatory, mind-driven, five-step learning process I’d developed, I worked with her, one on one. She was determined to catch up with her peer group, and I believed that she could achieve her previous levels of academic performance again.
Within eight months, the miracle happened, and she was able to graduate from high school with her own class, and go on to university. In fact, compared with before the accident, her IQ increased 20 points, and her overall academic performance improved. This was highly unusual, as research at that time showed that the opposite was normally the case in TBI; but a negative trend was turned into a positive trend through intentional mind work.
That’s not the end of the story. The young woman’s emotional, self-evaluative, and self-monitoring skills also improved, even though they were indirectly treated during her clinical sessions, indicating that mind change includes intellectual and emotional changes.
Following my Ph.D., I worked with thousands of teachers and students in low-income areas and squatter camps in South Africa and the US over 30 years. The individuals I worked with contended with poverty, abuse, hunger, and social violence. Many students were orphaned by AIDS. These students, hungry to learn, worked hard, and saw their grades improving using my mind techniques based on my Geodesic Learning Theory. One high-school student, a 24-year-old pimp and drug dealer, said: “Dr Leaf, now I know what to do with my pen.” He went on to graduate from high school, and became a change agent in his community.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many individuals labelled as ADD, ADHD, bipolar, depressive, autistic, and so on, although there’s a lack of conclusive research behind many so-called psychiatric disorders, and the chemical-imbalance theory. There’s a predominantly biological focus of our current system of mental health, and an overuse of psychotropic drugs.
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 trauma or negative thinking patterns. Using the principles of my theory, I helped patients to understand that their brains can change if they chose to develop healthy, focused thinking and learning habits, and it’s never too late to heal and change the brain with their mind.
I’ve come to appreciate how, through focused, determined mind-action, the brain can be stimulated to change, and I now teach millions around the globe through my TV show, The Dr Leaf Show, and various platforms. I’ve written 17 books, from dealing with toxic thoughts and discovering the unique way we all think, feel, and choose, to male-female relationships and the brain.
My hope and passion is to help people see the power of the mind, and the link between science and belief, as a tangible way of controlling their thoughts and emotions: learning how to think and learn and finding their sense of purpose in life, and creating structural change in their brains and bodies. I help people understand how they can renew their minds and take their thoughts captive, transforming their communities and making the world a more beautiful place.
I embrace many of the principles of mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to develop a heightened sense of awareness in the present moment, accepting things as they are without judgement and emotional reactivity. It’s important that we learn to go beyond mindfulness, capturing and reconceptualising toxic and chaotic thoughts, and building healthy organised thoughts in their place. This second step is necessary to stabilise attention and develop thinking habits that we’ll actually use in our lives.
As a very young child, I experienced the love of God as a warming and encouraging presence in my life. Through my studies and research, I have come to appreciate the wisdom and magnificence of divine love even more.
I grew up in the Catholic Church, and I strongly believe that spiritual rituals, such as fasting (which I do on a regular basis), and sacramental confession can have a positive effect on the mind, particularly as they can foster a sense of community, identity, and belonging, as well as help us develop healthy mental habits in a structured and disciplined environment.
In my work, I focus on spirituality, which all can relate to, and science. Christian scripture tells a very human story, and science tells the “how”. Both are needed to be truly human and to operate in love. As someone who speaks in both spiritual and secular environments, I can bridge the modern secular-religious divide.
Diet plays a significant part in mental well-being, as what we eat affects our ability to think well and handle our emotions; but it’s not just about eating right. Bad thinking habits can affect what we eat and how we digest food, even if the food is incredibly healthy.
I grew up in a loving home, which was always busy, since there were four of us children. My parents always encouraged us to do our best, which is why I’ve always valued hard work and discipline. I have an incredible family — we’re all supportive, and still encourage and challenge each other to do our very best. I love spending time with them when I’m not working; and watching Call the Midwife.
I’ve learnt to be constantly aware of my thoughts, and try, to the best of my abilities, to think, feel and choose in such a way that I can reflect God’s love in our world every moment of every day.
As a working mother, I learned to focus on each task at hand, and discipline my thinking processes so that I could do what needed to be done well. I also had to learn to be flexible, and willing to change my schedule if needed.
Celine Dion’s voice is a favourite sound.
I’m angry when people are told that they can never change, and that there’s something terribly wrong with their minds, and they’ll be like that for ever.
I’d love to be able to do more research on the mind-brain connection and quantum physics, and become more involved in changing the mental-health system.
We all have the power to bring heaven to earth through our thoughts, words, and actions. I pray for that, and for my family.
I’d like to be locked in a church with Professor Keith Ward. He’s influenced my views on God and science, and I absolutely love his work and his dedication to his beliefs.
Dr Leaf was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Think, Learn, Succeed (Baker Publishing Group) will be published in the UK in August. Switch On Your Brain Every Day will be published in November.