Here is the full transcript of author and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf’s TEDx Talk presentation on Science of Thought at TEDxOaksChristianSchool conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.
Caroline Leaf – Author and cognitive neuroscientist
Good morning everyone. How amazing that TED is in a school; I just think that’s just so exciting.
Well, I teach people about the brain, and 30 years ago, I asked a ridiculous question. And it really was a ridiculous question. This is the question: can the mind change the brain?
Now that was a ridiculous question, because the view at that time, and the scientists that trained me and my lecturers, we were told that the brain could not change. So if it was damaged, well that’s it; you just basically had to teach your patients to compensate for these things and to kind of get around the problem. But that seemed such a negative thing.
So I asked that question: Can a brain that’s damaged, can it not change, can it not grow? And a brain that’s not damaged, can’t we make that better? Can’t we increase our intelligence?
And so I decided to embark on a journey of researching and studying this and applying it in my practice. I was determined to prove that the mind could change the brain, which implies that the mind is separate from the brain but influencing the brain.
So I started off 30 years ago in practice and I decided to work with people with learning disabilities and with traumatic brain injury, specifically with the learning disabled communities, the older children. So, because we were also told back then that once you hit the age of 10, sort of 10 to 12, well then you’re too old to have much done for you. So you’d have to — you could get some remedial therapy and things like that but there wasn’t a huge amount that you could do for your brain.
So here I was coming out of university, keen to help people but being told that “Well, just teach your patients to compensate”. Well, I wasn’t going to do that, because I didn’t believe that that was the best thing to do for anyone.
I also know that thoughts are real things that occupy mental real estate. And that as we are thinking, we are choosing and we are building thoughts inside of our brain. I also believe that you’re as intelligent as you want to be, so the more you think deeply, the more intellectually challenging — the challenges you put in front of yourself the more you’re going to grow your brain.
So my first few patients that I worked with in my practice group were patients with traumatic brain injury patients that had suffered from severe car accidents and had suffered severe traumatic brain injuries. I also worked with the older learning disabled population. I worked with people from heart attack victims, had strokes, various different things, where they presented with quite major damage inside their brain.
And I decided to throw all traditional methods and started trying to understand the science of thought, and to work with things that actually were meaningful for them. One of the problems with doing the kind of therapy that I was trained to do, was something called carryover where you would teach a patient in a therapy room, give them therapy and then they would have to carry that over into their daily life and carryover wasn’t very good.
So I didn’t think that I would be very good therapist if I couldn’t teach them to change their brain and I couldn’t teach them to make a difference in their life. So I would ask them the question: What is the most important thing that you need to do? And obviously the students that were at school they wanted to work on schoolwork, people that had — former businessmen and women that were now sitting with brain damage, they wanted to get back to their former status. So that was my challenge.
Traumatic brain injury at that stage back in — and I talk about that stage, I’m talking 30 years ago, so back in the ‘80s where it was not accepted that your brain can change. Traumatic brain injury particularly was a disorder in search of data, which means that the scientists believed at that stage that the damage was so diffused that you couldn’t do anything for their brain.
So I started working with a — I had a patient that came to my practice. And this young woman was amazing. She had a terrible, terrible car accident. She was thrown from the car; she was basically in a coma for nearly two weeks. And in that day and age, when if someone was in a coma for longer than eight hours, their brain damage was considered irreversible. So the doctors told her parents that she’d be a vegetable.