What I gained from Project Barnabas 2013 – Neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf on re-training the brain without drugs and the impact of her work on me

Yvonne posing with a bunting banner about Dr. Caroline Leaf.

Yvonne posing with a bunting banner about Dr. Leaf.

Last week was an extremely energy draining week for me as I attended HSG’s biggest annual event – Project Barnabas – while still recovering my strength after an arduous battle with aspiration pneumonia in Bethesda less than one month ago. But I wanted to, I wanted to catch the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend Dr.Caroline Leaf’s seminars during the conference.

Who is Caroline Leaf?

Dr. Leaf is a neuroscientist originally from Texas. She takes a keen interest in researching on how the human brain affects our thoughts and emotions, and vice versa. Her scientific discovery stirs her awe and amazement at God’s wonderful creation. It drives her passion to teach people on how they can unlearn negative thinking patterns and discover their unique gifts instead. Among her wide field experience, is helping children of impoverished communities who are deemed un-teachable, to learn by using their individual gifts. These children that others deem hopeless eventually graduate from school successfully thanks to her. Dr. Leaf is frequently invited to speak around the world – she is that good.

Dr. Leaf explaining with a model of the human brain.

Dr. Leaf explaining with a model of the human brain.

What I have gained from attending her seminars.

There were fifteen one-hour sessions in total, spread over three days, so I had almost fifteen different volunteers transcribing her speeches on my laptop verbatim as best as they could. Dr. Leaf speaks very fast, which proved to be a challenge for some of them. 

Negative thoughts don’t just produce negative psychological wellbeing. They actually change and damage the brain physically.

I have long observed and known that negativity such as bitterness, un-forgiveness, and vengeance can mushroom into psychological disorders such as Major Depression, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Psychopathy, Sociopathy, and what have you. But these psychopathologies are diagnosed AFTER their symptoms have fully developed, so researchers have so far focused on looking at what happens in the brain during the course of these disorders. They looked at chemical disruption and imbalances (neurotransmitter in the synapse) and develop psychotropic drugs to change these chemical abnormalities.

Dr. Caroline Leaf (she says there are others doing similar research too) was curious enough to find out how the symptoms of these psychopathologies develop in the first place.

Graphic of a neuron with dendrites and an axon

Graphic of a neuron with an axon and dendrites

She discovered that every thought we think about causes the neurons in our brain to grow new dendrites. A negative thought and a positive thought produces two different kinds of dendrites. The differences are evident in brain scans. If we constantly think negatively, more negative dendrites grow which impairs our mind’s function. That’s how the many psychological and psychiatric disorders we know about develop.

The more we think about a negative thought, the more of that thought’s dendrites grow, the more entrenched it becomes in the brain, the stronger it affects our psychological and physical wellbeing, and the harder it becomes to eliminate that thought and its symptoms.

That reminds us of hallucination, depression and psychosis, doesn’t it?

Milder symptoms include stress, anger, fatigue, bitterness, mild depression, hopelessness and dejection.

In other words: Self-perpetuation.

One participant is on anti-depressant and asked Dr. Leaf if she should stop taking it. Dr. Leaf advised her to please do so, but with her doctor’s help. This is because anti-depressants may reduce the main depression, but it will cause another depression to develop – depression for being on anti-depressant. Rather than using drugs to produce a superficial result, it is best to re-train our mind.

Dr. Leaf is a strong believer in the brain’s potential for growth and reconditioning. Besides furthering her research as she travels to teach, she also provides consultation to people in a clinical setting – so she practices what she preaches! 

Besides her research on the impact of negative thoughts and emotions on the human brain, she has also developed a profile to help us discover our unique gifts as well as differences between a male brain and female brain.

Dr. Leaf invented a 21-day detox program to retrain our brain. It takes 21 days for a new dendrite or thought to grow in the brain, and two more 21 days for it to become permanent. In this detox program, we practice a daily mental exercise to train our brains to think a positive thought the moment negativity rises, until it becomes permanent – until the positive dendrite grows fully and becomes permanent in the brain. As this happens, negative thought dendrites will also become dislodged from their parent cell and will no longer affect us.

The wonder of science and nature brings hope

Meeting and hearing from Dr. Leaf in person encouraged me in many ways. Firstly, I identify with her love for science and the appreciation that comes with studying it. Since the day I discovered that I have Neurofibromatosis, I have been studying the genetic, neurological, and chemical basis of my physical experiences. I have been similarly filled with awe for the human brain and physiology.

Later, at the age of 21, I became interested in cognitive neuroscience than ever, because I wanted to understand my father’s post-stroke condition. No one had ever talked straight to me about the effects of his brain hemorrhage. They hoped and even expected him to function optimally. And when he couldn’t, most people in the family seemed to forget about his stroke and said his behavior was his in-born character. They described my dad as a bad person to me. But despite what they said, I had an innate love for my father. Although sometimes, his behavior seemed to tally with what they said about him, yet a small voice in me hinted that something was amiss. Hence, since the age of 21, I became increasingly curious about his brain and wanted to find the truth.

But my yearning for knowledge and understanding didn’t just start when I was diagnosed with NF. It started much earlier in life. Following my father’s stroke in 1989, my environment became dark, sad, and hopeless. I physically bore the brunt of other people’s bitterness and resentments and wondered why was I so unloved, how life could be so harsh. I wanted to understand how this could be possible. This unwittingly trained my mind to be inquisitive.

It also unwittingly made me a kind person, because I empathize with those who are lost, traumatized and in pain. I have been there.

Dr. Leaf speaking on stage with a graphic of the human brain behind her

Dr. Leaf speaking on stage with a graphic of the human brain behind her

Picking up where I left off

Dr. Leaf’s work has encouraged me on the importance of my own work and calling. Though I may not be a neuroscientist, not even a licensed psychologist, but my role and work are similar to hers in some ways.

When she spoke about our individual gifts, Dr. Leaf emphasized that no other person has a mind that is identical to ours, Even an identical twin thinks differently from ourselves. The greatest question of all time has been, “Is there anyone out there who understands me?” Her answer is – no. We may empathize with you, but no one can fully understand you because everyone is different and unique. The thing is that we should not be asking if anyone understands us, but rather, know and accept that everyone of us is different and unique. Accept that you are unique.

This message from Dr. Leaf affirms me in several ways.

1. I have faith that A Celebration of Life foundation will become reality, and I have a vision of how it will materialize. But I can’t explain it to another person – it will sound like an idle fantasy. Because, our faith is a personal experience – another person will never be able to feel the same. They can empathize and believe in us, but not experience our faith experiences.

2. Seeing Dr. Leaf speaking on stage – her mastery in the subject of her research and study, her conviction and commitment to imparting her knowledge for the betterment of her audience, her love for science, knowledge and wisdom, and her confidence in herself and her calling – stirred my own sense of purpose as an author and motivational speaker.

My life progression is somewhat different from most people. I found my soul’s path early in life, before I graduate from school and university. I don’t need to wait until I earn degrees and certifications to play my role. This difference can sometimes affect my self-esteem. Most people have day jobs, earn a monthly salary (and capable of accumulating monthly debts. haha), have job titles that are real in the sense they belong to some established company, amd so on.

Being unique and different can be a source of pride. Yet sometimes, it can feel daunting. I live my life by faith, I go with the flow. Every speaking invitation I receive – I do not advertise or seek out opportunities – they come to me by themselves. Faith in living my role this way is a constant test. Therefore, meeting Dr. Leaf was a much needed comfort and affirmation for the uniqueness of who I am and the value of my work.

Dr.Caroline and her husband Mac on stage

Dr.Caroline and her husband Mac on stage Mac is also her manager,

After attending her seminars…

Right after Project Barnabas ended and Dr. Caroline went on to her next stop in Vancouver, I revived the Facebook page that a friend created for me several years ago which have been left dormant. This FB page, I shall use exclusively to update people on my work and impart what I learned from day-to-day. I will still post long articles like this one on my blog, but the FB page is better for brief jottings.

I am also starting to draft my next book. Dr. Caroline and the other PB speaker – Apostle Naomi Dowdy – affirm the value of what I have to write.

Lastly, and most importantly, Dr. Caroline’s life reminds me of myself. Seeing myself in her made me aware that:

All the lessons that I have been trying to impart with my work, which are the ways that I live my own life – can be summarized into two simple words.

Self-Empowerment.

I have been trying to encourage others to empower themselves. But I didn’t know how to condense my hope for others into one or two simple words, until I met Dr. Caroline. I saw it in her. Self-empowerment.

As a child, Yvonne Foong dreamed of growing up to help others. To achieve her ambition, she began studying to become a psychologist. But things changed when tumours were discovered in her body at the age of sixteen. She was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 2 -- a genetic illness with no cure. Fighting for survival, Yvonne turned to fundraising and embarked on a medical odyssey to the United States. Her experiences since then have transformed her into a motivational speaker; inspiring hope, faith and strength. Yvonne is currently working to establish a humanitarian foundation that provides NF patients in Malaysia with financial and logistical support. Visit Works of Gratitude to learn more.

Posted in Faith, My family, Neuropsychology, Works of Gratitude

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