Positive Leadership

Managing your mind (with Dr. Caroline Leaf)

May 08, 2024 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 9 Episode 3
Managing your mind (with Dr. Caroline Leaf)
Positive Leadership
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Positive Leadership
Managing your mind (with Dr. Caroline Leaf)
May 08, 2024 Season 9 Episode 3
Jean-Philippe Courtois

If we want to do well in life, we need to find practical ways to manage our stress, anxiety, and toxic thinking.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a neuroscientist and mental health expert who has developed a powerful five-step method for doing just that.

Listen to the latest episode with JP, to learn more about Caroline’s teachings on self-awareness and self-improvement for successful leadership. 

Catch up with JP’s conversations with the guests mentioned in this week's episode here: 

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

If we want to do well in life, we need to find practical ways to manage our stress, anxiety, and toxic thinking.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a neuroscientist and mental health expert who has developed a powerful five-step method for doing just that.

Listen to the latest episode with JP, to learn more about Caroline’s teachings on self-awareness and self-improvement for successful leadership. 

Catch up with JP’s conversations with the guests mentioned in this week's episode here: 

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:  Hello, I'm Jean-Philippe Courtois. Welcome to another edition of Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, as a leader, and as a global citizen. If we want to do well in life, we need to find ways to sort out our mental mess, to manage our stress, anxiety, and toxic thinking. My guest today, Dr. Caroline Leaf, has been researching the mind-brain connection and how the brain can change with direction from your mind, known as neuroplasticity, since the 1980s. Now, she's developed a 5-step roadmap, the 63 days Neurocycle method for developing a healthy mind, using the mind to sort of biohack the brain. Tens of thousands of people have downloaded her Neurocycle app, and lots of them say they found it really helpful. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: With the Neurocycle is a healing journey. Our body and brain are plastic, they keep changing. Every second, you are making 800,000 to a million new cells, and the quality of those cells determine the quality of your body, so your mind is actually influencing the whole body. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Positive Leadership starts with personal development. I was really excited to have Caroline on the show to understand more about her method and to find out how her teachings on self-awareness and self-improvement that can help all of us grow and develop skills and qualities necessary for successful leadership. So Caroline, if you don't mind, let's start with your roots. You were born in Zimbabwe, and I think you lived your childhood in South Africa. So can you tell us about those early years and the values that you learned and that were shaped into you by your parents, and the way you navigated as well transition to the post-apartheid period at the time? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: That's a great question. It was a very rich upbringing, and I literally grew up in the apartheid era, and so we were very, very aware as a family and got quite involved. And by the time I was at university, I was very keen to start having an influence and a change. So a lot of my early work in South Africa was done to the pre-transition and the post-apartheid era. I did a lot of work in the schools, the education system. I trained a lot of physicians. I worked with a lot of people that had suffered dramatically from what had happened, from not only an emotional point of view, mental health, but also from an academic point of view. And I can tell you a few stories that really shaped why I do what I do now, and the one was I was actually in one of these environments where I was going to go and work with a whole group of teachers at a school. So the objective was to help teachers to help students to deal with the emotional trauma, but also to help them improve the academic side of things. Normally there were a couple of hundred people there and this particular day, there were thousands. As we parked and walked through, it was like the Red Sea parted. It was unreal, because following me, I didn't realize why there was such a reaction, but following me, there was one of the most notorious gang leaders, someone that people just avoided, and no one knew what was going to happen. I didn't know what was going on. I walked into the room, and I started just teaching and doing my thing, but as I walked in, this gentleman walked to the back of the room and stared at me. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, okay, I'm just going to do what I do, but I hope I'm going to get an escort out of here because this is pretty dangerous." As it turned out, five hours later, one of the teachers said, "Well, who would like to thank Dr. Leaf?" And this young man that everyone was terrified of, there were tears pouring out of his eyes. He ran to the front of the room, he held up his pen, he stood next to me and put his arm around me, and he said, "Now I know what to do with my pen and what to do with my life," and from there, he transformed. Apparently, he was a major drug leader. He was involved in everything that you shouldn't be involved in. He transformed his life, became a leader in the community, started going back to school, got educated, supported. It just was transformational what he did, and it was thousands of stories like that. They encouraged me to realize that no matter what you've been through, you can get through it. You can change. You can transform. Now, I couldn't go and fix the politics. I couldn't go and feed the starving, but what I could do is go and equip people with the understanding of, "This is how my mind works. This is the impact of life. This is what I can do to help myself get to a point. This is how I can educate myself," and so that's what I spent 25 years doing and doing research, and that was in South Africa. I'm 40 years into this field now, but Jean-Philippe, that really got me going with this whole way of what I do.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, it's an amazing story, and I'm sure you have many more to share.  I've been lucky to go to your beautiful country, South Africa, many times in my life, Caroline. It's a wonderful country, society as well, so complex, and of course, you've been going through all that. May I ask you actually the question, are you still in touch with many people there? And given the scope of your work, is this something that you have the desire to go back to maybe one day? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: So that's such a great question. So with my global platform, I have a lot of influence still back in South Africa, but I was very involved all through my career working in the education system, working with physicians, I was on national TV there. So I dedicated my career there to supporting, and when I expanded to the States, it didn't change. They're part of my community skills. So we actually go back once a year. We're going back now just in May and I'll do three or four conferences there, and to see family. So I don't know if I will ever move back there again, but I do go back, and obviously it's in my heart, and that's where my roots are, and that's where my initial research began, so it's a big, big part of me. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Makes a lot of sense, makes a lot of sense. Any particular memories as well you have, Caroline, of your parents, dad, mom, sometimes grandparents, that kind of shaped some of your values early on, and particularly related to your mind, basically, and the way your mind is working, and the way you wanted to master it one day. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Well, they were fantastic at encouraging -- I'm one of four children -- encouraging us to really pursue our dreams. And when I showed the direction that I was… I was going to become a neurosurgeon and got into med school, and did part med school, but then I realized I don't want to just cut up brains, I actually wanted to connect, understand the mind, so I got into another degree that enabled me to do that. But my parents were very encouraging, so from the beginning they always...it was just a lot of support for it. They saw the direction I was going in and they really opened that door. And there was a lot of open discussion about what was going on. So we were deep thinking, a deep thinking family, and that challenged me. And I'm very grateful for that, that they opened my mind and really saw the need for me to move and pursue the direction I was going in. Very, very supportive. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Super, I mean, super exciting to see the family supporting you early on. It's not always the case, I know with some vocation callings, some people have to sometimes move away from their family to accomplish the meanings of their lives. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So I think you started your research back in the 80s, working with patients suffering from brain injury and trauma, when it was not yet acknowledged that the mind could alter the brain, and the idea of neuroplasticity was still fairly new at the time. But you quickly came to a realization that you wanted to do things differently, and to work with patients in a more optimistic and positive framework. And I think one of your early patients was in a coma following an accident, and you decided to do something that was actually not part of the traditional playbook, if I understand, so what did you do and what happened? Can you tell us that story? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. So this was in my first year at university, when I went into a degree that actually combined medicine, psychology, communication, pathology, linguistics and neuroscience. We were a test group, and I say that to just give you the foundation of why I did what I did, was there was a thousand people that applied, only 60 of us ever qualified in this degree, and they stopped the degree because they basically put a seven-year degree into four years. So we worked 18 hours a day for 7 days a week. You know, at the point when I was doing it, I thought, "Oh, I will tell everyone never to do this," but I'm so glad I did it, because it opened my mind and it gave me the courage to do the research I've done, and it helped me see things in a very different way. And one of the lecturers was a neurology lecturer, and as you said, neuroscience was in its birth stages at that stage. We didn't know much about neuroscience, it was very new, so it was much more from a neurological perspective. And our neurological/neurology/neuroscience lecturer was telling us about how people with brain injury, the brain can't change, and in the 80s, that was the philosophy. Up until the 90s, between about the 50s and the 80s, the belief was that the mind was separate from the brain, but that the brain couldn’t change, and once the brain was damaged, that's it. So we were having this lecture, and I put my hand up, and I'll never forget this, I put my hand up and I said, “Sir, but how does that happen? How can your brain not change, because your mind is the thing that's always changing. We're never the same moment to moment, and your mind is using your brain. I mean, you've just said that in the lecture. And so therefore the brain's got to be able to change.” And he was quite, you know, 80s, woman, science, it was a challenge, and he quite facetiously said, "Oh, well then go and do research." I said, "Okay, well what area?" He said, "Well, go and do it in closed-head injury," which is traumatic brain injury, and I said absolutely. And he was basically…it was a negative challenge. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Negative, yeah, yeah. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: It was, because at that stage, there was very little research on traumatic brain injury, and the belief was that once your brain was damaged, that's it. So long story short, I actually, innocent student, didn't quite pick up all the…I picked up the challenge, let me go prove this, and I started working with traumatic brain injury, and I worked with people, believing that the mind could change the brain. So I thought if we can learn to stimulate the mind in a very organized and directed way, the mind is using the brain, the brain can't do anything on its own, so therefore the brain is going to respond. So that was my philosophy, and I developed a system, and I started testing it out and doing research. One of my patients was a patient that had been in a coma for quite a few weeks. Her and her brother had had a terrible car accident. They'd been thrown very far from the car, and her brain damage was very, very bad, and her parents had been told by the neurologist that basically she'd be a vegetable. Now thank goodness, they don't say that to the patients' faces anymore, but that was very often the comment. They didn't want to get the parents' hopes up, which is terrible, because hope is a huge part of healing. Anyway, so the parents ignored that, they didn't give up, and for the first few weeks that she was in hospital, they kept stimulating her. They had people around 24/7. Then just to fast-forward, they contacted me about a year after her accident. She came out of her coma, which was a miracle. They didn't believe that it would happen, and she started talking and walking again. She was 16 at the time of the accident, so by this time she was about 17. The parents contacted me when she was 17. She was a very average student before the accident, and at this stage, after her accident, at the age of 17, she'd come out of her coma, a total miracle, but she was battling to even function at a second grade level, so like a sort of eight-year-old level. And so the parents said, "Will you work with her?" And at this stage my research was totally experimental, and I said, "Look, I can't guarantee anything, it's experimental. You can try it." So long story short, they did, they worked with me three days a week, eight hours a week, and within eight months, not only had she caught up with her peer group, which were now in her last year of school, but she actually went ahead of her peer group. She finished school with her peer group. She's got better grades than what she did, or her marks, her scores and so on on her tests were better than before the accident without brain damage. So in an eight-month period, she went from a 2nd grade to finishing 12th grade, going on to get a degree, went on to change her life. I mean, it's a miracle. When I took her back to the neurologist and the team, they said, "You were lucky." I said, "There's no ways that this is luck." This was utter, pure, hard work that this person put in. They used their mind to change their brain, and we saw that. At that stage, we didn’t have MRI, so we would use a CT scan. So we could see the change in the brain and her behavior. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That's an incredible story, Caroline. Is it what actually triggered, deep down into you, the calling to do what you do today and what you've done? Because you said, at the time, you were doing some early research, early days, so you are not necessarily sure about your practice, nor did you define the Neurocycle steps, I guess, that we'll get to in a few minutes. So, was it the key event that actually definitely drove you to do more? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Definitely. It was a key event, because through my four years at university, we were very trained in all the clinical side and everything, and I started that research early on. I did some other projects, well, at university, that also triggered it, where I worked with children that had been very damaged from various different brain damage as well, that sort of thing, and I saw major changes. It was birthed in my first degree, but then by the time I'd done my Masters and PhD, I would say that that particular incident was a huge stimulation. And then working in South Africa, seeing that if you just give people the ability to use their mind, they change. So, yes, it did stimulate that, and the Neurocycle was birthed back in that time period, in the late 80s, and the work that I did then in the late 80s, early 90s, was some of the first work in neuroplasticity in the world at the time, specifically in my field, showing that if you change your mind, you can change your brain. So, yes, that definitely was a trigger. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So I think it's not just people who have suffered brain injury or trauma that can use these techniques, isn't it? The skills you teach about mind management and reprogramming the brain can be used by everyone to help them respond to situations, to get basically a healthier mindset. So would you mind starting by sharing some of the basic definitions? What's the difference, first, Caroline, between our mind and our brain that you talked about, because for most people it looks like the same thing, or it's quite ambiguous, and what do we call consciousness versus non-conscious and the subconscious? But let's start first with the mind and the brain. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Excellent, excellent questions, and yes, this is just everything I'm so glad you mentioned. Even though I started in the world of working with people with traumatic brain injury and learning disabilities and trauma, I very quickly saw, hey, I need this for me. This is actually a life skill. So the application is therapeutic and it's a life skill, because it's mind, and that's where we can lead directly into the definition of mind versus brain. For years, there was the understanding…for thousands of years, philosophers understood that the mind and the brain were separate, and there's some kind of connection. Then we had the Cartesian time and day chart, and all that sort of thing, where the separation was seen, but not a connection. But that kind of, you know, it's extremes. It's always like that. That's how we discover things. We go from one extreme to the next. But if you look at the actual science that we currently have in the 200 years, more or less, of the modern sort of scientific age, what we see is a very clear picture between that there is a difference, but that the mind is actually in-brained and embodied. And so what I mean by that is, just think of the physical brain and think of your physical body as very much the physical things. Now, the mind is physical, but it's a different type of physical. We're talking about electromagnetic waves. We're talking about quantum physics. We're talking about gravitational fields. But it exists, and what we know from modern science is that when someone is alive, like us now communicating, people watching, we are able to communicate and connect because of the mind. So your mind is like your life force. It makes your mental side work, and it makes your physiological side work. So the fact that your heart's beating right now, the fact that your lungs are working, that is because you're alive with your mind. So your mind drives that neurophysiology, and it also drives the mental aspect of us being able to function. So the brain, if you’re dead, the brain just disintegrates, as does the body. And also we know that the mind puts life experiences, we with our mind. Our mind is us. It's our ability to think, to feel, to choose, to respond, to process, to react. It's all of that. We’re responding 24/7. During the day, we respond to life, and we actually wire that into the brain and the body. So it's not the brain that runs our memory, it's the brain and the body, and it's a feedback loop, but it's also in the mind. Now you've got a sky behind you, and everyone can see it, so this is a great analogy we use to explain mind-brain. So the mind you can see as the sky. 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: It's these interlapping fields and energy fields. And then as the particles of water condense, you form clouds, and clouds constantly change. So this is a great analogy. The sky changes, the clouds change. The sky is your mind, the clouds are your thoughts.




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: And your thoughts, like a cloud, is made of lots of droplets of water. A thought is made of lots of bits of memory, and they're constantly changing, because we're constantly changing. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love this analogy of Caroline's, thinking of our thoughts as clouds in a constantly changing sky, or mind. It seems to me that our mind comes with this incredible blend of experiences that we've acquired during our lives, experiences that we go through and process constantly, and all that processing makes an impact on us mentally and physically. So every experience we have, all day long, moves from the sky and clouds and into the trillions of cells in our brain. 


Recently, Caroline, I had the opportunity to have a best-selling author, but also a Hindu priest, Dandapani, and a coach, as a guest, and we had a fascinating discussion on awareness. He said, "Where awareness goes, energy flows." And we're just listening to your energy, actually, vibes, going through our discussion right now. In his book, "The Power of Unwavering Focus," he brings a very interesting analogy of a house with three floors, three levels, one for consciousness, and then he navigates with us in the house to open many doors with our awareness. And in his view, training and controlling your awareness is critical to your mental health. And actually, in your book, "Changing [Cleaning?] Up Your Mental Mess," you introduce a very powerful practical approach I love, actually, of using it as well -- starting to use some of that -- the 5-Step Neurocycle. So, first of all, what is your own definition of awareness, to go back to this awareness moment?


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: If we just have awareness, and we don't do something about awareness, we can actually have a problem. So if you open every door in the house, and you start looking at it, but you don't actually manage what's in there, you'll create a tremendous chaos and get into worse mental health. So, we have to understand how we use awareness. So the emphasis on awareness is very important, but it's also, what do we do with what we're now aware of? 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: So, I've opened all these doors…




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Exactly. So, awareness, there's a general awareness where we have a general awareness that “I feel anxious” or harboring anxiety, or happy, or whatever. Then, there's a focused awareness that is the opening of the doors equivalent, where I see, "Okay, I'm aware of this, I'm aware of this," and you focus it. That is your consciousness, and that consciousness, you often talk about streams of consciousness, and in science you often talk about consciousness -- well, not me, I don't agree with this -- but there's a statement made that a lot of people may have heard, that consciousness is the hard question of science. I disagree totally, because consciousness is the most obvious question, because of the fact that you and I can even have this conversation and even talk about the fact that there's a stream of consciousnesses as houses and all these things, that's obvious that that is our consciousness in operation. So maybe we need to expand the definition of awareness and consciousness, and have a look at the fact that we are consciously awake now having this conversation, that we were asleep a few hours ago, and we were in an unconscious state. So when you're asleep, you're in an unconscious state, but that doesn't mean your brain stops. It doesn't mean that your mind stops. Unconsciousness and consciousness are just different mind states. So your mind moves through different states, and that then affects how the brain functions. So unconsciousness is sleep when you're under anesthesia, or that kind of thing, where your mind is still processing everything. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Still working, yeah. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: That's why we dream.




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yeah, that's how people under anesthesia can hear, are processing comments being made over them in surgery and that kind of thing. And then consciousness is when you're consciously awake. Then you get your subconsciousness, unconsciousness when you're asleep or under anesthesia, but there's another level that people don't speak about, and that is called the non-conscious. 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: And I know this is something that you're interested in too. Now the non-conscious is an area that I've spent nearly 40 years researching. There’s not many of us that actually research this area to this extent. 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: I think it's a matter of definition. I think people have got so caught up in the concept of the subconscious and the unconscious, they use those words interchangeably. So subconscious and unconscious, the messaging has been that these programs in those that run us and we can change the programs, and that's actually not correct. If you look at the science, we have our conscious mind, we have the subconscious, which is a bridge, or a doorway, or a waiting room, it just basically is a temporary holding space. And the consciousness is limited. So, if you think of like a funnel, the consciousness is the top of the funnel, then as the funnel starts widening, that's the subconscious, like a waiting room, and then underneath that funnel opens up into infinity. And that infinity is your non-conscious. Your non-conscious is the sky. The sky is infinite, and it just goes on and on and on. And your non-conscious is your aliveness, your mind, it's this biggest part of you, it's where your wisdom resides, it's where the messiness of life resides, it's where all our experiences reside, and it's infinite in its connection with…it's there driving us. It's on our side, it's forever, it's the part of us that if someone comes to you and says, "Hey, Jean-Philippe, I've got this issue," a running the business issue, whatever, if someone in Microsoft comes in. You listen, and you process, and you access wisdom. That is you consciously tapping into your non-conscious, taking all your experience, and tapping into the deepest level of wisdom, and then speaking it back to them. So all of us are literally…that's our core fundamental of who we are. We're made of this wise non-consciousness that matches the neurobiology and the biology, where we actually, what we call as scientists, call it "wired for love." So the non-conscious never goes to sleep, it's infinite, it's beyond space and time, it operates at about 400 billion actions, or 10 to the 27, even faster. The conscious mind is slow, it only operates at 2,000 actions per second. So the conscious mind is limited. It's brilliant, but limited in how much it handles at once. Because the conscious mind, coming back to awareness, is the path that that does the awareness. So when we feel aware, when we focus on awareness, what we're doing in essence -- and we talk about opening the doors -- we are actually directly making the deliberate intention –


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: To focus on something. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yeah, to focus onto the subconscious and find what is the non-conscious telling us. So that's what the door opens. So it's something coming through, what wisdom. And the non-conscious is very quickly…there's a messy part and there's a wise part. The wise part is the bulk, it is the core, it's the fundamental. The messiness is how we do life. We have to experiment back and forth, hypothesizing, etc. So it's that combination. Does that make sense? I don't know if that's clear. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That makes sense, but there's so much to uncover, Caroline, because you've been diving into that space of the mind and the brain for so many years. So, I'd like you to help us uncover, in a way, the 5 steps that you've defined, and the way you've, I guess, I mean, this is your attempt to help us navigate all the way from this unconsciousness, subconsciousness, and consciousness, all the three levels all together, and in a way make sense of our life, every second of our life, if we can. So help us understand the way you've been defining that cycle, and the way it can work with all of us, actually. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: What the Neurocycle does is help you to manage your mind for whatever you need, whether it's a day-to-day, in the moment struggle. Maybe you're in a meeting and someone throws you off in the meeting where you get a text, whatever. Or maybe you've developed a bad habit where you've got stuck in social media, or just whatever, or you've had a trauma. So kind of it covers all those categories, or there's some kind of neurological damage from a traumatic brain injury. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So can we start at the very start? What is the starting point, the launch pad, where we start step number one, Caroline? What does it look like, and what should our mind think about for this very first step? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: So, the whole idea is to do the Neurocycle fairly quickly, between 5 to 15 minutes. It'll probably stretch to 15 if you're dealing with a big thing, like a trauma. If it's a habit, you can do it in around 5 to 15. And also it's done daily in a planned and guided way over 63 days, and we can talk about why 63 days once I’ve explained.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, we'll get back to that. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: So the first step is gather awareness. You're going to gather awareness, I've got four fingers up or four different things. So the first one is emotions, the second one is behaviors, the third one is bodily sensations, and the fourth one is perspectives. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Caroline’s Neurocycle method is all about managing your mind, to change the structure of your brain. There are five steps in a cycle. Step one, gather information. Ask yourself four questions. What am I feeling? What is it in my body? Or is it affecting my behavior? And how is it affecting my perspective? And you can do this on the app, or just say the questions and answers to yourself out loud. The second step is to reflect on those feelings. What are they telling me? Why do I have those emotions? Ask, answer, discuss. Step three, write down your reflection on a piece of paper to help you organize your thoughts. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: You don't make long-winded sentences, you simply pour like a brain, a mind storm, whatever has been stimulated by the first two steps you write down onto a piece of paper. So that takes you to the fourth step, and the fourth step I call the recheck. And now, this is where we reconceptualize. This is now, we say, okay, this is what's going on. What does this mean? What is this thought that's growing here? What am I actually dealing with? What are those signals attached to? This has happened. How can I see this in a different way? What's the pattern? What's the trigger? So, there's a lot of…that's reconceptualizing, reconceptualizing it. So you're looking at what's come up, and now you're trying to make sense of it. You're getting the pattern, you're tidying it up, connecting the dots. I have to stress, this doesn't happen in one day. This happens over time. So it's a little bit each day, that's where the key is. And once you've done that, the reconcept, the rechecking step, you stop at a point, as I keep saying time, and you take what you've gathered, reflected, written, and rechecked, and you create a statement. And that statement is something to carry you through today -- not forever -- today. What do I need to do today so that I don't let this detract me from what I've got to do for the rest of the day? That will boost me and help me to start taking it in a positive direction, and that's called an Active Reach. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Okay. Is it kind of an affirmative statement, Caroline, this Active Reach? Is it like a statement to myself, "Hey, JP, today, this is what you're going to do and the way you're going to do it." 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Is it a real deep intent we have for the day or for the moment, and on the way I want to really focus my energy, my mind, and the best in myself for that moment? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. That's what it is. It's like a positive affirmation or a quote that you love or a little statement that you say to yourself. But the key thing here, Jean-Philippe, is that it comes at step five. If you just skip the other steps and just say a positive affirmation or set an intent for the day, that doesn't work. The science shows it does not work, and we know from our experience. So you can even use a technique like visualization. I often recommend to people, get a statement. Maybe you're working on something like battling with regret or battling with, "If only I did this," and that's keeping you stuck and you can't move forward and progress in your work or whatever. And it could just be, "Remember to not if only today." And it could be that you visualize a cloud in the sky or you visualize a rose or you visualize yourself succeeding. It's progressive. It will grow, but it grows out of those prior four steps. And yes, it's a little statement with a little visualization that you say, quick, easy, nothing complicated.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: This is super helpful, Caroline. And for sure, it's going to take all of us a lot of practice. So tell us in a couple of minutes, if you can, the way we wire that as a set of new habits in order to practice. I think you mentioned before, it's going to take us 63 or 67 days. It's very precise, because you’ve been researching that. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yes, it’s very precise. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So tell us why and tell us also the connection between that kind of daily practice and the way we are maybe basically helping out the neuroplasticity of our brain to get used to it in a different way. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: So habits form somewhere between 63 and 67 days, and there's an up and down cycle. The first three weeks is a lot of hard work where you spend around 15 minutes a day, so more or less three minutes per each of those steps. And you basically are finding what those four signals are attached to, and you're finding the roots, and you're deconstructing, and you're reconstructing, and that's quite a lot of work. Then the second, this is where a lot of people stop, and that's why we have had this myth. It's a total myth that habits form in 21 days. It was in the 60s, a doctor, a surgeon, did some plastic surgery, and he saw his patients healing in cycles, which is what the body does. The body heals in cycles of 21 days. But what we found is that that healing is not just – there’s healing, and then there's the stabilization of the healing. So in the first 21 days, you will deconstruct and form a new network, but that network is tiny. So to become a habit, it has to grow. And so you go into phase two, which is at least 42 days, and so you do the Neurocycle again, but it's different. You're doing it for five minutes a day, so you are reinforcing what's there.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Just a couple of practical suggestions to our listeners. Number one, is there a perfect time during the day to do that? Or is it something that we should do at the right moment, meaning the right question, the right issue, the right emotions? What is your practice on this one every day? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: I would recommend the morning, because in the morning you have a difference in your cortisol levels and just your focus, and you've had that sleep. And even if you haven't had great sleep, this Neurocycle, it's amazing how it helps with sleep. It prepares you, because sleep begins in the morning, preparation for sleep. So that is ideal, but not everyone has the time in the morning, but you can train yourself. So I do it when I'm getting ready. I do the Neurocycle all the time. I'm always in a Neurocycle. I dedicate when I'm getting ready. My family knows that that's when you don't talk to me. That's when I'm working through my Neurocycle. And I have my phone there to type in, because the third and fourth step you're writing. So I spend that time then. And then I use the Neurocycle -- you can use it in under a minute. You can use it in 30 seconds during the course of the day. So it's a lifestyle. Because it organizes your mind. It's mind management. Instead of your mind being chaotic, it gets it in order. So that you can do all through the day. If you can't get it done in the morning, find a time that works for you, maybe lunchtime, but maybe that you have to do it in the evening. So I don't want you to be religious about it, but I recommend.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Would you actually pick a quiet place where you have actually silence and you just focus your mind on that exercise, at least in the first 63 days, right, just to get your habits created? And number two, my other question is, would you recommend our listeners to actually have a journal of their entries day by day when it comes to the statement? You know, at the end of the process, when you basically have this active reach, should I actually document that day by day? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yes, absolutely. Yes, you should document it. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So I'd like to shift gears, Caroline, and talk about the way, in a way, I mean, you use some of that methodology in different discussions when it comes to leadership, when it comes to positive leadership as well. So I'd like to start with a discussion I had with many guests on my podcast, which is the importance for each one of us to understand our own life and developing what is called our own life story. There's a great quote, actually, from the late American scholar Warren Bennett saying, "Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, but it is also that difficult." 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yes, it’s wonderful. And another guest, Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup, who I spoke to on a podcast, “Understanding your past experiences, values, beliefs, and how they've shaped you is essential to become an authentic leader.” That's what he said. And he used, actually, that technique that he actually learned from a coach to write down his life story or to tell his life story. And it certainly requires a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness in a big way. So how important is it in your own practice maybe to help your patients or the people you coach to develop their life stories and maybe using some, of course, of the tools we just went through together? 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I've been using the analogy of the sky and the cloud. Think of how iCloud actually works. You make a backup. So the sky is not only your mind driving, but your non-conscious also stores this backup. And there is some research, it's very new, showing that it almost is as though the DNA plays a role in almost uploading to the… The mind kind of clicks the button and there's an upload. So your autobiography is your history, your autobiography, it's all over you, it's embodied, so it's essential. And we can get so caught up in fear of missing out of other people in social media. We know the current problem. Our current day technology is fantastic, but the implications for our perfect you, for you, for your “I” factor, it can be very damaging. And so it's very important to come back to that autobiography, your story, your history, to recognize there's something you can do that no one else can do. And that can get very blocked when you're trying to be someone else. And in our current day and age it does. And, you know, we make a lousy someone else, but we make an amazing you. And part of this whole story narrative, autobiography, is that when we use something like the Neurocycle, we develop our ability to self-regulate. When we self-regulate, we really become the decent humans that we have the potential to be. Because I can now start regulating, managing my mind, and seeing when I speak like that to someone, it has this kind of negative impact. When I manage my life in this way, not only is it impacting me, but it's impacting others. When I speak to my staff in this way, when I get worried about… When I start comparing myself to someone else, I'm not going to run my team like I should. And so the Neurocycle helps you to see the cracks and how you're missing out on your “I” factor and to celebrate yourself. And it's not selfish. It is the more you recognize your story and what you can do, the more you will seek to support others and the more you will see wisdom in others. You're not going to be threatened by others because you can do something that they can't do. So by lifting them up, you lift yourself up. So autobiography story is so important to keep your perspective and your empathy and all that kind of thing in the right place. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love it, Caroline. It reminds me obviously of the so-called…the power of positive leadership, particularly when it comes to oneself, yourself, knowing yourself, self-awareness. And you just talked about self-regulation quickly. And I think you have a wonderful analogy talking about a plane and where you're going to fly with the plane, and where you're going to land. Can you walk us through that process to give us, in a way, a great analogy on how to have a handle on the self-management of our mind, self-regulation of our mind every single day of our lives? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. Well, basically our network runs on self-regulation. So mind management is the term I use, but when you're using mind management, you're actually self-regulating. So the analogy is, if you think of flying a plane, the first thing I have to do is I have to -- well not I -- they prepare the plane. So there's a lot of preparation that goes into it. So in the Neurocycle, as you go through the Neurocycle to develop self-regulation, there's a preparation of the plane before you take off. And that's things like your focus and breathing and meditation. And there's a million different ways you can do that. And that you do just before you gather awareness of the four signals, that's preparing the plane thing. 




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Then you take off. The taking off is equivalent to gathering awareness. And you're flying over this forest. And what is the forest? The forest is your mind. It's your mind, brain, body connection. It's everything about you, your autobiography, your experiences, your present, past, and future. All stored in the trees and the hedges and clouds, but flying over a forest is an easy analogy. Now you are the pilot and you’re the co-pilot. And the pilot is very guided and aided by the co-pilot. So the co-pilot is facilitating the pilot’s flying, so that it has to be a teamwork. So both perform a vital role and they’ve got to work together. And if they don't, it's a problem. So your co-pilot is almost like your wise mind, because your pilot is in action. So that's your messy mind. And we need a messy mind. It's brilliant. There's nothing wrong with being messy because messy is how we do life. We don't know what's coming up. And so that's the beauty of life. But the co-pilot is able to say, “Hey, you know what, maybe that way you spoke to that person or that way you’re functioning now,” so it's giving you that wisdom. So you’re in this head plane or your helicopter, whichever you want to see, and you're flying over the forest, and as you're having this discussion, you took off because you maybe are driven by hovering anxiety or just things happening at work that are just worrying you, so you need to do something. So you've prepared, you've taken off and now the co-pilot and you are having you flying and it's messy. And your co-pilot’s saying, “Hey, you know what? Maybe you should just look down below and shine the light down below.” Imagine there's a spotlight on this helicopter or plane. And can you see that there's a group of trees down there that look pretty toxic and they’re pretty big. And can you see they’re kind of generating these four signals. And now we start getting awareness of these four wafts of emotions, behaviors. And then the pilot says to you, well, why? You know, reflect, why do you think this is happening? Maybe we should land the plane.




DR. CAROLINE LEAF:  So you land, that’s step three. And you go up and say, okay, what am I looking at here? Let's take the spade out of the plane. Let's start digging at the roots. Let's start seeing, oh gosh, these are rotten here, and there's this there, and bare trees. The branches are how I'm showing up in my communication, my relationships, my behaviors. And the tree trunk is how I'm thinking. The roots are where it's coming from. So this is not who I am when I took off the plane. This is how I've become because of. So in flying over. And so then I land the plane and then I start digging whatever and reconceptualizing. And then we find some roots and put some healing on. So that's the step four. Now my active reach is, okay, this is great. Tomorrow we'll come back. And today let's just talk about, I'm starting the process. I don't know why this is happening at work. Why I'm constantly feeling burnt out, but I've started the process. Take off, fly back, go back to the airport, land the plane. And that's the cycle that tomorrow you take off and you do the same thing again. That is an analogy for self-regulation. Now what's happening a lot, Jean-Philippe, through the current ways that people use meditation and all those things as we're seeing from the research, we're seeing the feedback. People are pretty good at preparing and taking off, that awareness, the meditation, but then they don't know what to do. They open the doors. They don't know how to fly. They never learned how to fly. So they crash. They crash land or they just ignore the shining light and they go back to the airport. We don't want to do that because you don't actually move forward. You won't solve the problem. You’ve got a band-aid. You're going to put a plaster on the wound as opposed to resolving, if that makes sense. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Makes a lot of sense. I'd love to have a great, beautiful flight and know where to land safely as well, Caroline, for sure. 




JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It's a great segue actually, the analogy you took of the pilot and co-pilot. We are entering obviously a pretty fascinating era called the AI era. And you mentioned some of your work you're doing with your own platforms. As you may know, Microsoft is actually…we are calling our agent or AI agent, Co-pilot. It's called Co-pilot, and it's really a tool on behalf of the people to help them achieve more, whether it is more productive, more collaborative, more creative, really that right hand basically. So as a neuroscientist, how do you see the role of this AI kind of co-pilot and how much could it help us maybe one day accomplish the five steps of the Neurocycle that we just talked about? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: I love that. I'm so glad you asked that question. I'm very excited about AI and I think I am excited for two reasons. Number one, I understand that AI is an algorithm. And just a bit of brain science, if I may, and a bit of psychoneurobiology, AI as we know is based on an algorithm. It's based on how a neuron fires. That's the basic underlying principle. But it's based on one neuron. We have a hundred billion. We don't even understand how two neurons connecting with each other, driven by the mind, what that generates. We haven't even looked inside the neuron. So if you go inside the neuron, there's another world of energy and microtubules and things that we haven't even touched on. So just to put people's minds at ease, there's no ways that AI would take over human function and get sentience and that kind of thing. We as humans are using our brilliance to make the algorithm more powerful. So that's on the one side. I just wanted to say that. So that's why I'm excited about AI because it helps us to do things more efficiently and quickly. So in our work, we have this Neurocycle app and we gather data. I do research and we have data. We have data, we do qualitative and quantitative studies. It's hours and hours and hours of manpower and there's potential human error. So this is where we're excited, we're working actually with IBM at the moment to help us create a tool. We've gone quite far down the road already. We're almost at the point of having a dashboard where we are able to then analyze data, obviously identity protected, obviously following HIPAA rules and all that kind of thing. We're able to then take that data and able to get information that can enhance the process for the person experiencing, going through the Neurocycle, improving. We learn more about self-regulation, etcetera, that can then be fed back in. In addition, it will help the person within the app to be able to have a used experience because AI, as we know, can predict, like you're using it as a companion. It's looking at what do you need that can make you more efficient. So we're looking at AI in that aspect too, in terms of how can we make this whole process of helping you, maybe you need some suggestions for what to reflect on. Maybe you need some suggestions for active reaches and that kind of thing. So that's how we are looking at using it within our tool. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Exciting. Again, looking forward to use your own AI agents, Caroline, very soon, just to test it – 




JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And help me actually. No, help me as well, maybe go through this 63 days process we just talked about together. I'd like now to talk about positive psychology. I had the pleasure, the honor actually, to host on this podcast, authors, researchers such as Kim Cameron, such as Barbara Ferguson, Martin Seligman as well, who as you know have been the founders of positive psychology. So as a neuroscientist, I’d really love to ask you the question about the way you see the work done by all those famous researchers in positive psychology, and how neuroscience helps or extends the work done by basically those early pioneers of positive psychology. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. Well, I think it's fantastic that we shifted from years of looking at just very negative stuff in psychology to actually looking at the power of mindset and expectation. And positive psychology falls within that realm that we know, and I know from my research, the placebo effect and all these things that people hear about. Is that the minute that you, for example, let me give a simple example in terms of Neurocycle. If I look at depression as an emotional warning signal and something that will give me information and that is connected to behaviors and so on, like I described, if I look at it like that, as opposed to looking at it as a symptom of a disease, that means that I've got brain damage and I'm mentally ill and that's not even good science at all, what we see is an immediate shift in a person's psychoneurobiology and that enables them to therefore access the wisdom of an unconscious mind. So in simple language, through the power of expectation and looking at things differently, and I'm hesitating to use the word positive totally because we've got to bring balance in, we shift on neurophysiology in a very good way. So it's very important, it's vital research, it's research that we've needed and people do experience the effect. Where people feel the effect is because without even being aware of it, they've balanced it. If we just think, “Okay this is a bad thought, I'm just going to think positive thoughts, it'll fix everything,” like the secret and all those things, that is not good science and it actually does not work. It'll boomerang, it will fall flat on its face, so you can't just positive your way through something. What we have to do, part of using positive psychology and expectation in what I believe is the correct way is to understand that I show up like this because of a reason and I've got to go through the healing and the pain like the surgery example in order to move forward. So I can't just take this pain and slap on a band-aid and think, okay that's it, I can't just do that. And that we see creates more damage, more brain damage, etcetera, more mind, brain, body, more mental health issues and so on. So it's using it with a balance. So positive psychology I almost would say is the expectation mindset that you go into the Neurocycle with and then the techniques and the things that fall under positive psychology are great in step five, so in the active reach. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Got you. So basically you kind of learn how to set the right expectation for your life with positive psychology and then you go to the [PH] regime of the five-step Neurocycle and you actually make it happen. Is that kind of the right summary? 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Yeah, that's kind of right, yes. So instead of just jumping from, “oh this is a problem, I'm going to think positively,” we've skipped out a whole point. It's like if you don't know how to fly the plane and land the plane, you'll crash. So we can't just go and say “I'm going to skip all of the flying and I'm just going to land the plane.” You had to take off before you could land the plane. So just using positive psychology on its own is just literally landing the plane if you didn't take off anyway, so it's not going to have the impact. So when it works, you've got to do the full five steps, full cycle.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Full cycle. The time is going very fast, Caroline, I'd like to talk about your own practice. Because I understand that even at home you have a designated space to exercise it and I think if I'm not mistaken you even experience that with your kids actually at home. And you do that both with your kids and with others’ kids but also all the way up to business leaders. So I'd love to talk about the way you've been practicing that maybe with leaders of large organizations. If you could share a story, of course respecting privacy, we don't need any names, where you've been able to change dramatically to transform a leader or mindset for the better with some very positive results, because again of that toolset, practice, and where you have him or her changing the way they do that every day in their lives. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: Absolutely. Well in South Africa I did a lot of work with…I mean there's so many stories I can tell but what popped in my mind, an interesting one was the Atomic Energy Corporation. I worked with them, they’re massive in South Africa back in the mid-90s, and I worked with all the top executives that are all the scientists. So there's a very specific mindset, very siloed thinking, very much, you know, the leadership, the interaction is not the greatest because you're dealing with people that are very focused in on their field. And so using this practice of helping people to actually self-regulate themselves through the Neurocycle, then be able to help them to tune into each other. So it transformed the ability of scientists to take the credible skills that they had as individuals and bring those to the table to solve problems in a more effective way. Because instead of working almost like in separate kind of categories, they worked as an interaction. So it's almost like you made little holes in the wall and then they could interact, if that makes sense. I'm trying to think of analogies to help people. So that was transformational. But it starts with people understanding themselves. It starts with “I've got to self-regulate myself.” Because very often, like there was another thing that's popping in my head of another company, a very big successful company, and there were two main leaders that were always in conflict. Every meeting was a drama because these two just… And honestly, I sat in one of these meetings, okay, let me just observe and see what's going on, and I started actually mapping this whole thing out doing the Neurocycle. I did it while they were communicating, and then I created this whole metacog on the table and I took them through the process. I said, okay, look at this, you're both saying the same thing. In essence they were saying the same thing but they weren't listening to each other. And I just walked them through that process, helped them to use the Neurocycle to understand how they were managing themselves and how that was influencing their perception and vice versa, and then got them to actually -- because I could show them visually what they had experienced -- and suddenly they said, “Oh I didn't know you were saying that.” So there was a connection there and they were two vital key players in the organization and they always were in conflict, which was slowing progress down. Anyway, at the end of that day, honestly two hours, they walked out best friends.




DR. CAROLINE LEAF: And it transformed the relationship because they both were so vital to the organization. So those are just two examples off the top of my head. I honestly can tell you that using the Neurocycle -- and it's the word, Neurocycle is just a great word -- but it's managing your mind. And it's a scientific process and it's easy to use and that's what people get. It's nice to have a concept that is a system. It's not a technique, it's a system. Using it as a life skill -- I don't work directly with people anymore, I don't practice anymore because I don't have time but I still do the research and I reach people now through my platform and books and so on – and as a life tool to manage your mind like in your relationships, with my kids. My kids were taught this from young. My youngest patients were two years of age. I've even brought out books just last year on how to help your child clean up their mental mess. It’s a vital life skill to help us become decent humans. I mean, we're decent humans and we're managing ourselves, that's when we contribute to our fields and to change the evils like apartheid that we see in this world. So I know that's philosophical but it really is a very big objective behind managing our minds.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It's certainly very worth trying it and doing every day, Caroline. So we are coming to an end I'd like to go back to basically the co-foundation of this podcast which is positive leadership. This is the way it's called, this is [PH 00:54:03] a source school of thought. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with more than 70 guests today and to learn about their deep beliefs, their passion and also their unique ways to show up as positive leaders. So what is your own definition of what you would call, Caroline, a positive leader, and how can you recognize them in your personal, social, or professional life?


DR. CAROLINE LEAF:  I love that question and my answer is probably predictable. And that is a person who can self-regulate. A person who can self-regulate and is managing their mind, is able to tune in to the people that they're leading, and most importantly tune into themselves and understand the impact of what they can bring to the table, have confidence in that. And then at the same time being able to recognize that in the people that they work with. So self-regulation opens doors that are unbelievable in leadership.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That's the key. So my very final question, Caroline, it’s been a fascinating discussion, I'd love to ask you, what is your own purpose and how do you maintain your incredible drive and energy? Because I could feel your energy across the oceans coming to me in Paris. 


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: I love that! 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Not just the beautiful green [PH 00:55:12] cardigans but all of your positive energy. So what is your own purpose, what is underlying that force that you are driving every single day?


DR. CAROLINE LEAF: The force that drives it is the concern that I have with looking at humanity in general on a more broad sense. Bad things have always happened and it's always going to happen, but enabling a person to self-regulate and understand themselves, it changes how they function as a human. So becoming decent humans is a big objective because I know that that changes the world in a big way. And then in an individual way, coming down a little smaller, I'm very concerned about the mental health movement. I've been in the field for nearly 40 years and I’ve watched it in the last 40 years transform into instead of looking at the person in their whole story and their context, it's become one of a biomedical model of just labeling and diagnosing and taking people's stories out of the picture, and we've already discussed the importance of stories. It’s affecting children, it's shortening lifespans. I mean, some of the statistics are horrific, people are dying 8 to 25 years younger than they’ve ever done from preventable lifestyle diseases. So the way we define and manage mental health has really created a huge problem. So a big part of the work I do is to try and free people and help them feel empowered to be able to understand themselves and not to get caught up in labels and things that limit you. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It was such a pleasure to have Caroline helping us clean up our mental mess by flying in this wonderful journey, seeing the skies, the clouds, and having a safe landing all together as well. I’m absolutely going to try her Neurocycle method, 5 minutes a day for 63 days to train yourself to manage your mind so you can drive this direction. I'd love to hear how you get on with it too. So please get in touch via LinkedIn to share your experiences. If you'd like to get more practical tips and techniques to improve your leadership practice then just sign up for my monthly newsletter, Positive Leadership and You. And just follow the link in the [PH 00:57:28] program description. And if you want to be able to listen to each new episode as it drops, make sure please that you subscribe to the podcast. I'm Jean-Philippe Courtois, this is Positive Leadership. Thanks so much for listening. Goodbye.