In what is one of the most exciting new subfields in the study of gene expression - behavioral epigenetics - the intersection of our brain's plasticity - the ability of our brain to change and adapt - and genetic expression is becoming better known.
You know, once upon a time, science believed that the brain ceased development in childhood. The brain you had - with all its hard wiring - was the brain you would have forever. Here's a Ted talk from 2004 that discusses this theory of plasticity. In it, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says, "Your brain can do things tomorrow that it can't do today." By way of acquired skills, it adapts.
And his take home message to you is: you, YOU have a great deal of influence on what habits and patterns are reinforced in the brain.
So, what is behavioral epigenetics, and why is it so fascinating? Behavioral epigenetics says that the experiences of our ancestors can impact upon gene expression in our bodies and brain and affect the way we experience the world. This fascinating article on the topic refers to it as the 'molecular residue' from the emotional patterns of our ancestors.
That means that the anxiety and stress, or the resilience and resourcefulness, of your grandparents and great-grandparents may be alive and well within you. It's like an inherited pattern of gene expression.
Recent research has also revealed a link between disturbed emotional states - like depression, anxiety and PTSD - and gene expression in the brain. One article discussed some of that research, the gist being that our emotions (or in this case "disturbed emotions") have the ability to turn on and off the expression of certain genes in our brains. And, according to my reading, particular focus was paid to "emotional disturbances."
This is important to note, because the "disturbed emotional states" mentioned above often related to strong unexpressed emotions (like grief) or were the result of a sort of truncation in the process of emotional expression; like PTSD, a situation in which an event overwhelms our system so that we are unable to process it; we become 'stuck' in the energy of the event in a 'fight or flight' response, or in a shut down 'freeze' (or a combination of both!) response.
I'd then ask the question: Can a distinction be made between fully expressed emotion and emotions that are denied full expression, or are buried deep within us? That's an important distinction, I would imagine, from the standpoint of gene expression.
This is just scratching the surface of what is now believed to be tangible evidence regarding our thoughts and emotions and how they come to impact our bodies and minds. At first glance, and if you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, this can feel disheartening.
Speaking for myself, I have always fought against any idea or theory that "essentialized" human experience. In other words, any explanation that took control of my experience out of my hands. If my negative emotional states and behavior are all genetically determined then I am destined to suffer. My mom would blame all of her struggles - both physical and mental - on genetics. And as a young child, she would constantly remind me about what I was possibly inheriting and how it could effect my life (never positive things).
I understand now that the old 'nature vs nurture' picture is far more complex than that, and I can embrace the idea of some genetic inheritance now.
And this is where contemplative practices, like mindfulness meditation, play an important role.
Science has come to embrace the theory of plasticity; the theory that our brains' wiring - at least with respect to emotion, thought, and behavior - can be altered based on our practices and habits. If we always react with anger every time our mother in law says something we take offense to, we reinforce that reaction within us. We reinforce our anger. So that even the thought of our MIL can be enough to crank up our adrenal glands, alter our breathing patterns, and ignite a flurry of thoughts around how disrespected and misunderstood we feel.
The most exciting idea to come out of the plasticity model is that if our brains are alterable then there must be practices we can do to direct our thought and emotion into more helpful patterns.
Indeed, a recent study out of Wisconsin, France and Spain, revealed that meditation altered certain molecules that impacted gene expression. In this study, they found meditation to effect gene expression along inflammatory pathways.
That means that that our 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation could be impacting inflammation levels in the body.
It is now widely accepted that there is a link between depression (at least some forms) and chronic, low-grade inflammation. One of the highest ranking science and medical journals in the world, Nature, published a review that discussed this link. The research now shows a link between low-grade inflammation and the development of depression over an extended period of time.
This has exciting implications for us! It's likely that the mechanism through which meditation alleviates many of the physical and emotional conditions related to stress is in its ability to calm the nervous system and the excessive, chronic output of cortisol (an important hormone in our stress response).
The link between stress and inflammation is clear. If meditation has been shown to impact inflammatory pathways, and the reduced inflammation has an impact on depression, then we have a very real and tangible tool that enables to us engage with our epigenetic inheritance and legacy.
This is one of the more empowering aspects of contemplative practices - they empower us to influence the health of our brains and bodies - despite our genetic profile and possibly breaking inherited patterns for future generations.