My recent research, covered in the new book, Behavioral Genes-why we do what we do and how to change, explains the components of our behaviours, one of which is genetic. Anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of our behaviours are genetic and usually considered by mainstream psychology to be unchangeable. In other words, genes are our destiny. Fortunately in recent times that theory has been disproved by the new science called epigenetics. What my research explores is how the other components are changeable by simple logical actions.
In 2008, the National Institutes of Health announced that $190 million had been earmarked for epigenetics research. In announcing the funding, government officials noted that epigenetics has the potential to explain mechanisms of aging, human development, the origins of cancer, heart disease, mental illness and several other conditions. And more recently substantial evidence has been compiled to demonstrate how epigenetics can affect the genetic component of our behaviours.
The epigenome and genetic markers
Genes can be thought of as the blueprints that provide the design for the human body and how it develops. The word genome—a combination of the words gene and chromosome—refers to the genetic information of any organism. The human genome is often called the “map” of our DNA.
However, genes don’t make decisions about what they do or whether they’re turned on or off. An article in Discover magazine put it this way: “A human liver cell contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver.”
The gene follows instructions that aren’t in the genome, they’re in the epigenome, a word that means that it’s above the genome (epi means above). The chemical compounds of the epigenome tell a gene what to do. They’re also called “gene markers.” The Discover article suggests that we “think of the epigenome as a complex software code, capable of inducing the DNA hardware to manufacture an impressive variety of proteins, cell types, and individuals.”
Mindfulness is a powerful technique that you can use to modify the expression of your genes. Psychology Today has called mindfulness “present moment awareness.” Here’s the description from their list of core concepts in the field of psychology:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
Living in the moment
Mindfulness is often referred to as “living in the moment.” To make any change, you must first be aware of what you’re thinking and feeling. In other words, you must be in your conscious mind. If you’re not, you won’t be able to focus on those essential changes that you want to make.
In fact, the practice of mindfulness is critical to developing the state of consciousness you need to deal with every issue discussed in this book. For instance, if you’re focusing on managing your chronic stress you need to get into your conscious mind to realize that more stress doesn’t resolve stress.
In our usual state of unconscious mind, we live in the past or future. That’s where worry just adds more stress. When you’re in your conscious mind you’re free of those past recordings or future anxieties that play as a voice in your head. In your conscious mind you can look at everything without judgment or bias. You can be creative.
Mindfulness is a natural mental ability that’s available to anyone, regardless of education, culture, ethnicity or background. It’s a practical, natural way to be aware of your life, moment by moment. With daily practice of mindfulness, you can turn off your unconscious mind and participate in life as it unfolds.
Mindfulness is not a way to run away from your problems. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s a state of self-awareness—the state in which world records are set, visionary concepts are developed, and you are at your peak efficiency.
Mindfulness and gene expression
In 2013, a team of researchers from Spain, France, and the University of Wisconsin reported groundbreaking news. They found changes in gene expression in subjects who had practiced mindfulness meditation practice for just one day. The meditators showed reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes. A control group did not show those beneficial changes.
The leader of the study, Richard J. Davidson, stated: “To the best of our knowledge this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects following mindfulness practice.” This outcome, against the control group, provided proof that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.
Past studies have shown that mindfulness-based training has beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders. These new results show how that can happen. Meditation is endorsed by the American Heart Association as an effective way to lower your risk for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.