I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my prediction that epigenetics was ripe for an invasion of quacks would come true. I also shouldn’t be surprised that Deepak Chopra has already jumped on the bandwagon.
We are referring to a different aspect of our genome, which radically revises a model that is decades old, dating back as far as the original discovery of DNA. In the original model, the effects of our genes were considered to be fixed and unchanging, controlling every aspect of our physical makeup, behavior, and susceptibility to disease. Not just eye color, height, and other physical characteristics were predetermined by inherited genes, but perhaps all kinds of behaviors, from criminality to belief in God.
No. No one with any knowledge of biology seriously believed any of that. Look up norms of reaction, for example — phenotype is the complex output of interactions between genes and environment. What he’s describing is the popular misconception of how genetics works.
It does not fill one with confidence when Chopra’s opening gambit is to completely misrepresent the field of science he’s claiming to be revolutionizing.
The new model, however, portrays a more fluid, dynamic genome that responds quickly, even instantly, to all that we experience, including how you think, feel, speak, and act. Every day brings new evidence that the mind-body connection reaches right down to the activities of our genes. How this activity changes in response to our life experiences is referred to as “epigenetics.” Regardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, dynamic change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.
Yes, action affects gene expression. If you exercise, for instance, your muscle fibers will upregulate cytoskeletal proteins, repair enzymes, etc. in response. How else does he think we get changes in physiology?
This is not epigenetics, however. It is also not heritable — your muscle cells do not contribute to the plasm of your progeny.
Theories of evolution and genetics have long taught that genetic mutation is entirely random. However, genetics has been gradually stepping into a new era of “self-directed biological transformation,” a mouthful perhaps, but with great significance in each word:
Self-Directed: Voluntary activity in your thoughts, feelings, habits, and desires. This is the realm of personal choice
Biological: Effects at every level of the mind-body system, including reactions by your genetic material
Transformation: Major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes
Repeat after me: we do not have conscious control over our histones or DNA methylation. We do not have conscious control over our histones or DNA methylation. We do not have conscious control over our histones or DNA methylation.
You cannot think your gene regulation into a desired state. What is most ironic is that someone who doesn’t even understand gene activity wants to put it under his control. Imagine self-directed aeronautical transformation: every passenger in a 747 is given direct access to every little detail of the actuators and hydraulics and circuitry of the plane. Would this be good or useful? Would transformation into a greasy flaming crater be desirable?
It’s also wrong. Voluntary control of your thoughts does not translate into voluntary, directed control of your genes.
This means that control is being given back to each person; we are no longer seen as puppets of our DNA. The human genome is set to be the stage for future evolution that we ourselves direct, making choice an integral part of genetics. This is in stark contrast to the “biology as destiny” view where genes override choice. Unless decisions, lifestyle, environment, and personal preferences are included, a full picture of the mysteries of our DNA cannot be attained.
I get it. Chopra is peddling an unrealistic illusion of control over your body, that you can modify your physiology by thinking at it. Nothing he is proposing is at all revolutionary — when you go to the doctor, and they tell you to “eat less, exercise more”, they are telling you that you can redirect your overall pattern of gene expression in productive ways. They’re just not swaddling it in uselessly vague misappropriation of scientific concepts.
Have you ever gone to a doctor who tells you your destiny is totally fixed by your DNA, go ahead and smoke, drink, engage in risky sexual behaviors, eat deep-fat-fried Mars bars, etc., etc., etc. because none of it makes any difference to your health, since your fate is fixed by your DNA? Didn’t think so.
The speed and extent of change at the genetic level would astonish researchers even a few years ago. Yoga and meditation, for example, can trigger almost immediate responses in genetic activity. Exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep, and stress reduction—all well-known for improving bodily function—exert beneficial effects via our genes. So the next frontier will be to discover how deep and lasting such changes are, how much control we have over them individually, and how they can be passed on to future generations through so-called “soft inheritance,” in which the parents’ life experiences and behavior directly influence the genome of their offspring (transmitted via the epigenome, which controls how the activities of our genes are turned up and down).
I can take a razor blade and cut a slice into my skin; this will trigger an almost immediate response in genetic activity as cells switch into repair mode, start proliferating, and move to combat potential infections. Eat some food, your gut responds. Grow older, and without even trying, there are steady changes in gene activity everywhere. Exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep, and stress reduction modify how your cells respond, this is no surprise at all, and Chopra has no special scientific knowledge to make him an authority on these effects.
But this part is a flat-out lie:
the parents’ life experiences and behavior directly influence the genome of their offspring
There are effects on development — try drinking a quart of vodka every night during a pregnancy, and yes, your behavior will affect the embryo — but no, working too hard or eating a poor diet does not change the genome you pass on to your children. There are weak correlations that show that some effects might propagate on for a generation or two via epigenetics, but they are not directed or conscious in any way, and there are many behavioral effects that confound the data. To claim that you can will changes in your genome is simply a lie.
The comments on that article are sadly gullible — I’m pretty sure Chopra wouldn’t let criticisms through. But this is truly terrible:
Can I make my cancer disappear? 2.5 cm esophicus with nothing showing in lymph nodes
No, ma’am, you can’t make a cancer disappear by consciously modifying your epigenome. The proper approach is to go to a real doctor or two, not Chopra, and listen to their recommendations. Cancers are not acts of will, punishments for sins, or subject to thoughtful consideration.
But Deepak Chopra has made a lot of money by implying that they are, and drawing in desperate, sick people who will grab onto any glimmer of hope, no matter how false.
Johnny Vector says
Sure you can. You just have to sit in a quiet place, take a deep, cleansing breath, and will yourself to go to an oncologist, who will modify your epigenome (and genome) with various chemicals and high-energy charged particles.
I mean, if eating well and getting enough rest counts as modifying your genetic expression, then surely chemo and radiation therapy do.
Great, they’ve found yet another set of words to use to repackage “The Secret” (or “quantum thinking” or “manifestation” or any of the other names it’s gone by).
Rich Woods says
So if I chop off my left arm at the shoulder, can I expect my children to be be born without a left arm or merely with a stunted left arm? Would my partner also have to chop her left arm off to guarantee an armless baby?
Seems to me we’ve been here before, but then no-one would expect Chopra to learn from history. Or even learn.
Pierce R. Butler says
But all this just describes regular epigenetics.
Dr. Chopra is talking about quantum epigenetics!
And an extra USD449,99 it has vibrations!
In a way, yes. The first doctor to tell me my lipids were a little high informed me that it was because I had “bad genes.” In other words, there’s not much you can do about it except take cholesterol medication. In a way I suppose he’s right, but eating better and exercising seems to has kept those numbers at the borderline level for over 10 years without the medication.
I understand that’s different than what Chopra is peddling. I didn’t wishful think my genes into being different, I changed my behavior…et voila. Like many religious quacks, Chopra continues to play on peoples fear of pain and death. I suppose in a saner society we would not allow charlatans like that their platform for selling woo.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
Sample size would be one, if you did it.
Yet if a million people did it, the probability of armless babies will skyrocket by a factor of gazillions.
[NB: gazillion times zero is still zero, though].
Check out the New Age bullshit generator, inspired by Deepak Chopra.
This implies that DNA is a thinking being, making us dance about on a string.
It’s terribly sad people listen to this con man.
UC San Diego has brought Deepak onto its faculty. Shame.
charlatans only survive and thrive in a ignorant world.
ignorance is there substrate for the propagation of lies.
Larry Clapp says
As other commenters have touched on: Can he cure, or teach people to cure, cancer? Can he cure an amputation? (Now that’s rewiring your genes!) Can he become immortal? Or even, say, double his life span? Those are good, solid, testable claims.
Here’s a different tangent: Can he change people’s sex? (To the extent that that’s even a meaningful term.) Can he change their skin color? That seems like a fairly benign application. Can I will my skin to become darker, or lighter? Can I will my eyesight to be better? If we’re so in control of our genes, can we do any of these simple(!) things?
SC (Salty Current) says
I recently read Chris Lehmann’s The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream. I give it a B overall, but it does offer some needed insights about the prosperity gospel and how it’s more than a con game. More generally, it makes an argument about the thread of Gnosticism (of a particular sort) that runs through US Christianity and the wider culture:
This longstanding cultural theme has important implications for the relationship between religion and capitalism. It’s also at the heart of much New Age thinking (The Secret, Chopra, etc.), self-help movements, and some trends in positive psychology. I believe this is why – in addition to an ingrained tendency to credulity – there’s often a good deal of overlap among believers in these seemingly irreconcilable belief systems. In fact, you can change out some terms – substituting, for instance, “consciousnessness” for “faith” (in some cases, the terms themselves are interchangeable) – and arrive at the same basic system of thought. Lehmann notes that these ‘Gnostic’ ideas play a role in many non-religious ideologies as well, and I think they seem to be very much at the core of Scientology. I think they’re also key to Donald Trump’s appeal, and to some extent explain his popularity among evangelicals.
The ideas are especially concerning now because they suggest, in addition to a particular relationship to capitalism, a certain relationship with the natural world (including our own bodies). This world is either a consciousness related to or amenable to conscious control, an extension of human consciousness, or nothing (and often a force hostile to human enlightenment). In other words, the natural, biological world is either a means of human transcendence or what needs to be transcended or both. That bodes very badly for the full acceptance of evolution, radical environmental reform, or an improved relationship with other animals.
@Larry Clapp #12
I’m pretty sure that the only “quantum” leap Deepak has made is to make his farts smell better.
Ed Seedhouse says
“Can I will my skin to become darker, or lighter? ”
Well you can decide to lie out in the sun and get a tan, or you can decide to bleach your skin. I believe deciding to do something is commonly considered to be an act of will.
Although personally I have my doubts. If my decisions are acts of will, what made me decide to will myself to decide?
That’s always been the game breaker for me. “Will” is an illusion. We are all bio-computers. We use our senses to accept input from the environment and create output. Conciousness is one of those outputs.
But you really should be surprised that a prediction you made in 2016 was quickly fulfilled in 2014. My God, man — you’ve reversed causation and broken the time barrier!
I think at least a little mild amazement is in order.
Mrdead Inmypocket says
Behold, the power of Chopra!!!
he has perfected bafflegab to such a degree to approach the sublime
he reminds me professor irwin corey
As with Alex Jones the obvious question is how much of what he spews does Chopra actually believe, and how much of it is to keep the rubes buying into his crap.
Mrdead Inmypocket says
Ha! yes. Or Stanley Unwin.
It doesn’t fill one with surprise, either.
Does Chopra know what biologists mean with the word “random”? The addition of the word “entirely” reeks of creationist influences.
I don’t think Chopra knows what “gene expression” means. It cannot be something so profane as growing muscles by exercise, can it?
Again, I don’t think Chopra knows what “genetic activity” means.
What is really disturbing: Chopra is not a fraud as far as we can tell. He genuinely thinks he is writing profound insights. Because science and because spirituality. That’s a core feature of New Age bullshit.
Don’t have time to link to it ( at work ) but Julia Sweeney’s take down of Deepcrap Chopra is hilarious. She straight up says after taking a class in quantum mechanics she realized Chopra is “full of shit”.
You mean this one?