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.