How Nurture Shapes Nature
Most of us knew that our genetic inheritance shapes much about who we are. Less known is the emerging field of epigenetics, and the surprising discoveries that in fact the quality of our thoughts can have a profound impact on our physiological health, as well as our emotional lives.
This morning, I read an Instagram post by a young woman who seems — insofar as how convincing and consistent her feed is — to truly have an authentic zest for life. It’s hard to tell these days. Most of us grossly overproduce our online selves in a bid to convince others (or ourselves?) that our lives are awesome, and that our onslaught of IG smiles and #winning hashtags duly reflects our daily experiences, rather than betraying a thinly veiled attempt to mask a less-than-perfect existence, full of highs and lows, that we seem far less eager to share with the world.
The difference between these two paradigms, though, may simply be a matter of where in the timeline continuum of our mantra recitation we happen to be, at this very moment. I’ll get to this in a minute.
And so: there was something very ‘light’ about this woman’s feed, rounded out by her choice to alternate posting images of short poems she writes and images of her wandering the globe, having adventures. It was the travelogue that first caught my eye, which I assume IG’s AI algorithms thought would get me to click, for putting it there in front of me. Lo and behold, they won this round…
Anyhow, in a post featuring a feminized drawing of da Vinci’s famous Vetruvian figure — presumably a self-portrait — she urged:
“Talk to yourself. Our DNA is like a genie in the bottle.
Connected to the unified web of the Universe, it draws from our thoughts and environment to attract the energy and experiences on which we focus. Science has proven much of this within the field of Epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence.
That means many of our individual genes are like light switches, with power being turned on and off according to the stimulus from our environments — external and internal.”
I knew a little about epigenetics, but never heard anyone advise that how we speak to ourselves could manifest in changes to our genomic expression. Undaunted, she continued:
“I believe in myself. This is something I say a lot. Not just silently. Housemates giggle after hearing me yell it to myself in the mirror several times in a row. Laughing at myself sometimes accompanies it as well, even on the difficult days. It feels silly, like screaming out loud that you believe in magic. And on days I do think it’s silly, I yell I believe in magic!
“Louder on days when I want to whisper.
“Growth begins with communicating the type of individual we want to be. An intention. If we speak to ourselves like the compassionate, bad ass, magic vessels that we were meant to be, then that is what we will become. We are each perfectly unique, unbroken expressions of One Consciousness. All healing, effort, and progress begins with the acceptance of this fact.”
I really liked her thinking. The last part in particular rang true, influenced no doubt by everything I’ve been reading for the past two years, from Maltz to Aurelius to Gaudet to Wheal to Pollan and beyond. She seemed to have a very healthy attitude toward the self, and to have figured out how to treat herself to the same kindness that most of us understand — when we feel powerful enough to bestow it on others — makes their days and thoughts that much happier.
Sadly, most of us — I, as much as, if not more than, anyone else — fall short of such rich self-talk. Many of us — again, I’m certainly guilty as charged — stain our thoughts with self-criticism. Sometimes, it’s pretty harsh. So her words not only sunk in, but in my curiosity about whether there was any basis for her comment about epigenetics, in particular, I decided it was worthy of a little research, unpacked through my usual act of writing.
Here’s what I’ve found.
Epigenetics and Emotions
I knew that our actions impacted whether or not our genes express themselves, to some degree. That, for example, our dietary choices influence cancer’s expression, on an epigenetic level. The NCBI, my go-to source for dietary science, wrote this more than eleven years ago:
“Global changes in the epigenetic landscape are a hallmark of cancer. The initiation and progression of cancer, traditionally seen as a genetic disease, is now realized to involve epigenetic abnormalities along with genetic alterations. Recent advancements… have shown extensive reprogramming of every component of the epigenetic machinery in cancer… the reversible nature of epigenetic aberrations has led to the emergence of the promising field of epigenetic therapy, which is already making progress with the recent FDA approval of three epigenetic drugs for cancer treatment.”
Two years later, different researchers published the following about cancer, food and epigenetics, also on NCBI’s website:
“A growing body of evidence suggests that dietary agents as well as non-nutrient components of fruits and vegetables can affect epigenetic processes and are involved in processes, including the reactivation of tumor suppressor genes, the initiation of apoptosis, the repression of cancer-related genes and the activation of cell survival proteins in different cancers.”
Powerful stuff, indeed.
And it’s far more than cancer. Other epigenetic “endpoints,” as they’re called, include autoimmune disorders, diabetes and mental disorders.
But behavior? I knew that what the nutrients in our foods influence our cells directly, and allows them to fortify or begin to fail us. So the idea that our thoughts could manifest in physiological change, at the genetic level, seemed both odd, and fascinating.
If I scream “I believe in myself” aloud often enough, do my genes hear it?
It turns out that they may.
Our Genes Have Feelings, Too
I don’t mean the five words above in the conventional sense. But our emotional health does, it turns out, have an impact on gene expression. In fact, the very first behavioral epigenetic experiment happened at McGill University, no more than 3 miles from where I grew up, in Montreal. The 2004 experiment studied rat families: mothers and pups, specifically. The researchers — Meaney and Szyf — discovered that:
“The type and amount of nurturing a mother rat provides in the early weeks of the pup’s infancy determines how that [future adult] rat responds to stress later in life.”
Then they get technical, but conclude:
“Nurturing behaviors from the mother rat were found to stimulate activation of stress signaling pathways that remove methyl groups from DNA… resulting in lowered stress response. Rat pups that receive a less nurturing upbringing are more sensitive to stress throughout their life-span.”
So it seems that nurture — love — impacts stress not just emotionally, but epigenetically.
In rats, anyhow. The human studies followed.
A 2008 study of identical twins showed epigenetic (expressive) changes to be the underlying cause of why in some cases, one twin became risk-averse while the other became risk-taking — or brave.
When it comes to stress — something most of us feel, regularly — researchers have found that poor maternal care during infancy (post-partum) result in epigenetic changes that correlate with long-term impairments, from neglect.
Further studies have led to discoveries about DNA methylation (one of two chief ways our environment impacts gene expression) and cognition: impacts to learning, long-term memory, and even Alzheimer’s.
A Wikipedia entry on Behavioral Epigenetics contains passages on a variety of behaviors now thought — and being studied — to be impacted by epigenetics. These include drug addiction, eating disorders and obesity, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive order, psychopathy and suicide.
The Wikipedia entry concludes by admitting that these are new frontiers; that the studies are as-yet correlational, and that causation over longitudinal, multi-generation studies will be necessary to understand how epigenetics can impact psychology.
Regardless, epigenetics seems to reinforce the notion that how others treat us, and how we treat ourselves, not only influence our future behaviors, psychologically, they also impact us on a genetic level; and that it may yet come to pass that we discover our behavior drives our genetic expression — not the other way around.
What a wild thought.
This throws weight behind an English aphorism I always thought was a bit silly:
“Fake it ’til you make it.”
Or, to tie it in to my opening thoughts, all those Instagram feeds about #livinglarge and #killingit.
The suggestion here is that “by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their life,” according to yet another Wikipedia page on the subject.
No less a man than Williams James — the “Father of American psychology” — wrote in 1922:
“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.
“Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.”
In other words, “Fake it ’til you make it.” Or, until you “feel it in your bones.”
But who knew that the bones may not be the titular seat of change, but rather, our genes?
Apparently, a 28-year-old who occasionally yells, “I believe in magic!” does.
It would seem, then, that our nurture does in fact influence our nature, on an epigenetic level. Until recently, I think most of us believed it to be the other way around: that is, that some of us were born with ‘bum’ nervous systems, or genetic hiccups, and this was just the hand we were dealt, and needed to play.
While the inheritance part may still be true, the picture is becoming far more complex. Science seems to be confirming that the quality of our lives may be a two-way street: not only influenced by the genes we’ve inherited, but by the in utero behaviors and habits of our mothers; and after then, not only their nurture of their offspring, but our own self-nurture, long after that.
This would be a clear point in favor of advocacy for empowering mantras. While countless books have been written on the subject of healing and self-love, including an already-eye-opening book by Dr. Theodore Rubin, M.D. that I just began, called Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair, none that I know if delve into the influence of our actions on that which we’ve inherited, physiologically.
Azrael Renee, the young woman whose post inspired my own words today, may well be onto something with her expressed belief that “We are each perfectly unique, unbroken expressions of One Consciousness.” Behind her statement is the notion — not new — that the energy, words and thoughts we express throughout our lives, whether or not these leave our minds through our mouths, issue from a “whole being”, and that it may just be that our puzzle pieces have yet to be properly assembled, or manifest. “One consciousness” implies that we are all simultaneously intrinsically complete, and also that our own completeness is fractally related, and thus mutually contributory, toward others’ completeness, as well.
Aimed inwardly and outwardly, then, self-love may well be the most powerful of all forces, because our behaviors outwardly empower or hinder — depending on how we feed ourselves, emotionally — our genetic expression; and that these, in turn, influence everything else that we — and those influenced by us — do.
Self-talk-empowered “cheerfulness and bravery” aimed willfully, as James believed, may be humankind’s ultimate snowball, gathering in power and speed as it rolls downhill, gathering up everything it touches on its way toward the trajectory toward which it was aimed, when under the direct influence of its master; and changing the very fabric of the snowball in the process, like a chrysalis, or a phoenix rising from ash.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the “master switch” may turn out to be the OXTR — or Oxytocin Receptor — Gene. A 2016 study published — where else — in NCBI showed that epigenetics impact this neurohormone. This is supremely important, because OXTR plays a critical role in a number of foundational human qualities.
It drives our social behaviors and the development of bonds; and it also appears to be the seat of self-esteem, optimism and mastery, as discovered in a widely reported 2011 study conducted at UCLA, summarized on the NIH website.
And so, in the final analysis, it may turn out that the quality of our thoughts — and most of all, our self-talk — may be the key to our own wellbeing, on an epigenetic level.
Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor whose private journal, released as the oeuvre Meditations after he died, is among the world’s most impactful treatises on human psychology, discovered this nearly 2,000 years ago. He wrote:
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”
This was an oft-repeating theme in his meditations. In another entry, he wrote:
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
And finally, even more succinctly — and poetically — he mused:
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
Choose your colors wisely.