Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
Physician and best-selling author Deepak Chopra has an empowering message: You can actually modify your own genes through your actions and behaviors.
“We are literally metabolizing something as ephemeral as experience or even meaning,” Chopra said in an interview this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. “If somebody says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m in love with them, I suddenly feel great, and I make things like oxytocin and dopamine, serotonin, opiates. And if someone says to me, ‘I love you,’ and I’m really thinking they’re manipulating me, I don’t make the same thing. I make cortisol and adrenaline.”
If certain experiences happen enough times, they can affect how genes are expressed and packaged without altering DNA, said Harvard Medical School professor Rudy Tanzi. This phenomenon, called epigenetics, is gaining increasing popularity among scientists.
“Every experience will cause chemical changes in your body and in your brain, and those chemical changes will then cause genetic changes,” said Tanzi, who recently co-authored the book Super Brain with Chopra. “If those genetic changes occur often enough and with persistence, that can lead to modification of those genes such that they react the same way in the future because they’ve been trained.”
For example, Tanzi said, a study published in December in the journal Nature Neuroscience reported that mice inherit smell memories from their fathers — even when the offspring have never met their father or experienced the smell themselves. The study also found that the third generation of mice was born with the same smell memory.
“If you had told me that five years ago, I would’ve said it’s science fiction,” Tanzi said, referring to transgenerational epigenetic evolution. “When you talk about this stuff, the conservative evolutionary biologists, the Darwinians, will come out and attack you.”
While scientists have found evidence for epigenetic changes that are passed down in mice and water fleas, Tanzi noted that there is only circumstantial evidence for the phenomenon occurring in humans.
Still, he emphasized that the connection between our actions and our genes is clear.
“The brain is not static. It’s dynamic. It’s changing all the time,” Tanzi said. “And you’re in charge of how it changes.”