This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers pick one big idea that will shape 2014. See all the ideas here.
By Deepak Chopra, MD and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.
To date, one of biology’s greatest achievements, mapping the human genome, is only just beginning to translate into medical advances. But in 2014 there will likely be more headlines about another type of study in genetics that is already impacting everyone.
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.
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 usalmost unlimited influence on our fate.
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.
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.
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).
Genes don’t simply switch on and off but work on a sliding scale, more like a rheostat. In addition, genes communicate fluidly, so that the old view, where a single gene determined a single characteristic, like eye color, must be revised. There are some genetically determined characteristics that require only a single gene, but they are relatively rare. The vast number of genetic influences are created by a dance or symphony of genes delivering dynamic input to the whole system.
Between any two persons’ genomes there are an average of 3 million differences or mutations. The implications for medicine are major. Only 5 % or less of disease-related mutations are fully penetrant, i.e., guaranteeing a disease when inherited. For the remaining 95%, other genes, lifestyle, and environmental influences also determine disease risk. The mind and emotions directly affect gene activity, and since the mind is the source of a person’s lifestyle and behavior, it directs one’s biological transformations. Self-awareness holds the key to this process of self-transformation. Consciousness is invisibly reaching into the biochemistry of every moment of life. In your body, as in every cell, regulation is holistic, self-generated, self-organizing, and self-directed in concert with consciousness.
Darwin didn’t know about epigenetics and “soft inheritance”. Otherwise, he may have written a very difference treatise, in which evolution wouldn’t solely result from random gene mutations. Self-directed evolution is the emerging paradigm.
As emphasized in our recent book, Super Brain, we believe there is also a better approach to understanding the brain. Your neural networks are being reshaped with every thought, feeling word, and act. This process is intimately tied to genetic activity. Today you will casually perform some very mysterious actions: As an aware being you will imbue your desires with intention (“I’ll have the tuna salad”), direct your attention to specific objects and aspects of the world (“Just look at that sunset!”), and experience the shifting landscape of your inner world (“This movie is boring”) as you navigate the terrain of your mind.
However, no research has been able to define the scientific basis of these actions. There is no explanation for how the firing of action potentials in trillions of synapses made by billions of nerve cells actually produces an experience. This is a perfect example of how the map isn’t the territory. The wiring of your brain is ever-changing, depending on your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and habits. Many millions of dollars are being spent on the connectome, a complete mapping of the brain. But this will not explain how genes and neural circuits work together to bring us consciousness. Brain and genome maps must be aligned with the fullness of human experience, since what you think, say, and do today shapes your genetic future. Nothing less than the equivalent of a “consciousomeproject” will suffice to serve this loftiest of scientific endeavors.
Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi is Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Co author with Deepak Chopra, Super Brain.