Beyond Nature or Nurture with EpigeneticsThe fast-growing field of epigenetics is proving that who we are is the product of the things that happen in our lives which cause changes in how our genes operate.  Genes actually switch on or off depending on our experiences.  In other words, a person is born with certain genes, but what happens in their life determines which genes get expressed and which genes don’t. Hence, our environments are expressed through our genes.

Many studies have confirmed that people with a certain gene combination are more affected by stress in life which leads to a genetic susceptibility or vulnerability, for example, for depression, behavioral problems, or violence.  This specific gene combination only becomes toxic when combined with stressful life events.  These people have emergency brains which react more vigorously to feelings of danger making them more vulnerable when things go wrong.  However, individuals with a different gene combination appear to sail through life’s adversities with very few negative consequences.  (For more information see blog: Nature or Nurture?)

In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook, Elaine Fox tells of the work of psychologist, Jay Belsky, who thought to take a closer look at these studies from a new perspective.   Upon reexamining many studies, he discovered something hidden in the data that had been previously overlooked.  It turns out that people with the “vulnerability” gene combination were at greater risk when things went wrong, but the same genes also caused them to be of greater benefit when things went right.

Fox concludes that:

So, rather than the serotonin transporter being a vulnerability gene or an optimism gene, if it is a gene for anything, it is likely to be a “plasticity” gene: those with a low expression form are simply more open and reactive to their environment and therefore will benefit from great facilities and support but will also be more severely affected by abuse and lack of support.

….What happens to us at even a very young age can have long lasting effects.  These influences are the effects of the environment, yes, but they are the effects of the environment working through our genes.”

Epigenetic research is even showing that the changes made in how our genes operate based on life events can be passed on to the next generation. Fox writes:

This shows us that making bad decisions when we are young not only effects our own well-being but also that of our children. Environmental events like famine or whether we smoke, can leave an imprint on our genes that can be passed to the next generation.  The things we experience, our diet or lifestyle, can control an array of switches or markers that switch genes on or off in powerful ways.”

These findings are in contrast to the traditional Darwinian theory of evolution which says that genes change very slowly over many generations.  (Yet another case of something being “right” only until it isn’t right anymore.  See blog: My Reality Is Not Your Reality)

This information causes me to believe even more vehemently that we have much more power than ever believed to influence our realities – right down to our genes – and even that of future generations.  Nobody can control what has happened in the past which may have caused certain genes to switch on, but everyone has the power in this moment and going forward to choose their behavior and perspective which causes different genes to express themselves.

15 Comments

  1. I’m not sure I accept this approach, but you’ve made it sound interesting enough to investigate and read more about. Anybody that can get me to re-examine my own paradigms and training should have a place on the Blogroll. I beg pardon for not putting you there sooner.

  2. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Woohoo! I earned a place on the blogroll!

    Do some reading on it and see what you think. Maybe a blog for you? I find epigenetics to be fascinating, and it is challenging a lot of the old, standard truths as many findings of the last century in neuroscience have done.

    True is only true until it is not true anymore.

  3. Hi Debbie,

    I found this area of research fascinating too. I feel certain that there is a genetic element involved with how I’ve responded to the world. The tricky part is that most people don’t realize this and, therefore, don’t feel empowered to change. It’s quite clear that our genes get triggered by environmental factors and turn on, but it’s not so clear to me if and how we can turn them off. In any case, the idea makes me have more compassion as people are dramatically impacted by the early years of their lives in particular and may spend the rest of their lives trying to recover from that.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandra, I do not know for sure, but my impression after reading the book is that we can cause other genes to switch on by engaging in different behavior. I do not know that the original genes need to be completely switched off. Maybe they can stay “on” but other genes just become more influential through neuroplasticity? You have gotten me wondering. I will look into this.

      I believe that, in my case, I had a biological predisposition towards depression and life events, one after another for many years, switched my genes into full blown spiral down mode. I know that they are not ruling the show anymore gladly!

  4. Epigenetics is a fascinating area of research. I first learned about it by studying with Dan Siegel. It’s amazing when you think that only a few decades ago the belief was that once we reach adulthood, our brains are set in stone. Nice for us that it’s not true.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Catherine. I find all the discoveries of the last decade in brain research…neuroplasticity, epigenetices… to be so empowering. With some conscious effort, we really can create ourselves and are not limited to what we are being “in our genes.”

      Dan Seigal is one of my heroes. It must have been awesome to study with him!

  5. Judy M. Hampton Reply

    Well, wonder if that is true for even a 70 year old? Hope so. Again, well done, darling daughter. Lots of love, Mom

  6. Taking that principle even further, it probably means that the skills our ancestors have learned lie dormant in our DNA and could very well be called upon should situations arise where they are needed. Will say survival skills simply materialize if we were stranded in the woods for example.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Interesting thought. This concept could lead to and explain many, many instances of a person having knowledge without really knowing how they acquired it. To think this is true is comforting to me.

  7. Very interesting and encouraging to say the least! It all makes sense to me. I’ve read a lot about memories, strengths and vulnerabilities carried in our DNA. It’s uplifting to think that we can create shifts right here and right now. Thank you for a wonderful post, resource and message!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Jeanne, thanks for copmmenting. I feel the same way. I find the information sooo empowering. We are in no way destined or doomed by our genes. I healed from a serious brain injury and bettered my life harnessing the power of neuroplasticity and, I believe, switched off the depression genes. Our brains are so amazing!

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