I've been thinking about disowning some of my genes lately. I have a few healthy, happy, long-living optimists in my family tree--most of them fans of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, a major champion of positive thinking. But I've got plenty of ancestors who played out more tortured hands. My family is probably something like yours, like everyone's:
Multi-generational domestic violence, check.
New Agers have always told us that we create our own realities. Mind over matter. But traditional genetic theory--the kind they taught me in high school, anyway, was a bit more fatalistic. We learned about identical twins separated at birth who grew up to buy identical houses, marry look-alikes, suffer the same health problems, and overcome them just long enough to name their three children Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Our destinies written in our DNA.
But what if I'm tired of playing out my family's legacy?
I've long been a fan of Jungian author Clarissa Pinkola Estes' theory of the "Mistaken Zygote Syndrome" to explain how some of us ended up in the families we did. Instead of telling her clients that "everything happens for a reason" or some such nonsense, Estes explains it this way:
"Well see, the Zygote Fairy was flying over your hometown one night, and all of the little zygotes in her basket were hopping and jumping with excitement. You were indeed destined for parents who would have understood you, but the Zygote Fairy hit turbulence and, oops, you fell out of the basket over the wrong house. You fell head over heels, head over heels, right into a family that was not meant for you. Your "real" family was three miles farther on. That is why you fell in love with a family that wasn't yours, and that lived three miles over. You always wished Mrs. and Mr. So-and-So were your real parents. Chances are they were meant to be."
Finally, an explanation as to how a quiet writer ended up in a house full of hot-headed artistes. "It's because they're Italian that they can't control their tempers," my step dad used to try to console me. A hereditary excuse, albeit stereotypical. But wasn't I was Italian, too? Maybe not--or at least maybe I wasn't meant to be. Surely that's why I always felt more comfortable at my friend Reina's apartment downtown.
Still, the theory of the Mistaken Zygote doesn't offer us much in terms of recourse. Our DNA is our DNA, mistaken or not. And when Reina's family moved away I had to accept that I was not, in fact, one of them.
This is where epigenetics comes in, a super hero to the rescue.
Old Charles Darwin insisted that evolution only took place over many generations and millions of years of natural selection. But new research begs to differ.
"Before we knew about epigenetics, nature/nurture was simply two-dimensional: something was attributable to one or the other," blogs Dr. Christopher Badcock, a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics.
See, in the 1980s, Swedish researchers studied the long-term effects of historical feast and famine years and discovered that powerful environmental conditions--like nearly starving to death--could, in fact, leave an imprint on our genetic material, changing our "gene expression" and short-circuiting evolution to pass on new health problems in a single generation.
These epigenetic changes don't involve alterations to the basic genetic code, but sit on top of the genome, a cellular memory telling the genes whether to switch on or off, to shout or to whisper.
In short, grandpa's poor diet and bad attitude could actually shorten our lives.
Thanks a lot, gramps.
But let's turn the research around. If our genes can get battered and bruised in the space of a single generation, certainly they can heal, too.
In Happiness Genes: Unlock the Positive Potential Hidden in Your DNA, authors James D. Baird, Laurie Nadel, and Bruce Lipton argue that our behavior can serve to shush the genes we don't want to express and nurture the ones we'd like to express more freely. A healthy diet, a half an hour walk every day, and basic meditation, for example, can actually turn off hundreds of cancer genes.
The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention, author Dawson Church cites hundreds of scientific studies that show us how thoughts of appreciation, acts of kindness, and de-stressing meditation can positively effect the expression of DNA strands within a few seconds. Making a practice of all this could even heal our genetic legacy for generations to come.
This insta-healing might still be a stretch for conventional scientists, but it's now common knowledge that
1) We have more control over our DNA than we've been led to believe, and
2) While we can't change the sequence of our DNA, we may be able to change whether or not it's activated.
So there's hope for all of us mistaken zygotes after all.