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The Epigenetic Effect – How Body Mind Psychotherapy May Be Rewriting Your Genes
When you and I went to school we learnt in science how our genes were hardwired and we all suffered or benefited from genetic determinism. This term which had been coined in the 1850’s era of Charles Darwin was basically the idea that we each inherit a set of genes from our parents. These gene combinations come from our ancestral lineage and are the fixed blueprints by which we develop and grow at the cellular level.
The underlying assumption was that these genes are fixed blueprints that do not change throughout our lifetime. These are our “nature” and our “nurture” has little effect on our being as we express our physical and personality traits through our genes.
Medicine was largely built around this premise. Your doctor explained that if you were unlucky to inherit a few mutations or “bad genes” then you were a victim to these and powerless to do anything about it. Medicine stood by to cut out the offending growth if that was its gene expression effect, or to give you pills and medicine to cope with its symptoms if that was its nature.
The idea that our genes are software or can switch off and on like a light switch was a heresy in science. When in 1953, James Francis Watson and Crick found the double helix spiral science proclaimed that “nurture” was dead, long live “nature”. They believed they had found the mechanism that proved the hard wired nature of our genes in each one of us.
The idea that people could heal was never seriously entertained after that. People were taught from that point what you and I got shown in school and University that we are victims to our genes. It was the operative myth of our era.
In fact it was Bruce Lipton who brilliantly pulled apart this myth in his milestone book, “Biology of Belief”. Never before had some put the argument and truth together in a way that exposed the denials and lies of the mainstream scientific and medical communities. As he stated, only 5% of human diseases have a genetic component or cause, and so how can we be victims to what only affects very few of us.
He explained that it is our environment that influences in a vast majority of cases what goes on in the processes of health or illness causation. Genes show up in this process as agents of protein, hormone or messenger molecule production as a coping or response strategy to what stimulus is perceived as meaning by the cell having the stimulated experience.
Bruce Lipton explained that in the 1980’s the advances in technology meant that we could now examine a single cell at the lowest levels. Scientists started to extract the nucleus from individual cells. The operative assumption was that the cell would die as the nucleus contains the double helix spiral. Remove the double helix spiral and you lose the “brain” of the cell and it dies.
The idea that cellular nucleus removal would destroy the cell was based in part on the idea that the nucleus is “self expressive” or replicates itself through the RNA/DNA process by some form of self activation or under its own volition.
What occurred in laboratories astounded scientists. The removal of the nucleus did not impede the “intelligence” or functions of the cell apart from the replication process itself. The cell survived and thrived in a reduced form.
After much debate science had to come out of denial that its beliefs around genetics were wrong. The role of “nurture” assumed new importance in the debate and new models of genetics. We are actually a combination of “nature” and “nurture” and cells have a primitive form of cellular impulse or consciousness.
The cell “membrane” which is the outer layer or “skin” of the cell. It assumes the important function of translating environmental stimulus into perception internally within the cell. The cells expression is restricted to the gene pool contained in the double helix spiral.
At this point in the 1990’s the idea was still that the human double helix spiral was a fixed construct, and hard wired. The understanding of how genes expressed themself, and the role of “nurture” and the membrane was now illuminated, but the rest of the bigger picture was still concealed.
In the year 2000 science announced the results of the human genome project. There were two consortiums racing to decode the double helix spiral picture or map, one being government funded and the other a private consortium.
Science had already documented the results of human gene expression with over 100,000 substances, proteins etc known and named. The private consortium reportedly had patent attorneys lined up with patent applications for every one of these substances once the human genome had been decoded.
The idea was that they would be the first to legally understand the process and outcome from the genome for each substance and then be able to patent it for royalties and ownership!! Luckily they failed to win the race and the human genome outcome is public domain information courtesy of the government funded team.
The real surprise was that the unlocking and decoding of the human genome uncovered about only 13,000 genetic markers or base strings from which all 100,000+ substances in humans are built from. The model had to change again in order to fit in with the new understanding of the human genome and DNA architecture.
The science of Epigenetics got its legitimacy from this day onwards. For the first time science was confronted with hard facts that undermined existing models of how we exist from our cellular foundations.
We now understand that environmental stimulus can evoke changes in our DNA expression, and that as we adapt to new environments throughout our life, we shape and change our active DNA profiles as part of that adaptation. We have now overturned the idea that the only DNA changes that occur to us are not the result of mutations in our inherited DNA.
Our genes have an ability to switch themself off or expose themself again for replication, based on the way each cell interprets from its membrane the meaning of outside stimulus. Our mind can also influence and instruct the same DNA to switch themselves on and off which has major health approach implications.
We are no longer victims to our genes. We will no doubt learn over time more about how our mind creates psychosomatic (emotional based illness) and psychogenic (mental state based creator of illness) states of disease. We will learn how to meditate or visualise for wellness (this exists already) that satisfies the left brain medical model with its over-reliance on measurement and evidence.
The hardwired DNA blueprint that produces babies is still a constant in this new world of Epigenetics. It is the area of lifestyle and environmental influences that show the basis for cellular change towards health or illness.
Research has long shown that subjective factors such as keeping a pet, having friends and a social network, faith or religious practice and belief, are powerful agents of resilience to health that protects against mental and physical disease. Epigenetic mechanisms are now believed to underlie how this positive effect evolves.
Likewise Epigenetics is now revealing how emotional/mental conditions such as depression trigger DNA changes in key cells that produce symptoms associated with depression. For instance severe or ongoing depression can actually shrink your brain by blocking the formation of new nerve connections.
The effect disrupts neural circuits associated with mental functioning and emotional regulation. We see this as the fuzzy thinking, loss of concentration, and also the monotone emotional state which can then explode into rage. GP’s and psychologists tend to use Anti-depressant medication as the treatment to numb out and contain such symptoms.
Epigenetic research has shown that for these depression sufferers genes involved in building neural synapses in the brain between brain cells get switched off. The wider effect is that the important conscious part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, actually shrinks in size.
Other research has shown that depression sufferers regain these faculties and lose these symptoms when they engage in psychotherapy that involves expression and discharge of negative emotions. The release of negative thoughts, feelings and tensions produces a health affirming turnaround, and again an Epigenetic mechanism may possibly be implicated.
In the future we may see more emotional psychotherapy solutions used as emotions are now seen increasingly in the Epigenetics world as being key enablers in the gene switching process between on and off states. Wilhelm Reich and other bodymind psychiatrists have long argued that modern man suffers from an “emotional plague”.
The emotional plague is that idea that mankind has learnt and been conditioned to disown their bodies, disown their feelings, and as a result we now suffer numerous mental, emotional and physical illnesses, hence the term plague.
The other Epigenetic implication is what happens to the foetus and developing child as they grow from within the womb, through infancy, childhood and into adulthood. We know that the basic hardwired template of the timeline of a person’s development is a hardwired part of our DNA mechanisms.
What is speculated now is that the effect of environmental stimulus, plus the mind and emotions of the mother while the child is in the womb, and the mind and emotions of the child itself, may be exerting Epigenetic changes and influences according to pathways and rules not yet widely understood.
Researchers can now state they can see that emotions such as joy and anger can trigger changes in DNA expression. It is also now thought that wireless LAN transmissions, mobile phone radiation, Electro-magnetic fields, and energy hotspots all can be received at the cellular level and trigger epigenetic gene expression switches which lead to illness.
Likewise energy healing modalities like Reiki may be inducing positive epigenetic gene expression switching leading to wellness. Massage which has a touch component and an energy component may also be acting at an epigenetic level, not just at a physical muscular of fascia level.
This on/off switch nature of DNA is reason enough why DNA profiling should be banned. If one was to let medical insurance companies scan and map our individual genomes I am sure one could find a few errors or mutations in every one of our DNA double helix spiral maps.
It would be easy for insurance companies to risk profile us and charge higher premiums to those of us who had a few gene mutations, or refuse to insure us at all, so as to mitigate their own commercial risk. Likewise one can well imagine all the new drugs that drug companies would argue that we need to combat detected mutations, or to artificially switch them off. It would bring “fear marketing” to a whole new level.
The fact that the presence of mutated genes does not mean they will be expressed into their disease would not matter to these groups. The hard line view would prevail and the ability to create resilience and latency in these genes through methylated sheathing via good diet, exercise, wellness practice and mindset would not be accepted as a risk mitigator. Discrimination could exist in a new way.
A positive approach that identified risk factors and then gave lifestyle advice as a way of preventing likely expression of damaged genes would be the epigenetic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. Education could become one of greatest tools of the “do no harm” ethic.
The nature of DNA is that it is passed on to future generations. The new science makes sense in that if our gene expression changes throughout our life based on environmental factors which are trying to help us adapt to environmental circumstances, it prepares the next generation well.
In any event a trauma or a healing in one generation may pass down to subsequent generations in inherited genes in this way. Take the researched example of Dutch women in WW2. In late 1943 until May 1945 the Nazi German occupiers of Holland executed a starvation policy against dutch citizens for their passive and active resistance to the Nazi regime.
This sudden and prolonged change in their nutritional environment triggered a gene expression change in many of the affected dutch female population. The subsequent dutch generations of children and grandchildren of affected women were found to be smaller in stature and weight.
Better lifestyles, nutrition, exercise and wellness has seen the most recent generation switch back to a longer term norm for the population, again representing a possible epigenetic response to positive change.
In effect at conception the male DNA in sperm represents a snapshot of that persons state at close to that time of conception, Ideally this should represent passing on the genetic DNA structures in expressed form that is the most adapted form in the adult, and so will best serve the developing child as the starting point in their evolution.
Interestingly the female DNA inheritance is not directly that of the mother’s adapted expression of her DNA at the moment of conception. The female inheritance is over the grandmother and not the mother.
How is this so? Every woman who is born contains all the ovum eggs she will ever produce in her lifetime. They are in effect pre-seeded or encoded in her by her mother, the grandmother when the mother was born. Her eggs are already DNA encoded with the snapshot of the grandmothers DNA.
This may explain why some children appear to resemble the grandparents on the mothers side, more so than the mother, and why children may show the fathers direct features more so than the mothers. Some diseases found only in women also are of genetic origin and show this jump in generations where the grandmothers DNA was found to be expressive of that disease causing gene at the time of pregnancy.
Modern researchers are starting to wonder just how extensive this “nature via nurture” process extends into the human lifetime experience. Richard Dawkins is an acclaimed leader in researching and being a thought leader in human consciousness, our natures, and the reality behind mankind, god and the universe. He stands across science, medicine, philosophy, and religion to create models of synthesis and analysis that few other writers can achieve.
In 2009, Dawkins proposed in his book, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, that our DNA has less fixed template or blueprint characteristics than traditionally proposed by Darwin and most writers since. His stance was partly influenced by the fact that the human genome project in the year 2000 only found about 13,000 DNA protein strings as compared to the 100,000+ substances produced by this DNA.
Clearly there are novel and complex processes at play rather than a simple protein string replication function which was the old science explanation for this molecule production process. Dawkins proposes that the hardwired aspect of the DNA which is the overall process of how we evolve and grow in stages, firstly in the womb, and then outside the womb, may itself come under environmental or “nurture” influences all through its stages.
He redefines the old detailed and hardwired blueprint model of self evolution as more a recipe of ingredients and base processes that shape the journey. Environmental stimulus shapes how much of this and how much of that get expressed in that recipe along that journey.
Our skeletal structure, muscles, tissues, organs and shape start to show environmental influences. We are literally shaped by our nurture in accordance to over-arching principles of DNA nature and the laws of biochemistry. This might sound revolutionary but it is in fact not the first time that this hypothesis has been put forward.
Many readers would be surprised to know that for over 100 years there has been a body of mental health science which has proposed exactly this model of human development. This model and its proponents suffered a similar fate to anyone who in the past 200 years who challenged the mainstream views of medical and mental health science. They were denounced and persecuted.
In the early days of the nature versus nurture debate there arose a French scientist and biologist by the name Jean Baptiste Lamark (1744-1829) proposed that living creatures evolved in part though the environmental forces that pressed on them and around them, as well as the inner environment of diet and constitution of the creature. Our inner and outer world experience literally shaped our physical expression.
Lamark suffered professional character assassination for his views. The English scientific community still somehow suffered from the old English versus French rivalry from the now passed military and naval days of history. Lamark went against the established view and the new darling of the English scientific world, Mr Charles Darwin. Lamark suffered and was isolated, sidelined and died a poor man when his commissions were withdrawn.
Roll forward to the early 1900’s and meet Mr Wilhelm Reich, once the right hand man to Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychology. Reich started to form the view of the body being the container of the unconscious mind and also that the role of nurture was critical in understanding the role of physical, mental and emotional diseases in the body and mind.
Reich started to formulate views that went against the establishment. He went against the trend of reductionism by refusing to separate body and mind in the therapy room, and started to formulate views and theories that involved human energy fields, psychosomatic and psychogenic illness in the body, and the role of suppressed sexuality and guilt in mental disorder formation.
Wilhelm Reich was a classically trained scientist who published a large body of works which are still available today. He became esoteric and even strange in the latter part of his career and was eventually character assassinated and persecuted by the American Federal Drug Authority in the 1950’s.
His crime was to build and sell Orgone therapy devices which resemble today those infra-red sauna boxes people sit in to detox and lose weight. He was pursued, prosecuted and sent to a federal prison for his “crime”. He died in prison a broken man.
Federal authorities and the medical community ordered all his papers, books and research destroyed and burnt. Never had there been, nor has there been since, such hysteria at the medical establishment level. Their witch burning was an attempt to suppress the truth as his arguments had analysis, clinical trials, and data behind them to support many of his hypotheses.
What Richard Dawkins proposed in 2009 was exactly what Wilhelm Reich proposed in 1909. Reich did not have the language of Epigenetics to support his views but he had clinical trials and observations of thousands of mental health patients to provide evidence for his hypothesis.
Reich in effect could tell from the genetic expression as written into the storyboard of the body how the oral story of the client was clearly seen and mirrored in their body. He knew from the outcome and how the story of environmental dynamics of the patient matched features in body shape, posture, muscular development, tonality of body, blood pressure, illness history, relationship history, and personality defences and characteristics.
Reich was able to prove how our mental/emotional personality has a concurrent expression in the body through physical form. He could show how the client history and the environmental influences and “nurture” by parents and others had a direct bearing on their mental/emotional and bodily expression or outcome.
Dawkins is saying the same thing in 2009. Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos are all pioneers of this bodymind psychotherapy lineage. They have in past eras without the benefits of the knowledge of epigenetics, been able to articulate and evolve theories and remedies based on this epigenetic or “nature and nurture” view of life.
They were able to map out the environments, stimulus, mental and emotional factors present which then caused “expression” in the body of body mass, muscle, fatty deposits, tone, shape and style. Likewise they mapped the parallel mental/emotional personality traits that arose in the same dynamics. Dawkins is only a pioneer in as much that mainstream medical science has not denounced his views as heretical like what happened to Lamark and Reich over our recent past.
Reich wrote his famous book “Character Analysis” in 1933. This book centres around the key hypothesis of the effect of environmental stimulus and the role of emotions and mental suffering as to how we each then formed body defences (known as Characterology) and mental/emotional defences as a result.
Nearly 80 years later the millions of clients put through these models over that time have validated the models and tightened our knowledge and refinement of each character type. Epigenetics has now started to show how these micro processes work at the cellular and DNA level but the important macro body of Reich, Lowen and Pierrakos work lies in front of us now waiting to be revisited and reinterpreted.
Our tradition at the Energetics Institute which is known as Integrative Body Mind Psychotherapy stands on the shoulders of Reich, Lowen and Pierrakos, as well as the other key contributors such as Pat Ogden, Bruce Lipton, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Dalai Lama, Bob Barber, and other teachers who illuminated the path or who supported me in this journey.
Body Psychotherapy as an expression of my own nature is constantly researching and re-interpreting disparate small reductionistic pieces of psychology, sociology, anthropology, environmentalism, science, art and design.
We create new value and new ideas by creating new “big picture” context scenarios out of seemingly unconnected information. We are right brainers who leverage the left brain dominated analytical, statistical and narrow niche vertical information of others.
This body of knowledge is likely to undergo revision in time and so integration is an evolving process more so than an event. In terms of Reich’s work it can be understood as the Epigenetic expression of our developmental natures. Reich was the first westerner to show how the various environmental/nurture forces produce certain Epigenetic outcomes at various developmental stages in human beings.