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Mindful : April 2018
If it weren’t for the rats, I wouldn’t be writing about epigenetics and meditation. Epi- genetics is one of those scientific subjects that, after a solid and respectable start, jumped the shark. It burst into the scientific mainstream in the last decade or so with fascinating, even paradigm-shifting, discoveries in how genes operate, offering explanations for mysteries from why identical twins differ in the inherited genetic diseases they develop to how our phys- ical environment and social experiences reach into our DNA, altering the blueprints of our lives. Many of the findings have solid scientific sup- port. Lately, however, studies on the epigenetic effects of meditation have been popping up like dandelions in April, making claims that, unfor- tunately, rest on shaky science—the shark is well and truly jumped. “The science just isn’t as strong as some people are making it out to be,” said neuroscientist Cliff Saron of the University of California, Davis. Saron is hardly a meditation basher: He co-led a study showing possible epi- genetic effects from mindfulness meditation. Let me back up and then return to those rats. “Epigenetics” refers to changes in DNA that do not alter the four basic chemicals that, strung along the double helix like beads on a necklace, constitute the genetic code. Those chemicals, designated A, T, C, and G, code for the proteins that cells make: dopamine receptors, enzymes like telomerase, and everything else required for life. Unlike alterations that change an A to a C, for instance, or a G to a T, or eliminate letters entirely, an epigenetic change leaves the → Can Meditation Change Your Genes? DNA determines much of who we are, but it’s not fixed for life. Our behavior and environment can effect alterations to genes for good or ill. Can meditating affect us at a genetic level? ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sharon Begley is senior science writer with S TAT, a national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2 017, Simon & Schuster). By Sharon Begley • Illustrations by Edmon de Haro 36 mindful April 2018 brain science