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Mindful : April 2018
AS WE GO THROUGH LIFE, WE ACCUMULATE EPIGENETIC CHANGES. BOTH RANDOM CHANCE AND EXPERIENCES—WITH PARENTS, FRIENDS, LIFE ITSELF—CAN REACH INTO OUR VERY DNA, SILENCING SOME GENES AND AMPING UP OTHERS. These and other studies of meditation and epigenetics come with asterisks, however. Many had no control group. Most had only a few dozen participants (the “higher states of conscious- ness” paper included merely two). And for every study that finds NF-kB silencing with medita- tion, another finds no such thing. Bottom line on the epigenetic effects of meditation? “The scientific literature is extremely mixed,” said Julienne Bower of UCLA, coauthor of a 2016 analysis finding that some mind–body therapies can have anti-inflammatory effects, including by switching genes on and off. Nonetheless, most papers gloss over these scientific weaknesses. Overenthusiasm might explain why some researchers fail to use control groups, study only small numbers of people, or otherwise choose methodologies more likely to find an effect. “There is a tension between wanting to say something exciting and being very, very careful, which we should always do as scientists,” said John Denninger, director of research at the Institute for Mind Body Med- icine at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor of the 2014 analysis I mentioned above. Nor is it clear whether meditation has a unique effect on epigenetics. “One of the issues is that we are constantly changing,” said UC Davis’s Saron, a leader of the Shamatha Project. “Does going to the gym cause epigenetic changes? Does playing golf with your best friends? Probably, because epigenetic effects are happening all the time. Mindfulness might have those effects, too, but that doesn’t mean only mindfulness does...Maybe going to a gorgeous place, eating incredibly deli- cious meals, catching up on your sleep, and being with people who have made the same commit- ment as you is what causes epigenetic changes,” not the meditation part of the retreat. Unfor- tunately, studies so far fail to account for those uncontrolled variables (a problem for mindful- ness studies generally, found an exhaustive 2017 review). With meditation and epigenetic effects, UCLA’s Bower said, “ We’re still at the stage of asking, Is there anything there? ” Here’s where I remember those rats. Science has yet to prove there’s “anything there” when it comes to meditation exerting epigenetic effects. But the rats showed that some experiences can do so. Only more, and more rigorous, research will show whether meditation can. ● April 2018 mindful 39