I’m reading an outstanding book right now that systematically runs down the history of meditation research and how scientists look at contemplative practices in the 21st century. Altered Traits (D. Goleman and RJ Davidson, Random House LLC, New York, New York 2017) does an excellent job of categorizing the wave of research (some really good, some bad) on how meditation modifies not just the way we look at life, but our actual brain physiology as well.
I just got to the part in the book about genomics…fascinating. Author Richie Davidson was practically laughed out of a room when he suggested that in addition to meditation changing areas of the brain, it could also change how genes are expressed in a person who meditates, even after one session. When the entire human genome was mapped not too long ago, the initial question of “do we have a given gene or not?” changed to “Is that given gene expressed? Is there a way to turn genes ‘on’ and ‘off’?” Genomic researchers know that epigenetic factors/influencers such as exercise and not eating sugar turn off the genes for diabetes; eating sugar can turn the genes back on (p. 175). Maybe meditation could be an epigenetic influence for turning off (or down-regulating) genes that are responsible for the inflammatory response (which in turn, could mitigate the deteriorating effects of high cortisol levels in the body).
What did they find??? Some incredible initial stuff. When studying a group of expert meditators before and after one day of consistent meditation practice, Richie Davidson found that the meditators had a marked “down regulation” of inflammatory genes. “Such a drop, if sustained over a lifetime, might help combat diseases with onsets marked by chronic low-grade inflammation.” Diseases like cardiovascular disorders, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer (p. 176). Seriously.
We’ve all been skeptical…I’m still skeptical (and curious, and excited!) about the science behind these types of studies. We’ve all wondered as we’ve struggled through a meditation practice…(“This is doing nothing for me. I can’t focus. I can’t settle down. When will this be over? I have to answer that e-mail…”) if there’s any benefit at all to what we are doing. But how encouraging is it that there are amazing people in this world that are answering this question for us?
Does sitting for 10 minutes quietly, focusing on your breath, allowing your mind to wander without judgement, then bringing your focus back to your breath really benefit you? Read Altered Traits and decide for yourself, Smiling Scientist.
Also, here’s an article from Medical News Today describing the existence of these genes and what studies have produced so far.
Finally, head on over to “Our Favorite Video” at the bottom of the Smiling Science Alliance “About Us” page to get a dose of perspective on happiness and fulfillment from a biochemist-turned-Buddhist monk. I really enjoyed this one!
As always, keep smiling!