Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Epigenetics is the study of the cellular expression of DNA. It is the scientific study of how genes are expressed in each cell and explains how these expressions determine your outward appearance and the landscape of your life. Briefly, genomes are the genetic code of your DNA strand. The epigenome tells the genome what to do. The activity of switching the expression of genes on or off is performed by Methyl Groups (http://bit.ly/Epigeneticsinfo). The scientific study of epigenetics is extremely relevant for understanding human behavior as the fight over the significance of nature (genetics) or nurture (environment) continues to wage in psychological and sociological circles today. Epigenetics supplies significant evidence that both nature and nurture are equally important in the life experience of a human being and all other beings with DNA and cellular structures.
Since most of my work is from a psychological Systems-Based perspective, this information is especially useful in the understanding of certain psychological behaviors. Take for example addiction and codependency. Both are outward expressions of genetic variation or cellular memory. If this is true, which the study of epigenetics indicates, these “conditions” are not disease, they are specific expressions of the genome. The result of these cellular expressions are “diss-ease”, however, why one switch is turned on and another is turned off is yet to be defined explicitly. Every “secret” lies within our DNA. Genetic lineage is a roadmap for the DNA in our bodies, and the environment is the key element in changing the nature of the expression of the code, which lives inside every cell. Which is why we “feel things to the core” or say “every cell in my body is telling me to do this!”
So are we hopeless? Are we destined to be at the mercy of our genetic makeup? I say no! This information actually allows us to have a clearer focus on what actions a person needs to take in order to make changes in their lives. We are the change agent in this dilemma. In fact, in order to make sustainable changes we must first become aware of our nature and expression of our DNA (identifying patterns of behavior and preferences over the lifespan) before we can move ahead.
Returning to the example, consider how not everyone becomes an alcoholic or a codependent. However, in some people, that genome becomes activated and then all the cells in that body replicate that genetic “mutation” or expression. It multiplies and is copied in every cell of that organism’s body. Genetic expression is no one’s fault. Fault implies choice, and no one chooses to be an alcoholic or have any other genetic anomaly. The process of replication is automatic and if the mutation is strong enough in your genetic lineage, then you are going to be pre-disposed to having that gene expressed. Epigenetics indicates that if the outward conditions are right, the switch will be activated and outward expression of the trait will occur.
This is important because we have been defining alcoholism and other “psychological disorders” as disease in the United States for around a hundred years, prior to that people had “conditions” which is actually a more accurate description of the process. The concept of disease was created so that psychiatrists and psychologists would have something to “treat” which is a significant element in the concept of “western medicine.” If anything has been proven over time, it is that the reason why psychotherapy has a positive effect in a person’s life is a result of the “relationships” that are formed in the process of psychotherapy and not in any specific intervention that is performed by the therapist. In therapy, the therapist assists in changing the “outside” or “sphere of influence” that then assists the patient in developing new perspectives, which in turn helps them turn towards making healthier choices in their environment. Epigenetics supports the relational approach of psychotherapy as it implies that a change in the environment affects genetic expression when a genome exists in the organism.
Another example that more clearly demonstrates this science would be if a person wishes to leave an abusive situation that is highly stressful and life threatening. The person musters up the courage to leave, and they move to a calmer, more relaxed environment where love is offered freely. As statistics indicate, this is a monumental shift that is most often unsuccessful. Predictably, the person returns to the abusive situation for explicit reasons (money, children) and the abuse cycle continues. Epigenetics elucidates this phenomena is a result of an expression of the genome. The cellular instructions in that person’s genome does not recognize the new environment and it sees it as “foreign”. The person goes back to the abusive situation where they “feel comfortable” only because every cell in their body is “telling” them that this is a match. This behavior goes much deeper than the subconscious patterning that we have been blaming for the cause of choosing harmful situations over healthy ones.
There is hope, however. There are studies that show that gene expression has the potential to change in different environments. If an abused person gradually experienced loving and caring environments incrementally, over time the gene expression can be “turned off”. This may be the best explanation as to why Alcoholic Anonymous 12-step groups work over time for people who remain abstinent. Participants are gradually exposed to a new lifestyle, receive loving, non-judgmental support, and abstain from drugs or alcohol while learning new ways to cope with life on life’s terms (reality). Eventually, for many people in the program, the result is a shift in lifestyle, and as physical health returns to the body, the genetic expressions are changed to recognize health and wellness over illness and degeneration. This could be defined as “transmutation” and the process of “switching” on or off the genome, which reflects the new and consistent change in the organism’s environment. The reason why AA doesn’t work for some people is that they are unable to adhere to changing their physical environment and making a shift in their perception thus they inevitably revert to a path of lesser resistance, which is the genetic underpinning of their choices.
For more information on DNA breakthrough discovery: https://vis.sciencemag.org/breakthrough2018/