Have you ever been so convinced of something or have such a strong feeling about something that it feels like it’s actually a part of you? That you can be craving it so badly that you can make it happen simply by wanting? I’ve come across a new word and term (for me) a few times in the last week or so – epigenetics and gene expression. Needless to say, especially on quiet late night motorways, I got thinking about these words!
Epigenetics and Gene Expression
Gene expression is the easier one to explain. Scientifically, the production of mRNA is known as gene expression. Genes that do not produce mRNA and do not contribute to the phenotype are not being expressed. Gene expression is the characteristics that you see.
Now, I’m not enough of a scientist to be able to explain this properly, but I believe that there are some bits on epigenetics that are important. Epigenetics 101 at The Guardian I think (probably) explains it quite well. I’ll try to paraphrase even more, to save you clicking the link.
Epigenetics is additional information put on top of the letters that make up your DNA sequence. The analogy used is highlighting a book on “How To Build A Human” in different colours based on importance of the text. To the science bit, and I hope I get this right…
As an example, parts of DNA can be marked with something called a methyl group. Other tags can be added to other proteins called histones which are closely associated to DNA. Yet more proteins can attach to the methylated areas and shut down that part of the sequence so it doesn’t get seen.
The methyl groups can attach to different parts of the histone that may make that part of the DNA more accessible to activation. This is the reason that identical twins aren’t always absolutely identical.
Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics
However, this is the important part – epigenetic markers are not fixed. This means that, while they can be inherited, some can also change throughout your lifetime in response to outside influences. It can also be any outside influence that can be detected by the body that can make these changes.
There are a number of examples of epigenetics that seem to do the rounds. The one I’d heard about for epigenetic inheritance was where mice were exposed to the smell of acetophenone (cherry and almond) while scientists gave electric shocks to the male mice. They eventually associated the smell with pain. The scientists found that two generations of mice (from the lineage of those males) experienced the same reaction to the smell without electrocution.
As if being shocked isn’t bad enough, those poor mice had to live in a world where they were scared of cherry bakewells. That really is cruel.
Experiences can also play a part in gene expression. Childhood abuse and other forms of early trauma seem to affect DNA methylation patterns, and exercise has been found to change markers in muscle and fatty tissue.
From what I can gather, the difference between epigenetics and gene expression is that the former can be passed to future generations, but not every future generation as in the case of evolution.
Here’s where we move away from the science, to the story of The Pollock Twins And Possibly Overused Assonantic Naming.
The Pollock Twins
Once upon a time in Hexham (this is actually a true story, by the way), there lived John and Florence Pollock and their two daughters – 6 year old Jacqueline and Joanna, who was 11.
On their way to church on 5th May 1957, the two girls and their friend, Anthony Layden, were killed. They were hit by an out of control car which slid in to them. The car was being driven by a woman named Marjorie Winn. Winn suffered from depression before the accident and had recently been deemed too ill to remain in custody of her own daughters. Winn was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital after being found guilty of intentionally driving in to the children.
The Pollock’s perfect family life was destroyed in that instant. John and Florence were left devastated, but began hoping for more children. A year later, Florence found out she was pregnant. The family’s doctor could only find one heartbeat, but John was adamant that his wife was carrying twins.
Lo and behold, on 4th October 1958, Gillian and Jennifer were born. The twins were monozygotic, or identical, but had distinct physical differences. John noticed that Jennifer had a strange white mark across her forehead that was very similar to a scar that Jacqueline acquired in a bike accident. Jennifer also had an identical birthmark to her deceased sister on her hip.
Other physical similarities became visible. Gillian was slender and splay-footed, like Joanna; Jennifer was stocky and had a normal gait, like Jacqueline. Each twin held a pencil like one of their sisters – Gillian like Joanna and Jennifer like Jacqueline.
Joanna was 4 years older than Jacqueline and, while there were only 10 minutes Gillian and Jennifer, a similar dynamic of protectiveness was there.
Coincidences continued when the twins could speak. The family moved to Whitley Bay when the twins were 3 months old. They returned to Haxham when the twins were 3 years old (nearly 4), and noted that the twins were pointing out landmarks that they should not have known about, including “their school” and “favourite playground” which were the places attended by their sisters.
Gillian and Jennifer were able to name each of Joanna and Jacqueline’s toys that had been packed away before the twins were born.
However, the most disturbing part for their parents came later when the twins were playing in their room. There on the floor lay Jennifer with her arms and legs sprawled out as Gillian crouched down beside her, cradling her head in her hands. “The blood is coming out of your eyes,” she said. “That’s where the car hit you.”
The story of the Pollock Twins came to the attention of the Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, the late Ian Stevenson. Stevenson had developed an international reputation for investigation in to, of all things seemingly non-scientific, reincarnation.
Stevenson took an interest in the case at a time when reincarnation was a fairly unknown concept, especially for it to be coming from a devout Catholic family. He was especially interested in the transferrence of the scar and birthmark, especially as the twins were monozygotic.
By 1985, the twins apparent connection with their deceased sisters stopped, and so the research failed to reach a conclusion.
It should be said, at this stage, that the twins’ environment wasn’t as controlled as that story sounds. The twins actually had 4 brothers so, while the parents may not have discussed that happening of that fateful May in 1957, it may have been possible that not all the family did.
I got thinking about two things from what I knew about this story and epigenetics. The first is about what influences may be able to manifest in epigenetics. I started thinking about relationships, especially romantic ones. There have been a few experiments around this.
A study at the University of Utah found that promiscuous mother mice were more likely to produce sexier sons due to the inherited higher expression of the sexy gene (Mup11) when compared to males with monogamous mums. Because Mum slept around, her sons inherit the need to be more attractive to all the other females who might do likewise.
There’s a guy called Bubba Nicholson who pops up in a few places over t’interweb advertising his free book “Kisses Pass Epigenetic Pheromones In The Pathogenesis Of Sociopath” in which he asserts that:
…kisses pass epigenetic pheromones, mainly the facial skin surface lipids which contain more than 735 oddball chemicals that are strange in exactly the stereochemical ways that typify insect pheromones.
Given that he also thinks that kissing your father “cures” homosexuality, I’m not sure I believe him. He allegedly also told Steven Spielberg to film ET and Star Wars. Could it, though, be plausible that such close interaction with a potential mate could have an epigenetic effect, especially since kissing is possibly a learned behaviour rather than instinctual?
Other research has concluded:
Neuroscientifically established epigenetic effects of sensory input on hormones that affect behavior suggest that this mixture of human pheromones causes changes in ecotypically organized neural pathways that directly link nutrient chemicals and social niche construction to 1) neurogenic niches, 2) the molecular biology of evolved neural circuitry, 3) genetically predisposed physiological changes, and to 4) unconscious effects on behavior in species from invertebrates to mammals.
A bit of a mouthful to the layman (the words, not kissing in case you’re still thinking about Bubba and pheromones), but does this suggest that actually, someone being attracted to you could lead you to be effectively genetically attracted to them?
Society has long dictated that “hooking up” with a partner without a marriage or relationship, whether before or after the act, is socially unacceptable. Yet perhaps such a desire is due to a biological predisposition to actively seek a life partner. Recent studies by researchers at Florida State University have shown that activating the genes in the nucleus accumbens, a region in the brain associated with pleasure and reward (such as through intercourse), of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) can lead to monogamous behavior and the formation of lifelong partnership.
In these animals, mating induces the expression of genes for the vasopressin and oxytocin receptors in the brain resulting in partner preference and lifelong pair-bond formation behavior. The increased gene expression is due to increased acetylation of histones which relaxes tightly wound chromatin, allowing gene expression. Surprisingly, in the absence of mating, the same type of behavior could be artificially mimicked by injecting a drug into the nucleus accumbens of animals which would produce the same effect.
Sex really can seal the deal. It made me wonder if exposure to someone for a period of time, or even once, could lead to a genetic or epigenetic predisposition to only wanting to be with them. Could this be what people call “that spark”, why some people have difficulty getting over a broken relationship that just felt so right, and why some people stay in love for their entire life?
The Law Of Attraction
The second part that got me thinking is how possible it is to will something to happen by simply wanting it bad enough. In psychology terms, this is called The Law of Attraction.
The Law of Attraction, to those who don’t know, is kind of an umbrella term for manifestations of creative visualisation, affirmations and positive thinking. It ranges from thinking happy thoughts and feeling happy as a result, to believing that you’ll get what you focus on.
Positive people do tend to get more of what they want. Barbara Fredrickson, who wrote the book Positivity, thinks that this might actually be because positive people see more of the opportunities that are already there. This makes sense to me, as someone who thinks he sees things but generally thinks them too good to happen to someone like me.
In other cases, visualisation can be good. When I used to be an archer, I was taught to visualise my shot before making it. The thought was that it would create muscle memory and make you feel positive of striking gold. However, from the Institute of Coaching:
In their 2011 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article, authors Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen argue that “positive fantasies that idealize the future are found to be inversely related to achievement over time: the more positively the fantasies are experienced, the less effort do people invest in realizing these fantasies, and the lower is their success in achieving them.
You think about it so much that you forget to actually take steps to do it.
Where epigenetics and the power of the mind are usually mentioned together is with physical healing. Bruce Lipton, a stem cell biologist and “an internationally recognised leader in bridging science and spirit”, claims that it is epigenetic control and not our cells that determine the state of our physical bodies. We are not victims or prisoners of our DNA, it is our beliefs that change the cells, not the other way around.
TV presenter Noel Edmonds recently got quite a bit of stick for saying something similar, and that a very expensive vibrating yoga mat cured him of cancer. One of the reasons Edmonds received a backlash was when the argument was flipped round – if you’re sick it’s your fault because of your own negativity and your own bad habits.
The main reason people complained, though, is because they suggested that Edmonds was advocating just staying at home and thinking that they would get better without seeking medical help. Again, there’s a difference between thinking positively and thinking positively and doing something about it.
In the research I’ve done over the last few weeks, I’m yet to find an article that says that positive thinking can’t heal the body, scientifically speaking. The closest I found was one pointing out that cancer is a genetic mutation which backs up the assertion that it is our DNA that has superiority over any other influences.
A lot of the articles arguing against changes to genetic expression caused by thought and emotion alone note the fanciful nature of the claims, using big words to make them look “sciencey” rather than demonstrating a sound, bona fide scientific foundation.
The word I feel necessity to use when talking about gene expression and epigenetics in relation to The Law of Attraction is “fanciful”. At the moment I feel like it’s reaching to find “another way” on the basis of “what if”.
The question I was really thinking about was “What if you could want something or someone so badly that, somehow, maybe after a little exposure to it or them to obtain a stimulus, something could be subtly altered to make you better suited to the thing or more attractive to the person?” That question is fanciful in that answering “yes” removes the necessity to take steps to prove how much that thing or person means to you and the need to actually go out and get it.
Is it all fanciful?
Another thing I have been unable to find is a scientific explanation for The Pollock Twins. There are many references to children being able to remember “past lives”, even though there is no explanation for this. In the case of the twins however, how would one explain the physical characteristics of the birth mark, the scar, the stance…? Epigenetics? Co-incidence? Reincarnation? Or could it be that their parents wanted their children back so badly that they somehow managed to achieve that?
The main thing I learnt while reading lots of articles and writing this post was that, whatever the reason for wanting something, the only way to get it is to actually do something about it and go out and get it. All the examples I read of the quackery of epigenetics, the the prairie voles, the slutty rat mums and The Pollock Twins, it was all about wanting something and going for it.
See it, want it, take it, have it.
One of these days the sky’s gonna break
And everything will escape and I’ll know
One of these days the mountains
Are gonna fall into the sea and they’ll know
That you and I were made for this
I was made to taste your kiss
We were made to never fall away
Never fall away
One of these days letters are gonna fall
From the sky telling us all to go free
But until that day I’ll find a way
To let everybody know that you’re coming back
You’re coming back for me
‘Cause even though you left me here
I have nothing left to fear
These are only walls that hold me here
Hold me here, hold me here, hold me here
Only walls that hold me here
One day soon I’ll hold you like the sun holds the moon
And we will hear those planes overhead
And we won’t have to be scared
‘Cause we won’t have to be scared
We won’t have to be, yeah, scared, no
You’re coming back for me
You’re coming back for me
You’re coming back to me
You’re coming back for me
Letters From The Sky by Civil Twilight