“Life’s experiences add molecular switches to the genes that control our brain activity,” is the subhead on an article in a recent issue of SciAm Mind. The article presents the new field known as epigenetics , which holds that experience can cause chemical changes that boost or depress the expression of certain genes.
This is a rich potential mechanism for describing interaction of nature and nurture in general, but in particular the progress of spiritual development associated with ongoing practices such as Zen meditation. Simply put, meditation practice could have chemical effects such as attaching methyl groups to genes, which quiets the gene by interfering with the ability of the RNA-based transcription mechanism. Or it could attach acetyl groups with the opposite effect, letting the genes express themselves more easily.
This is an intriguing supplement or alternative to other explanations of the long-term effects of meditation, such as neuroplasticity, but what is the gene, or genes, in question? Such a hypothesis will be a prerequisite for experimental design in this field.
Image of chromatin created by Nicolas Bouvier; courtesy of Genevieve Almouzni, Curie Institute, Paris, France.