Meditation, genetics and the dangers of misinformation & misinterpretation


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The idea that meditation can affect the body at a genetic level is making headlines once again, this time in a paper published on the PLOS One science website. Relaxation exercises in subjects who never practiced such techniques led the authors of the study to reasonably conclude that meditation can indeed “change gene activity.”

Reported by the Stanford Medicine site, SCOPE and the New Scientist, the research unearths some interesting findings. Yet, as so often is the way with disseminating scientific findings to the public, there is a danger in how the media interprets and presents it and how the public parses what it reads.

128019669SCOPE’s article about the PLOS One study suggests that meditation can “boost beneficial genes” and “suppress bad genes.” The study actually shows that it is the behavior of mitochondria that can be influenced by meditation, not the structure of genes implicit in phrases like “the techniques had resulted in long-term changes to their genes” (New Scientist). Although the SCOPE and New Scientist articles are clear in their appraisal of the PLOS One paper, the shorthand can quickly lead to public misinterpretation.

Reporting complex science is a tricky business. After all, we laypeople don’t have the technical insight that professionals do, and this is complicated by the popular press’s subtle shadings of scientific knowledge. Scientific journals are not known for their eye-catching headlines. So it is clear to see the danger in the arbitrary discussion of “boosted genes” and “gene changes” as reported by the New Scientist.

78619854Let’s take a look at the idea of reciting a repetitive prayer as a way of meditating, which then “boosts these good genes and suppresses the bad ones.” The idea is to relax, to reduce stress. Whether the phrase you repeat is a prayer or a line of poetry by John Keats, what is making you go into your happy place is the act of repetition. Say you suffer from digestive woes and see that after chanting “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” you notice that your uncomfortable situation improves. Do you then credit Keat’s “Grecian Urn” with curing your bloated tummy? Probably not.

Replace that line of poetry with a prayer, though, and we might have an entirely different result. And that result may be one in which a scientific study filtered through someone who is not a scientist is incorrectly held up as evidence to support the idea that a higher being has cured you of your medical ailments.

Does meditation go a long way toward reducing stress? Without a doubt. And stress can aggravate many health issues, so reducing stress can certainly help improve such health issues. However, believing that simple meditation, chanting or prayer can replace proven medical procedures and advice is foolhardy. The original study shows that meditation may boost the ability of mitochondria, the “powerhouse of cells,” to perform their everyday duties. It does not suggest that meditation will wipe the floor with your irritable bowel syndrome or that prayer will cure cancer.

These may seem like extreme extrapolations of the dangers of reading diluted research, but you need not look further than recent medical misinformation outbreaks like the MMR inoculation debacle to know that an accurate understanding of the truth behind these complex ideas is super important. Just take a look at the measles outbreak across the north of England.

So light that candle and breathe or chant or pray, because it will go a long way toward putting you in a better head-space and you may certainly see tangible benefits emerge as a result. But don’t jump to conclusions about meditation being able to give you a clean bill of health all on its own.