Psychosocial Genomics of Mind-Body Healing 

What has psychosocial genomics have to do with mind-body healing? The answer is, "A lot." First, we need a few definitions so we can discuss this...

Definitions

Psychosocial genomics can be defined as how personal consciousness, activities, and social interactions affect gene expression, and how gene expression affects these.

Another definition would be how psychological and social interactions and activities affect the genome in terms of gene expression and gene expression affects our psychology and social behaviors.

Rossi in his 2002 book, The Psychobiology of Gene Expression, defines psychosocial genomics as "how the subjective experiences of human consciousness, our perception of free will, and social dynamics can modulate gene expression, and visa versa."

A mouthful, no? Well, before we go further into this, we need some definitions for the definition. Sigh!

For the uninitiated, what is a "genome" anyway and what is gene expression?

If your "genetics" is a little rusty, you can get a quick review of some basic genetic concepts here.

Genome

In the strict meaning to the word, the genome constitutes the entire set of an individual's genes. In a more dynamic sense, it encompasses not only all the genes, but also the way those genes interact with each other. 

Gene Expression

It is not just a matter of what genes an individual has, but what genes are being expressed, when they are being expressed, and to what degree or how much they are being expressed. "Express" here refers to the protein or RNA that is encoded by a gene. For example, for protein coding genes, how much of that protein is actually being produced? That is gene expression is regulated.

A gene is not just simply sitting there pumping out proteins (or RNA) but is dynamically adjusting its output based on feedback from the internal and external environments. You can get a further overview of the regulation of gene expression by clicking here.

Dynamic Dance of Gene Expression

From recent findings in the neurosciences and functional genomics we are beginning to understand how the interplay between behavioral state-related gene expression (a.k.a. nature) and activity-dependent gene expression (a.k.a. nurture) bring about healing through neurogenesis and learning.

Functional genomics has to do with how the genes in the genome function in response to the environment. During embryonic development for example, we see cascades of genes being turned on and off to varying degrees. Even from such simple interactions of touch, we see whole communities of genes responding. So when someone comes up and gives you a hug, rubs your back, etc., your genes respond to that. It is specific genes that respond however.

Mind-body healing is about neurogenesis or brain growth. For neurogenesis to occur, the genes involved have to produce their proteins and have them available for nerve cells (neurons) to use.

As reviewed in the neurogenesis webpage, three things stimulate brain growth: novelty, a variable environment, and exercise. One of the most powerful of these for psychosocial genomics is what Rossi (2002) refers to as the novelty-numinosum-neurogenesis process.

Novelty-Numinosum-Neurogenesis

Novelty (that is doing or experiencing something really different) can lead to numinous experiences and numinous experiences are novel.

Numinous refers to supernatural or mystical experience. They are filled with the presence of the sacred or divine. Maslow's Peak Experiences are of this nature. Gerald May (see Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology) refers to these as unitive experiences. They have also been called religious conversion experiences. Buddhism would refer to them as enlightenment experiences (satori or samadi). To a lesser degree they are related to the Aha-experiences that occur during psychotherapy.

These experience are novel and powerful and can generate neurogenesis and healing. They can result in major reorganization of our mind's inner world. This can be life changing.

Darwinian evolution at the level of mind

What novelty and numinous experience do is generate a type of Darwinian variability. Darwinian variability is to mind-body healing and psychosoical genomics as genetic variation is to biological evolution.

Darwinian evolution, that is the biological evolutionary process, turns on the presence of genetic variation. Natural selection then selects for those variants that increase survival and/or reproduction.

Our immune system works similarly. When we are confronted with a disease (virus, bacteria, etc.), a lot of variable immune cells are generated--sort of a hyper mutation process. When one of the mutated immune cells matches up with the invading organism, the matching immune cells undergoes rapid growth and division so that lots and lots of those immune cells are produced and we heal.

Likewise, mind-body healing process requires a type of variation, but at the level of neurons and their interconnecting synapses. Powerful experiences like numinous ones, apparently generate a lot of variation and then the minds natural selection mechanism selects those that are adaptive.

Additional reading:

Rossi, Earnest. 2002. The Psychobiology of Gene Expression. Difficult to read but an incredible journey.

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