The Power of the Mind/Brain

Does It Influence Gene Expression and the Road to DNA Determinism

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Braintree, Massachusetts in early fall. Lovely, isn’t it? Image courtesy of Pixabay.

The brain has been ascribed many abilities it cannot possibly possess from learning, to seeing, to understanding, to knowing, etc. This is the mereological fallacy writ large. Ascribing attributes/characteristics/behaviors to a part or parts of a thing that can only (logically) be applied to the whole thing. Only of a (mostly) whole human person (and some non human animals) with a (mostly) functioning nervous system including a brain can we say they are capable of doing any of those things. Never forget that a brain divorced from a body is a lump of grey matter capable of nothing save a few basic cellular processes and possibly some low level electrochemical (nerve) activity, for a short period of time at least.

It is no doubt the case that the brain has some role in gene expression, however, many people believe that the conscious mind (our conscious beliefs/awareness) have some ( or even a powerful) influence on gene expression. This is a highly controversial and probably not testable hypothesis. That said just because a hypothesis is presently untestable does not by itself mean that it cannot be the case. Another good example of a presently untestable hypothesis that many people believe is true is the simulation hypothesis. Though it is highly improbable for a host of reasons, there are at least (moderately strong) logical and mathematical arguments in favor of it. In the case of conscious mind influence on gene expression we do not have even that. Instead we mostly have pithy sayings like “mind over matter” or “think yourself thin” combined with first person testimonials that are impossible to verify.

I happen to believe that the conscious mind may have some influence on gene expression but it is only at the margins, and the effect is probably not significant enough to warrant much effort from a personal perspective. In contrast, the mind has considerable and virtually unchecked power and control over many of the environmental factors which we know are key in staying physically and mentally healthy such as not smoking, exercising, eating right, etc. Rather than counting on a hypothetical mind/body/gene expression link to save us perhaps we should focus more on the mind/mind/habits/actions link that for sure exists and use it to exert more control over our bodies in ways we know are beneficial. The problem is that all of that stuff is hard, whereas sequencing a gene is easy. As I have written about before, blaming a gene for your shortcomings (mine as well, I don’t pretend to be some paragon of virtue as I am far from it) is easy too. After all there is nothing we can do about it, we were born that way.

Of course there are environmental factors that are out of our control as well. Socio-economic status being one of the largest of these and probably the most influential in terms of our overall well being. I would argue however that the focus on genes as responsible for everything in our lives distracts us from holding to account the people (in government or in our families or where ever) that are ultimately responsible to a large extent for our own socio-economic condition. These people have every reason to love DNA determinism for it excuses them from responsibility, and gives them an easy out when asked why they are not doing more to help the poor or the disadvantaged. I think one can easily see how DNA determinism when taken to its ultimate extreme leads down the path to fascism, racism, and all sorts of nastiness. Once it is accepted that genes control our fates classifications of persons into the genetically advantaged and disadvantaged becomes easier and easier, and then the question of what to do about the disadvantaged starts to be entertained……

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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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