Can your mind influence your genes?

image: iStock photo


It’s doing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s impossible, actually, to disentangle your mind from your genes.

When you learn something new, or think the same thing over and over again, the brain lays down neural pathways. But they don’t just spring out of thin air. They are the consequence of a series of events that result in the activation and deactivation of hundreds of genes. But here’s the thing – these events are set in motion by something you’re thinking about!

Setting aside the details for a moment, what we’re left with is that thinking leads to the activation and deactivation of genes. This is what I call the mind-gene interface.

We see the same thing with meditation. Consistent meditation has been shown to bring about structural changes in the brain. With meditation it is mental focus on something – an idea, perhaps, or breathing – that brings about theses effects. An 8-week meditation study at Harvard even showed that meditation impacted 1,561 genes in novice meditators and 2,219 genes in experienced meditators. In the novices, 874 genes were switched on and 687 were switched off.

Some people might wonder why this is important to know.

It’s important because we grow up believing that the mind is impotent, something that we only use to think with and to analyse life events. But this is disempowering. It leads us to think that we can’t do anything to help ourselves or to change anything.

A good friend of mine spent some weeks in hospital over the past year. Being a proactive person with a determination to do what he could to facilitate his own recovery, when he asked what he could do to help himself, he was told, ‘nothing’.

But this response is only a habit of thinking that’s based on the notion that the mind is impotent, and I’d probably have given the same response myself if I was wedded to that notion. Actually, the mind can be thought of as a force, in that the mind’s focus can bring about biological and physiological effects in the brain and body. Knowing this, there is never nothing that a person can do. We have to think, so how about we learn what to think about?

On a totally obvious level, for instance, if a person is sick, thinking about stressful things is not going to help. Chemicals of stress can be produced and circulate around the body. So thinking about calming things can help. Similarly, thinking affectionately is good for the heart. Thinking hostile and aggressive thoughts isn’t.

We’re all chemists in a way. The chemistry of the brain and body responds to what we focus on and how we feel. If we learn what to focus on we can, to an extent, switch on and off different chemistry. We then take our chemistry skills onto a new level. I see this as the next great development in mind-body medicine.

I believe we have a much greater ability to affect our health than we think. We just need to get over the notion that the mind has no effect on the body. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the mind has no effect on the body, ask them if they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy.

The reason I explain the science of mind-body medicine is to give people faith in themselves. I believe that this faith can make a real difference.

Believing in a medicine or in a doctor leads to better outcomes than not believing, so clearly belief has effects. So how about we learn to believe in ourselves? Not at the expense of medical advice, of course, but in addition to it.

Your mind is more powerful than you think. And you are the one who directs it.

How about we learn to focus on things we’re grateful for? How about we learn to feel empathy and compassion more? How about we learn to cultivate thoughts of love and affection? You are a chemist and that would be some nice chemistry.

It’s a start. And at the very least we’re doing something positive with our minds.


Some good books on the mind-body connection are:

Mine 🙂 ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ & ‘It’s the Thought that Counts

I’d also recommend, Lissa Rankin MD, ‘Mind over Medicine‘ and Bruce Lipton, ‘The Biology of Belief‘.

I also have some mp3 audios: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (live lecture) and ‘6 Principles of Mind-Body Medicine

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  1. Melanie Bundock on May 16, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I have seen various articles about Angelina Jolie’s recent medical procedure on various alternative health sites. Many with negative undertones, lambasting the poor woman for being brainwashed by Cancer doctors. If you are told by a doctor you have an 87% chance of developing cancer, most people will believe that, why not use your thoughts more positively? I was waiting for an article that I would be happy to share on my Facebook page and tweet about. This is the one. As always you write with compassion, backed up by science. Well done, a great post.

  2. Lisa Burnage on May 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Another great article David, thank you! I just wish this stuff would make it into the main stream. I get so frustrated waiting for it to happen! I talked to someone the other day about the mind-body link, and it was like I was talking another language. You could see the penny dropping….slowly. Keep up the good work, and hopefully one day it’ll be common parlance!

  3. Violetsrose on May 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

    This is exactly the kind of question I asked when my daughter was born: If she has inherited characteristics from me, are they the ones I was born with or are they the ones I have now? I was a very shy child and it took me a good 30 years to grow into myself and become the self-confident person I am now. Has my changed behaviour actually changed my “shy” gene to an “outgoing” gene and will my daughter thus inherit the “outgoing” gene since she was born after my behaviour changed? Based on my observations the answer is yes – theres no evidence of the “shy” gene at all! But then I question if her behaviour is learnt through her watching the way I behave and not dictated by genes at all … Fascinating to think about all this.

  4. Vida Green on May 17, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    Yes another great article i agree, I try also to try to explain to friends to change there mind set!
    but then either smile indulgently, or the look on there faces clearly shows they thinks i’m a nutter. But i wont give up…Thank you for sharing your thoughts. hope to see you in Sutton Coldfield again soon.

  5. Ruth Browne on May 17, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I agree 100% I wish this was the kind of thing we were taught in school. What a wonderful world it would be to grow up in…

  6. Georgie Oldfield on May 21, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for a great post Dave, right in there with my own approach to helping patients resolve chronic pain through their minds. As a Physio, who for a number of years has very successfully used a non hands-on approach with patients, it’s always great to see our methods backed up by your own findings. Your blogs always provide interesting and ‘easy to digest’ content to repost for my own followers, so thanks again David.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on May 24, 2013 at 11:07 am

      Thanks George. 🙂

  7. Ursula on May 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    As always very informative and kind of caring. Thanks. Does the pathway-change happen during the REM stage?
    On a different subject. Since you are writing a new book , did you know that India has the largest number of people who read english books? Must be a way into that!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on May 24, 2013 at 11:04 am

      Hi Ursula,
      Yes, dreaming lays down neural pathways. Off the top of my head, I believe there’s a gene called, ‘zif-268’ that is activated during REM sleep that helps in the construction of neural pathways while we sleep. Re: India. I didn’t know that. Thanks for the tip. 🙂
      Best wishes,