Changing Our DNA through Mind Control?

objects in mirror“Meditation is good for you. We don’t need to tell you that. The chorus of voices extolling the virtues of mindfulness is never-ending: It decreases stress. It helps you focus. It can even rewire your mental circuitry. But it’s not just your synapses that see the benefits: As it turns out, meditating can physically change your DNA”.

“In a recent study, the use of mindfulness meditation was shown to have an impact on certain types of DNA in breast cancer patients. Specifically, the length of telomeres—these are the tiny protective caps on the end of chromosomes—was physically altered as the result of this type of meditation”.

From It’s Not Just for Your Brain: Meditating Can Actually Change Your DNA Fast Company

Our illustrious Fast Company author, John P. Titlow, failed to mention to his readers that the recent study he cited showed:

No statistical evidence of difference between MBCR (mindfulness-based cancer recovery) and SET (supportive-expressive group therapy)1. In other words, meditation (mindfulness practice) was not found to be more effective than talking (emotional expression in group support). Study participants had 18 hours of practice in either the MBCR or SET group. All three study groups–MBCR, SET, and Control–participated in a 6 hour stress management seminar, but the control group did not get either the MBCR or SET treatment. There was no statistical difference in results between the MBCR and SET groups, except when compared with the Control group.

The sample population was small, especially the Control group, may lead to untrustworthy study results. Of the 88 total study participants 34 were in the MBCR group, 36 in SET, and only 18 in the Control group2. Albeit, more or less significant evidence for the benefits of meditation might be possible if more participants were included in the sample population of this study. The study authors recommended a “new trial would require 106 survivors in each group (total of 212 survivors) with a 1:1 randomization ratio”3.

Authors of the study, two Drs. [PhDs, not medical doctors] have received royalties from New Harbinger Publications for a book on mindfulness-based cancer recovery. Potential conflict of interest?4

Bret Stetka, in Scientific American, writes more cautiously about the findings of this ‘meditation changes DNA’ study:

Len Radin, Support Group in Removing the Glove, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Len Radin, Support Group in Removing the Glove, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Though optimistic that meditative and social approaches are mental means toward better physical, and not just psychologic well-being, Carlson [lead author of the study] rightly hedges. “The meaning of the maintenance of telomere length in this study is unknown. However, I think that processing difficult emotions is important for both emotional and physical health, and this can be done both through group support with emotional expression, and through mindfulness meditation practice,” she says. [emphasis added]

“According to a report published by Harvard Medical School in 2011, 6.3 million Americans were using mind-body therapies at the advice of conventional doctors–a surprisingly high number that has surely since grown. Still, prescription meditation–especially in the interest of physical health–is far from the norm in Western medicine. And it remains unclear whether or not preserved telomeres actually prolong survival in cancer patients; or in anyone for that matter. But stress reduction in the interest of chromosomal preservation, and other possible health benefits, seems like a pursuit even a 17th Century dualist philosopher could get behind.” [emphasis added]

Read Changing Our DNA through Mind Control? – Scientific American

Conclusion: Sensation sells (eg. headlines like ‘meditation changes our DNA’). Yet, the actual findings of this recent study are that emotional support groups produced the same psycho-physical benefits as mindfulness meditation practice. These findings are good news! Processing difficult emotions are important. Mindfulness meditation may help as much as talking in a support group. Our practices for health and well-being, to be effective, include talking–expressing our feelings–as well as being mindful of our emotions.

Notes

1 “The results…demonstrated no statistical evidence of differences in postintervention TL between the MBCR and SET interventions after adjusting the impact of the preintervention log10 T/S ratios.”.  See Objective 1: Changes in TL Between MBCR Versus SET, in Carlson, Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors, Cancer, published online: 3 NOV 2014
2 ibid, Table 1. Baseline Demographic and Medical Characteristics of Participants Across 3 Conditions
3 ibid, Changes in TL Between Intervention Versus Control
4 ibid, Conflict of Interest Disclosures

3 comments

  1. saijanai

    “No statistical evidence of difference between MBCR (mindfulness-based cancer recovery) and SET (supportive-expressive group therapy). In other words, meditation (mindfulness practice) was not found to be more effective than talking (emotional expression in group support). Study participants had 18 hours of practice in either the MBCR or SET group. All three study groups–MBCR, SET, and Control–participated in a 6 hour stress management seminar, but the control group did not get either the MBCR or SET treatment. There was no statistical difference in results between the MBCR and SET groups, except when compared with the Control group”.

    This is the more modern study design that I’ve mentioned before that asserts that simply having a control group doesn’t account for active placebo effects.

    You can interpret the results to mean that BOTH treatments are working due to placebo effects OR that both treatments are equally effective. You’d need a much larger number of experimental subjects to differentiate between the two active groups.

    The drawback of this newer design is that it often doesn’t account for interactions between the experimenters and those in charge of the active placebo group. Ideally, such a study design should have at least one advocate for each experimental arm of the study whose attitude is that it is the other experimental groups that are the real active control, while his group is the experimental group, and that only the person (people) with such an attitude towards a specific group are allowed to interact with the people conducting the training for that group. Otherwise, you run the risk of a trainer unconsciously picking up that they are really part of the control group and unconsciously passing that attitude on to the subjects they are training, thereby destroying the intended design where every subject has the same expectations for outcome.

    Because of that, the fact that 2 of the researchers are involved in selling books about a specific thing [mindfulness] being studied may or may not make any difference. The only question is: are such researchers allowed to interact with the instructors of the other group[s] in the study?

  2. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: You’ve pointed out some interesting dilemmas with the current and “more modern” study methods. We’ll see if going forward researchers and clinicians are able to develop more reliable study methodologies.

    In response to your Markdown question–
    Yes, I’ve implemented Markdown feature for this blogs comments. ital bold, etc. You may learn about your Markdown options at these links below.
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    Thanks. Happy Holidays!

  3. yogibattle

    Happy Holidays Scott! Thank you for your thoughtful posts and replies that keep me thinking and rethinking my practice. Be safe, happy and well.

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