Does the environment alter which of our genes are expressed?

Is the Internet induced victim mentality altering the youth’s epigenetics?

A few decades ago, we also believed that our genes were inalterable. This appears to be true – except via changes caused by mutation and viruses. However, in the past few decades it’s been discovered that while our genes don’t change, they can be switched on and off via DNA methylation. This is essentially the process of how tightly our DNA is wrapped up and consequently what parts of it are copied, and what proteins are made. The field is called epigenetics and we are just beginning to understand it.

With this in mind, I’m going to outline a few ways I believe our environment may be altering the expression of our genes. The corollary of this is that our thoughts and actions are influenced by epigenetic modification – something we have no conscious control over. Consequently, our view of reality is shaped not by what we know, but how we found out about it.

Many of these thoughts hinge on the idea that epigenetic modification plays a relatively significant role. But that may be wrong.

Does food shape our thoughts?

Eating certain types of fiber, causes bacteria in our gut to produce fatty acids. These are absorbed by the cells lining the gut. Consequently, the genes expressed in the DNA of those cells are altered. These genes code for proteins. The precise function of these proteins is unknown. But they might travel around the body activating other genes, and metabolic pathways. So just by eating specific foods, we change the genes which are expressed throughout our body. Observations I’ve made appear to show that self-righteousness is negatively correlated with the number of animal products you eat.

If genes or activation of certain genes cause subtly different levels of neurotransmitters to be released then our thinking and perceptions would be altered. Thus, our what we eat would change our thought and how we view the world. Food for thought…

Do our social groups change our gene expression?

There is little doubt about the social conformity of humans. Friends act alike. Thus, when we are in a group of like-minded people, we get endorphin hits. We feel good. We also get these hits when people agree with us. Because of these endorphins, over time we grow attached to the group and ideology of the group. Thus, we get the same hit of endorphins when we think about the group or the ideas they are trying to convey. Perhaps these thoughts and endorphins are linked to the start of another chemical cascade, which alters the expression of our genes.

Do people who find themselves in groups of similar thinking activate certain genes so they better fit in with the group?

This is extremely hypothetical, but not beyond possibility. Groups tend toward homogeneity because they feel the same emotions to the same stimuli. But is that because in our archaic bodies certain genes somehow are linked with feelings, and consequently ideologies. Are these then being expressed without our control?

Alternatively, it could be that thoughts are as influenced by synaptic pruning as much as addiction. Synaptic pruning is how our brain quickens thinking by reducing the number of neurons required to make a decision and is easily observed in addictions/habits (both are essentially the same thing, except addiction is negative). If MRIs of alcoholics and non-alcoholics are compared, we see stark differences between the brain patterns when they think about alcohol. The route the thought takes through the alcoholic brain takes a direct route. “Shall I have a drink? YES!” Conversely, the thought path normal brain takes a relatively tortuous route.  Does synaptic pruning control how you react to events? Are people training themselves to react to how the group reacts? Does this, in turn, alter DNA expression? Maybe.

Does our believing we are less capable alter what genes we express?

In humans, there is a negative feedback loop for cortisone. The body released cortisone from the adrenal glands in the kidneys and it flows around the body, some of that cortisone reaches the brain, which has structures with cortisone detectors, typically when these detect cortisone the brain tells the kidneys to chill out, stop producing cortisone, thereby stopping us from getting too stressed. In some people, this mechanism is turned off, so they are perpetually stressed.

In rats, the animals which were groomed the most as babies are the least stressed as adults. When the rats are licked, they release serotonin, which causes epigenetic enzymes to be expressed and results in low levels of DNA methylation. Does this same effect transfer to humans, are the children that were loved the most the calmest? Children that grow up in happy families seem the most stable. Except for the late teens where it’s become vogue for children to rebel against their parents and get crap tattoos. After that, they calm down.

Clearly, physical stimuli can alter what genes are expressed in mice, but can emotional stress cause the same thing and in humans? Does the belief that you are less capable, or the mere act of being servile change the genes we express so we fit that role? It is a curious question, and I imagine it very difficult to monitor, but there is truth in the cliché play the victim and you will become the victim. Are our beliefs about our place in society altering the expression of our genes and consequently our thoughts?

If events in the environment, stress, starvation, diet, social interaction, influence the activation of our genome, via epigenetic pathways. Then the environment and our genes are inextricably linked. Consequently, so are our thoughts. Maybe young people always feel the need to overthrow governments because of their low status in society.

This idea can be extended. When you live with someone you love your body release endorphins. Conversely, living with someone you hate might release adrenaline. If the neurotransmitters in your blood cause epigenetic modification, then a stressful environment will alter the genes that you express and thus influence your thoughts and actions. However, a stressful environment is a relative thing. Expanding the rat model, those that received more love as children may experience less stress compared to unloved kin. What is stressful for one person isn’t for another. So the whole notion gets messy.

This effect might extend to the media we read. If we read lots of negative things that might change the genes we express and consequently make us view the world differently to someone who doesn’t read negative things. This difference in information perception between people causes them to create incongruent views of the world, which continue to diverge as more information is learned and time goes on.

Does the Internet affect the expression of our genes?

Instant messaging seems to be pigging-backing some evolutionary social pathways. Research has shown that using instant messaging and the Internet functions look similar to addiction in MRIs. We receive a little hit of dopamine when we hear the notification on our phone, which makes us want to check it. Repetition of a simple action with a minor reward makes it a habit. People are training themselves to check their phones. Thus, when they can’t check it or they are away from it they feel anxiety. Is this altering gene expression and possibly creating an instant gratification society? If you always receive a little reward for performing a simple task, then you may be disinclined to work to achieve larger goals.

Might the constant stimulation be affecting our minds in other ways?

I believe the prevalence of depression in western society appears high because we have pushed our baseline mental state onto a state of constant alertness. This coupled with nutrient deficiencies, and lack of mental occupation induces a restless state. If one is constantly on edge waiting for a message, how does the mind perceive that? Is anticipation what is causing anxiety? It’s like we are always expecting an electric shock but we don’t know when we will receive it.

Once the mind is trained like this does the absences of messages then induce a feeling of unimportance, disconnectedness, failure? Are people now so reliant upon peer approval that failure to receive it causes genes to be expressed that will consign them to being inferior? Or maybe the constant feeling of expecting and waiting for just screws with our minds.