No man is an island...


I recently read what is probably the most interesting article of all time (well maybe that’s a big call, but it’s up there). The article, entitled ‘The Social Life of Genes’, by David Dobbs, makes a number of fascinating points, taking the reader on an enlightening roller coaster ride from the genetic reaction of bees when moved in with new neighbours, to how social isolation (or otherwise) is the best predictor in health, to how it’s not our actual environment that affects us, but our subjective interpretations that matter. Throughout this wonderful, eye opening adventure, a number of thought bombshells are dropped, which, when they land, explode in the conscious mind and leave a fairy dust like sheen of possibility across the old ideas that live there.

Like, for example, the notion that instead of people being self-contained objects that are detached from the world around them, separate objects that exist and move within environments external to themselves, that it’s possible to conceive of humans as a collection of cells with permeable membranes, through which things from the outside can and do penetrate. When conceived in this way, we are in fact bodies that flow through the outside world, rather than things that move in it, the world at the same time literally moving through us. At this point, my brain nearly exploded at the shear realm of possibilities this opens – ideas of the self being turned upside down, and that’s just for starters. However, selfishly, what I found most exciting was that this means some of the concepts I talk about in Legacy of the Mind have an explanation in reality…more on that later.

The article sets out three concepts, firstly, that although we can’t change our genes themselves, we can change the way our genes behave. Essentially, Dobbs recounts a study where scientists took young bees from a docile population and put them in with a ‘killer’ population, then recovered the bees at points over time and tested their genetic responses. The fascinating thing was that the longer the docile bees were with the killer bees, the more their genetic responses mirrored those of their hive mates.

This in itself didn’t blow my mind. The idea that we adapt to fit our surroundings is pretty commonplace, however for this to happen at a genetic level is pretty cool. The question the article doesn’t answer however, is whether we could ever do this consciously, as clearly if we could, the implications for the nature / nurture debate would be enormous, not to mention for other deep and meaningful topics, such as what makes us who we are and if there is any notion of an independent, objective self.

Secondly, the article says that social isolation (or otherwise) is the most significant risk factor for disease, with those who are socially isolated and anxious more likely to contract and react badly to disease than those who are socially confident with a robust support network. At this point, my mind flipped across a number of areas, from education, to the work place, to the health care system. If social isolation really is the key to health, then one of the most important goals of education should be to help people create strong social connections, the workplace should care as much about ensuring their staff have meaningful social lives as the hours they spend at the office, and the health care system should explore social networks as both an effective health preservation measure and recovery tool. Furthermore, thinking more broadly, town planners should consider how to stimulate real communities when creating new spaces, even justifying an increased initial build cost by the reduction in health care benefit a given area should expect to see…

The article finishes with the third key point, saying, 'your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months...or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.' I.e. your genetic responses depend on your experiences, where experiences are distinguished from your environment, in that experiences are how we see and interpret the world around us, as opposed to what may or may not actually be there in reality (I could get very deep and philosophical at this point…if a tree falls in a forest…but I’ll abstain).

I don’t think it’s contentious to say that people see the world through their own set of goggles, influenced by all the people, opinions, environments and expectations they have known, but the idea that we should plan our days around how we will experience our environments, due to the genetic consequences our interpretations will inflict on us, is pretty astounding. The ramifications are enormous and widespread; right from the individual level of how we try to live healthily, or bring about change in our own lives, to the broader social change arena, for schools, hospitals, universities, prisons trying to crack the problem of high reoffending rates for convicts…the list is pretty much endless. One interpretation of the research, is that the key to successful prisoner rehabilitation, for example, is immersion of those with undesirable tendencies into an environment full of those with impeccable ones…does this create serious moral problems though? Is this tantamount to brainwashing? Is there an objective set of moral rights and wrongs that could ever justify this…?

The point the article makes is that we are ‘architects of our own experience’. If we can be aware that it’s our interpretation that matters most, and that we can influence our interpretations, then in every situation, we have a choice about how we think about, react to, and use our environment to our advantage.

Pretty exciting stuff if you ask me. And loads of these themes permeate Legacy of the Mind; from the influence of Marcus’ family environment on his personality, the power of collective interpretation on the energy of the world (the energy doesn’t dip when Christiana dies, but when people find out she is dead), or that our social networks have the power to influence and raise our spirits when there is something wrong…I doubt many people would argue these concepts are new, or that they don’t have a grounding in reality, but maybe this goes a long way to providing an explanation of how and why, at the most basic, genetic level.