I have fallen in love with the world of podcasts and audiobooks and, because you are listening to this podcast, I presume you also enjoy them too. I make a habit of listening to audio material when I'm driving around in the car — and we do a lot of that here in South Africa, covering much distance while running even the simplest errands.
My latest inspiration comes from Dr Bruce Lipton's audiobook, "The Wisdom of Your Cells: How Your Beliefs Control Your Biology." Lipton is now in his early 70s and is a best-selling author, former Professor of Anatomy and a Developmental Biologist. But Lipton is not without his critics too. They come at him from all angles. Many of them are ill-informed laypeople who feel affronted by his radical ideas because they believe his ideas undervalue God's role in the mechanisms of physics and biology. These gripes are easy to pick out and dismiss but there is also a barrage of scholarly criticism of Lipton's work too. Why though, all the fuss over his ideas? The reason is that they challenge established thinking. Lipton's ideas rock the boat. I can easily recommend that you read his books to get the full story but I'll tell the shortened story here. Lipton starts by taking a refreshing look back at the history of science and shows how it has morphed through distinct phases until it arrived in the form we know of it today.
A pivotal turning point for science occurred around 1500. In the years before the 16th-century, science knowledge lay firmly in the hands of the Church who seemed to be the best custodians of this wisdom at the time. Back then, scientific knowhow was a sacred part of religious understanding because it supported God's direct influence over the workings of this universe. The church held the view that life was a gift, bestowed upon the creatures of Earth, by God Himself. Just as God creates life, so too does He snuff it out at death. Natural diversity and the richness of life occurred solely because of God's active role in the engineering and empowerment of it. Science, under the control of the church, kept God at the focal point and it dared not remove Him from the equation for fear that all life would cease to exist and all matter would disintegrate and vanish. From ancient Babylonian times, through to the post-Jesus era, religion has held onto science right up until the beginning of the 16th-century.
Martin Luther, the German professor of theology who lived between 1483 and 1546, rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and translated the Bible into the native language of the people, making it accessible, for the first time, to the laity. This led to Luther's excommunication by the Pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the Emperor but he, as a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, helped change scientific attitudes forever.
Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish Renaissance- and Reformation-era mathematician and astronomer, lived around the same time as Martin Luther. He studied the complex mathematics that described the mechanisms of the solar system back then and because the church believed that the Earth was the centrepiece of God's creation, it held the view that the entire solar system and the greater universe must therefore, revolve around it with Earth in the middle of it all. Scientists back then had come up with some very complex theories to support this view but Copernicus realised that those proposals were incorrect because he noticed that the Sun and not the Earth, lay at the centre of our solar system. He went on to devised a heliocentric model of the solar system with the Sun at the centre but he was very worried and resisted publishing his views because he was afraid to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself because the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses. Copernicus only published his book in the year of his death. By proposing that the Sun was the centre of the Solar System, science had for the first time, suggested that God's favoured creation was no longer the centrepiece. Copernicus' critics were influential and vociferous and scorned his work but his findings were irrefutable and have stood the test of time.
Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer lived in the decades after Luther and Copernicus and was a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th-century. Kepler is best known for his laws of planetary motion and his ground-breaking work became one of the foundations upon which the English mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, Sir Isaac Newton built his three laws of motion.
Luther, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton had proposed some revolutionary ideas but the church fought against them relentlessly. These ideas changed the way we looked at our planet and our place in this corner of the universe. We, for the first time, allowed our thinking to shift from a belief that everything happened at God's will, to a view that we were part of a big, clockwork machine that we could examine, explain and control. Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion, alongside Copernicus' heliocentric solar system and Kepler's theories about planetary movements, inspired science to adopt an attitude of dominance over the material world, rather than the former attitude of subservience to God it once had had under the Church's control. Science had erased God from these matters. The English naturalist, geologist and biologist, Charles Darwin's theories about evolution became the tipping-point between science and church and the church lost its dominant influence over science's understanding of how things worked. What astronomers and mathematicians had done to change our perceptions of the physical world, Darwin did to our perceptions of life and our role in the universe. God was no longer the driving influence over biology and physics. Inspired by these new findings and with fresh ubiquitous power, science had a renewed hope of controlling the physical and biological world. Today, we do have the knowledge and technology to manipulate the physical and biological worlds to our advantage. DNA cloning and engineering is out of the world of science fiction and now firmly in the real world of biotech.
A year or so ago, I saw the results of an innovative science experiment that dug deeply into my soul. Biologists were experimenting with fibroblast cells. These scientists, using some incredibly ingenious methods of DNA engineering, used bacterial DNA as a chemical scalpel to undifferentiated a group of fibroblast cells, regressing them to their stem cell form. Undifferentiated cells have no specific type identification, unlike the differentiated forms of these cells that make up cartilage, bone, fat and smooth muscles. Then, using more science magic, the researchers reengineered the DNA of these fibroblast stem cells, giving them new differentiation and a new identity. As I peered down the microscope into the glass container beneath the lens, a translucent gel no larger than the size of a peppermint came into focus. What looked like a blob of lifeless jelly, revealed itself under the powerful magnification to be a colony of tiny cells. They lay huddled together in the container and then, to my astonishment, the whole colony contracted at once. It was more than a twitch, it was a coordinated spasm, a heartbeat. Not only were these reengineered cells alive, they were healthy, able to reproduce and functioned as one organism. Science had successfully altered their destiny and the idea blew my mind! This kind of biotech had rewritten specific parts of the fibroblasts' DNA, turning them into cardiomyocytes, specialised heart cells that give us a pulse. Science now has the power to manipulate our DNA.
Natural mutations do occur in a cell's DNA and these changes can manifest as some nasty illnesses and malformations. Cancer is one of them. Biotech is now ready to step in and provide a cure by fixing the mutated parts of our DNA. One wonders how far we will take this technological ability of ours. Will we reprogram our unborn babies by giving them preferred features? If we go that far, are we not at risk of creating another form of Eugenics that inspired Hitler and influenced the cultural separate-development policies of apartheid? This is a fascinating and sometimes frightening topic to explore but let's not digress but stay focussed on Dr Bruce Lipton's findings.
During his studies, Lipton had access to some sophisticated technology and was able to journey into the composition and makeup of cells. He explains that cells have the same functions we have as humans: they have brains, sensory mechanisms, digestive and reproductive systems and sophisticated ways to ward off illness and escape danger. It is amazing when one ponders this. We think of ourselves as autonomous, separate beings yet in fact, we are gigantic, moving, living colonies made up of trillions of cells. Life doesn't belong to us, it belongs to each and every cell within us.
Lipton worked with undifferentiated fibroblast stem cells, like the experimenters I described earlier. Unlike the cells in your body that are nourished and supported by the constant flow of blood, cultures of cells in these little glass dishes must likewise receive nutrients and have their waste removed. Since there isn't a flow of blood to these cells, biologists must play nursemaid by creating a flow of culture-medium to act as blood's proxy. While preparing colonies of living cells in his laboratory, Lipton noticed a very interesting phenomenon. When he altered the culture-medium in the little glass dishes, cells differentiated differently. He could get them to become cartilage, bones, fat and smooth muscles by altering the chemical composition of the culture-medium.
Researchers, Alberts, Johnson, Lewis, et al. explain how this works, "According to the signal proteins that are added to the culture medium, the members of such a clone can either continue proliferating to produce more cells of the same type, or can differentiate [… and then] proliferate and maintain their differentiated character, continuing for many cell generations." They also go on to say that environmental factors, external to the cell, may control gene expression through intracellular signals.
"So, what?" I hear you asking.
The subtle yet profound implication is that it is not only gene expression that determines a cells fate, its destiny is also determined by the physical environment in which the cell lives. Differing environments have a direct influence on the cell's gene expression. I need to pause here for a second to let this sink in. Science was once convinced that DNA was the God-molecule that determined a cell's fate (and that of the whole organism of course). It also believed that gene mutations only occurred during cell division, either causing species adaptation, as Darwin suggested, or illness, as in the case of cancer. But Lipton's observations clearly show that a cell's fate is also heavily influenced by its external environment. Welcome to the fascinating world of Epigenetics, a term has evolved to include any process that alters gene activity, without changing the DNA itself, and which leads to modifications that transmit to daughter cells.
The most studied effects of epigenetics relate to cancer but Michael Skinner, a professor of molecular biosciences and director of the Center for Reproductive Biology at Washington State University, briefly exposed pregnant rats to relatively high levels of certain pesticides. He documented the effects of this toxic exposure on the rat pups and noted that the adverse effects lasted in almost all the males in all four subsequent generations, even though these animals had themselves not been further exposed to the pesticides. Lipton makes the brave move most scientist don't like considering: Change the environment in which a cell lives and you can change the cell's DNA and gene expression, thus effecting subsequent generations, like the cells that had had their DNA altered and carried forward over four generation of male rats. You may think that exposure to toxins in the form of food additives, cigarette smoke, narcotics and other substances in your home and environment may weaken your immediate health, and you'd be correct, yet, according to current research, unhealthy environments can also alter your gene expression which you then carry over to your kids.
Substances aren't the only causes of epigenetic changes. Researchers have found that the licking, grooming, and nursing methods that mother rats use with their pups affects the long-term behaviour of their offspring, and they tie those results to changes in gene expression.
Now that we know this to be true, that a cell's toxic environment can alter its DNA and gene expression causing illness, the converse must also be true: by positively altering the environment you are able to repair your DNA. This is revolutionary and shifts science's control away from the domain of biotech and places fair-and-square under your direct control. This is radical thinking which validates the supposition that your mind has absolute control over your destiny which influences the destiny of your children too. Lipton strongly supports the idea that mindfulness, meditation and positive visualisation are beneficial factors that influence your health, wellness, longevity as well as your ability to genetically pass these attributes on to successive generations. This is profound, radical and vital information that places you in control, more so than you would ever have imagined.
Let's leave the science for a bit and turn our attention to a mindful meditation that creates a positive environment for the cells of your body:
Still your mind of all thoughts and if you are doing anything now that needs your full attention while listening to this show, like driving your car or using heavy machinery, it is imperative that you stay focussed, alert and in full control while you continue listening. If you are in any doubt, please stop listening now until you can safely do so again later. This is easy to do if you are listening to the podcast version, however, if you are listening live right now, you can catch the repeat broadcast in another timeslot.
With your thoughts stilled, bring your attention to your body. Spend a moment finding the places where your body feels tense. Where do you feel this tension the most? Is it in your head, your jaw, in your neck and shoulders, or are you feeling it in your lower back or tummy? Decide how it feels. Is it tight, hot, spiky, heavy, solid, squidgy? Begin to give the tension further attributes. What sound, if any, does it make? Does it have colour? What shape do you imagine it to be? Arrange the multiple places in your body where stress and tension hides from the least stressful to the most noticeable.
Now, imagine one tiny little cell living in the middle of this, the most stressful place in your body. Empathise with it and imagine how hard it is for this cell to function properly while it is being bombarded with all the sounds, colour and sensations you attributed to the stress and tension. Think of that tiny cell as if it were an emoticon, the kind you use to spice up your social media posts. Which emoticon-face would best describe this little cell's mood and disposition? Does it have a face with scrunched up eyes, a zigzag mouth and an orange complexion because it is full of rage? Maybe it has a look of hopelessness like the emoticon with hollow eyes and hands clasped at its cheeks. Or, does it have a look of sadness and a tear dripping from a corner of an eye? I have no doubt that this little cell really struggles to live in this toxic, noisy, stressed neighbourhood.
Now that you are visualising this little cell's face, look it in the eye and truly connect with it. Ask it how it feels. Give it a voice and allow it to speak to you. Listen to what it must say. It tells you that it cannot carry on like this, that the world around it is such a difficult place to live in because of the pollution from all the toxic things you do, the stuff you ingest and all the torturous emotions you carry. It describes its neighbourhood like a war zone where dissidents run amok because the local police are incapacitated — your immune system compromised. Free-radicals, cancer, harmful bacteria and viruses roam these dark streets and this place is no longer safe. This little cell, tells a frightening story of chaos, fear and anxiety. Yet, in the environment of hopeless despair, this little cell must fulfil your expectation of it by carrying out its work and contributing to the preservation of life and the smooth functioning of this greater colony, you. Not only must it toil incessantly, doing what it must, it also needs to raise its family by splitting into daughter cells and faithfully replicating its DNA without hiccup. It knows that transcription errors lead to mutations that lead to illness that can lead to death. Mutated daughter cells behave like radicalised terrorists overtaking the neighbourhood and creating mayhem. Or, they might travel further away to other places in your body where they will set up a terrorist cell there.
Can you blame this little cell for having its emoticon expression? It has every reason to feel this way. It, on its own, is powerless to change its environment. It must rely on a power higher up the hierarchical chain of command to make the right choices. Yet, if this leadership, like many modern-day politicians, is corrupt and only out to satisfy itself at the state's expense — the plundering of wellness, health and fitness — if this leadership steadfastly pursues pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth, then there is little hope for this poor little cell as it struggles so hard to find balance.
However, things can be different. Your mind is the leader of this colony and it can choose differently. How would that little cell's face change if you whispered in its ear and told it that things were going to shape up, that leadership is ready to soon implement new policies? That cell's expression would change instantly. Suddenly, it becomes the emoticon with one eye open, the other closed, with a smile on its face and its tongue poking out just a little as it shows its cautious optimism in a sea of scepticism.
It asks, "Are you serious?"
With new leadership choices on the horizon for the greater good, yet still enjoying life abundantly, you can confidently say to that little cell, "Yes, I am serious. I know that I have abused my body in search of unbridled consumption of external sensory experiences and I know I have had little to no concern about the toxic effects this has had on my body but, I've come to realise that without vitality and longevity, sensory pleasures quickly lose their lustre. I worry about my future which makes me anxious and my body tense. I have now come to realise what a terrible effect this has had on you, dear little cell. I thank you for enduring under such hardships while I have absentmindedly been seeking other pleasures. With my renewed leadership choices, I promise to change these toxic streets into ones where your daughters may play safely and in peace. I recognise that I am the supreme being ruling over my own creation and I now choose peace, serenity and harmony. As within, so too outside. I am grateful to you, little cell."
The cell's expression again changes rapidly as it now prepares to get on with what it must do. It settles down to its task with heart-shaped eyes and a broad smile for you as you both find mutual respect for each other. Soon, its face beams radiantly as it shows off the bright halo it wears around its tiny head.
The prospects of life have never looked better.