Having cancer, as you can imagine, is highly stressful. When you hook stressed cancer patients up to an fMRI machine and have them relive, say, the moment of their diagnosis, you can see the results. “The amygdala lights up like crazy,” says Newberg. Monti describes the amygdala as “the fear center of the brain — it sends out a red alert to the rest of the body when there’s a threat.” High emotion intensifies neural connections. And once event and emotion carve a pathway in the brain, “It won’t go away until you address it,” Monti says.
To counteract stress, Monti and Newberg provide cancer patients with a form of mindfulness training called Neuro Emotional Technique, or NET, designed by (of course) a Californian — “a combination of cognitive behavioral principles, acupuncture and biofeedback,” Monti explains. After the training, patients’ amygdalas no longer light up when they’re reminded of the stressful event. The amygdalas of control groups who don’t get NET do.
Which is impressive enough that I’m willing to try some DIY mindfulness. I buy a book on the subject, written by a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. He suggests I begin each day by thinking about five people I’m thankful to have in my life. He says I should put pictures of them up on the wall of my bedroom, so they’re the first thing I see every morning.
Thinking about doing this — do I even have five people I’m thankful for? — is highly stressful for me.
The thing is, I’m not mystically inclined. My tolerance for mumbo jumbo is extremely low. I don’t like yoga. I’m not a think-happy-thoughts kind of person; I prefer cynicism and bitterness. When Michael Baime starts talking about mindfulness as a practice that “changes something deep within ourselves” and the benefits of “nonreligious spirituality” and “a drastic increase in the depth of meaning in relationships,” I get really anxious. My relationships are fine the way they are. Why would I want to change?
Maybe for my kids. My son and daughter are young adults now; they don’t live at home. But they’re as stressed-out as I am. My son grinds his teeth at night, just like I do. My daughter regularly calls when she’s worked herself into a frantic state — over her student loans, her mother-in-law, her job. I always figured they were bad at handling stress because they grew up watching me handle stress badly. But the latest science shows something more at play.
THE CONVENTIONAL ARGUMENT about how we develop our individual character has been nature vs. nurture. Some people say our destinies lie within the double helix. Others say nature be damned; it’s how you’re raised that counts. Now there’s a further wrinkle: “epigenetics,” a process by which what happens to you while you’re alive affects the genetic material you pass on.
Sound impossible? Consider this: If you expose male mice to the smell of cherry blossoms and then shock their feet, the mice pups they father exhibit anxiety and fear the first time they ever smell cherry blossoms. So do the children of those pups. It’s not the mice daddies’ DNA that’s directly affected by the linkage of shock and smell; instead, the stress creates “repressor marks” that cause the DNA to be expressed differently, via a process called “methylation.” And those methylation marks can be inherited.
Tracy Bale, a neuroscientist who teaches at both Penn’s medical school and its veterinary school, studies epigenetics. She’s also the mom of a 14-year-old son. And she’s deeply worried about kids today. According to a massive report from the American Psychological Association last year, young people now report higher stress levels than adults. “You know Penn has had four suicides this year?” Bale says when we meet in her cramped Penn office. “We haven’t done our kids any favors. We shield them. We don’t build confidence or grit. You get 20-somethings who don’t deal well with stress.”
Bale’s research has shown that if you expose male mice to chronic stress, they create sperm containing an epigenetic marker that blunts the expression of mouse stress hormone. This causes their pups to be born with lessened reactions to stress. “That makes sense evolutionarily,” Bale says; if you’re going to grow up in a stressful environment, it’s good to be less sensitive to it. But such irregular stress responses can lead to stress-related illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. The inappropriate levels of hormone throw the whole system out of whack.