One good thing about writing these blogs and my book is that dear friends send me articles when they pass over their computer. I find the one I summarize below very interesting. When I think about epigenetic cells and how quickly they can adapt to a new environment, I wonder if this process is behind the success of psychotherapy. Outcome studies show that people who engage in psychotherapy make better adaptations than those in control groups. It doesn’t matter what kind of therapy it is. I just read a transcript of an interview with Rachel Yehuda, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She said that in 2014, she published a study showing epigenetic changes in response to psychotherapy. I will try to find it.
I will devote a separate blog to outcome studies, but for now I want to share a conversation I had with the late Dr. Alexander Wolf (the first American analyst to do psychoanalysis in groups). He was in his 80s, an MD and practiced for many years. I asked him to name one thing he thought brought success to his patients; “what would it be?” Without hesitation, he said “love”. Many of the articles on the outcome of psychotherapy cite a good relationship between patient and therapist as the most curative factor.
Wray Herbert, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and the science editor of US News and World Report, wrote a book review of Loren Graham’s 2010 book: Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia. The review appeared recently in the “Books and Arts Section” of the Weekly Standard. The email crossed my friend’s desk on December 27, 2016.
In 1976, Graham visited a fox farm in the Siberian countryside. Since 1940, biologist Dmitri Belyaev was selectively and successfully breeding friendly foxes. The animals lacked hostility to humans and sniffed and licked humans, much like dogs. Many changed physically “with wagging tails and floppy ears.”
He asked one of the caretakers what the secret was. She responded: “Because we take such good care of them, and because we love them. We constantly stroke them, supply them the best food, give all of them names, call them individually by these names, and show our affection for them. They respond by returning our love and love becomes hereditary.”
I always thought wild animals raised at birth by humans stayed very attached and affectionate with their caretakers. However, I never assumed they were biologically changed and thus I believed they should be released into the wild. The significant part about the foxes is that their new behaviors were believed to be inherited and a new species of fox was created: “The Siberian Fox”. The caretakers didn’t start from scratch with each generation.
Graham realized that what the caretaker was saying was similar to what the discredited Lysenko said in 1910. He claimed that he could get cows and their progeny to give more milk by caring for them attentively. He claimed that the animals’ life experiences and not their genetic pedigrees was what mattered. He thought the traits an organism acquires during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring.
In a former blog, I cited studies with mice where maternal deprivation affected future generations even when they had better mothers later on. This fits with the finding that there are critical periods where epigenetic changes occur easily, one of them being early childhood (see last week’s blog). Graham referred to epigenetic theory: “Gene expression can be determined by environmental factors – such as nurturance – which triggers molecular changes. He wondered “whether these scientific insights might explain the friendliness of the Siberian foxes, that the love and attention of the caretakers had brought about molecular and behavioral changes.” If so, it is possible that the changes in the foxes were inheritable.
Yehuda, Rachel and Krista Tippett, “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations,” On Being.Org/Stations/, Transcript of an Interview, July 30, 2015.