The Biology of Belief
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
The Biology of Belief, by Bruce Lipton--cell biologist, medical school professor, popular lecturer on what he calls the New Biology--ambitiously attempts to connect contemporary biological discoveries to a stirring but vague program of mental self-help. Not everyone will agree with all of Lipton's conclusions, but I found the book to contain fascinating new ideas about human biology and--crucially--evidence that supports the new ideas.
The most startling evidence is from Lipton's area of expertise, the field of epigenetics. Genetics is the study of genes; epigenetics is the study of how an organism's environment directs the activity of its genes. "Genes," Lipton writes, "are not 'self-emergent.' Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity."
Even a one-celled bacterium, he notes, senses food and moves toward it, and senses toxins and predators and evades them. "Logically, genes cannot preprogram a cell or organism's life, because cell survival depends on the ability to dynamically adjust to an ever-changing environment."
A cell's DNA isn't its "brain," Lipton concluded in his scientific work. Instead, a cell's outer membrane is its "brain," and is studied in the scientific field of "signal transduction." The membrane, like a brain, has receptors that sense the environment and "effectors" that cause movement. Effectors, it turns out, also signal to trigger gene activity.
Similarly, the mammalian nervous system senses the environment, causes motor activity, and--signals to activate genes. Lipton describes a Duke University study of obese, diabetic mice that proves (a photograph shows two very different but genetically identical mice) rather conclusively that prenatal nutrients are an environmental factor that controls gene expression.
The nervous system also involves thoughts and beliefs. A Baylor School of Medicine study by an orthopedic surgeon shows that the entire effect of knee surgery for osteoarthritis is a placebo effect. (It may someday be shown that much of standard medicine is placebo.) A mechanism suggested here is that the nervous system's thoughts and beliefs affect gene expression.
Lipton's theme is that people can use their thoughts and beliefs to change the expression of their genes. People are not "biochemical robots" but instead can affect themselves with their thoughts. "Positive thoughts have a profound effect on behavior and genes, but only when they are in harmony with subconscious programming. And negative thoughts have an equally powerful effect."
Unfortunately, he doesn't tell you how to program your subconscious! This book is more a scientific-basis-of than a how-to. It is a mix of personal stories (some quite interesting) and lectures on biology (some that make complex material memorable). Like many cutting-edge books, it is not perfect in organization, and Lipton (who I have heard in radio interviews) is a better speaker than writer. Still, The Biology of Belief serves its purpose as an exciting introduction to epigenetics and other new ideas in human biology.
Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro