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The Great Lie About Genetics – Believe It at Your Own Risk

Posted Jun 07 2014 10:08pm

Going off the rails in life usually pretty much feels like exactly that.  You’re ho-humming along just fine, waking up day after day and hustling along, progressing your progress, when suddenly BANG!

One day, things aren’t okay.  On that day, you wake up with a sharp pain in your back, a bum knee or what feels like an arrow through your shoulder.  And you’re plum worn out.

You blame it on the heavy garden pots you schlepped around yesterday, sprucing up the yard for summer.  Or standing for too many hours.  Or that slight twist you made when scooching the couch so you could vacuum old corn chips and balls of cat fuzz out from underneath it.

But I’ve got news for you.

Barring acute injury like a sprained ankle or broken bone, it’s rarely an isolated incident that’s responsible for your aches and pains.  Your body doesn’t break down in an instant; it happens over time, as a result of chronic and habitual dysfunctional movement patterns.

From a weekend warrior’s poor running form to a minute imbalance in a dancer’s hip, tiny variations to normal movement build up over time causing ever-increasing wear and tear until, one day, things finally snap.

But, where do your movement patterns come from in the first place?  Do we all pop out of the womb with perfectly balanced bodies that just get more and more out of whack as we grow up?

Not exactly.  Your movement actually results from a combination of factors.  Part of it is genetics, but only part of it.

If you think you inherited your bad back because your mother had one and so did your grandmother, there might be something else at play.

And, in fact, there is.  While your physical structure is largely inherited – the color of your eyes, your height, your propensity for gaining weight in your thighs…you know, all the good stuff – your movement patterns are largely learned.

An Italian study that was trying to determine which parts of the brain are responsible for what kinds of movement inadvertently discovered something no one had noticed before.

They’d sunk electrodes into a monkey’s brain to measure neurological impulses.  To their great surprise, the monkey’s brain lit up when he observed one of the researchers moving but had not actually moved himself.

This led to the discovery of mirror neurons – little cells in your brain that create a neurological firestorm when you see someone else move.  These guys help us learn how to get around in the world by watching our parents and siblings.

As it turns out, the mirror neurons we humans carry around are far more sophisticated than those originally discovered in the brains of monkeys.

“Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking,” noted Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, Italy. “We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

On the upside, mirror neurons allow us to shortcut the learning process.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, in order to learn to stand on two legs, or walk, or even when we’re studying highly technical activities like dance or horseback riding.

We get a neurological boost from watching someone who’s already accomplished do their thing.

But there’s a dark side to our ability to imitate.  Emotions and body position are intricately connected.  Certain thoughts and feelings beget certain postures, and the reverse is also true.

“The ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons,” said Dr. Christian Keysers, a researcher of the neurology of empathy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “People who rank high on a scale measuring empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems.”

Our predilection to copy our parents’ patterns might also lead to us copying their mental and emotional states, carrying forward beliefs that have been living in our families for generations.

While genetics do play a roll here, there is no question that at least some of what we take forward from our upbringing is learned.  And anything that is learned can be unlearned.



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