12/04/2013 06:49 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

Sticks, Stones and Histones

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

There is considerable cultural wisdom embedded within idioms, fables and nursery rhymes. Consider "The early bird gets the worm," "The Tortoise and the Hare," and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Which makes the "sticks and stones" adage such a glaring exception.

As a child, I broke three bones, once turning my forearm into a stair step by slipping from a swing -- at the zenith of its rearward arc -- onto wet grass. Although traumatic at the time, my orthopedic mishaps have long since healed, and I give them no thought. On the other hand, virtually every unkind word ever spoken to me has lodged itself deep within. Worse: My greatest regrets in life are not the things I've done, but the things I've said -- some of which haunt me.

There may now be scientific evidence to suggest that names do hurt, and that such hurt lasts for generations.


Were I just beginning my career, I'd be tempted to study epigenetics, perhaps the most exciting scientific frontier to open during my lifetime. A little history first, however. The Human Genome Project (HGP) -- established by Congress in 1988 as the biological equivalent of the Apollo Program -- took up the daunting task of decoding an entire human genome. Supercomputers hummed around the clock for years, splicing together snippets of genetic code. The gargantuan task was completed in early 2003, just in time for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the discovery of the structure of DNA (Nature, April 1953). Astoundingly, just 50 years after Crick and Watson's unveiling of the double helix, humans had decoded their own genetic blueprint. HGP's principal finding: human DNA is comprised of three billion base pairs organized into 20,000 to 25,000 genes. The paltry number of human genes came as a surprise. "Many things on your dinner plate have more genes than do you," quips Francis Collins, who spearheaded the HGP to its conclusion.

More startling, however, is that our genetic makeup is not hardwired. Genes contain instructions, usually for synthesizing proteins, but the instructions aren't always executed. Environmental factors -- epigenetics -- regulate the expression (activation) of many genes. Thus, over the course of a lifetime, identical twins, born with identical genomes, diverge genetically. By old age their genetic makeup may differ functionally (that is, in gene expression) by 50 percent or more.

By analogy, DNA is hardware, but epigenetics -- literally "above genetics" -- is software. All manner of factors -- lifestyle, diet, habits, and so on -- influence gene expression by "tagging" sections of the genetic code as "on" or "off." Methyl groups and histones provide the biochemical mechanisms for tagging, but that's beyond our scope. The upshot: what we become depends literally upon all that happens to us over a lifetime, and soberingly, upon the sum total of choices that we make: to smoke or not to smoke, to exercise regularly or not, etc. Not only is our DNA passed to successive generations, but some of the epigenetic tags pass as well. Genetic sleuthing has revealed that the diet of one generation, for example, has epigenetic consequences for life expectancy two generations later. Epigenetics revives, at least partially, the long-discredited view of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) that acquired traits can be passed to progeny.


And now from science to speculation. I suspect that epigenetic factors also include all the messages -- positive and negative -- that an individual receives during a lifetime. Feel the difference in your gut (and DNA) between the remarks "You're ugly," "Loser," and "Don't be so stupid;" and "Hey, good looking," "Brilliant," and "I love you." Recent events have focused national attention on bullying, which has driven some teens to suicide. Could bullying affect the epigenetic tags of its victims? After all, many who bully were themselves bullied, perhaps by family members who were bullied.

In his modern classics The Power of Now and A New Earth, spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle introduces the notion of the "painbody," the accumulation within the physical body of all the unaddressed psychological pain one has experienced during his or her lifetime. Under the right circumstances, the painbody, which often lies dormant, can take on a life of its own.

Tolle's painbody may at first smack of New Age mumbo-jumbo, until one reconsiders the notion in the light of epigenetics. Or, in my case, until one has a first-hand encounter with an active painbody. Some years ago, in a moment of intense stress during a family crisis, a close family member and I who had never fought exchanged harsh words. What followed caught us both completely off guard. We entered a downward spiral of charges and counter-charges, often finding ourselves parroting family voices not our own. It took months to halt the spiral and bumble our way back to reconciliation. I know of no conventional explanation for what transpired. However, Tolle's hypothetical painbody, as described in a HuffPost article from 2010, fits the experience to a "T." A few rash words, spoken mindlessly, triggered in each of us unresolved psychological pain, whereby our respective painbodies sidelined our rational selves and took over the conflict.

Like a parasite, the painbody feeds on its host, drawing energy from drama. Whole segments of American society rely on the existence of the painbody. In a moment of rare candor during the last presidential election, Senator Lindsey Graham (S.C.) acknowledged that the GOP was losing the demographics race. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term." Scratch the surface of anger and you'll find unresolved pain. Shock radio thrives on feeding millions of painbodies by keeping our emotional cauldrons churning.

Tolle further suggests that cultures have collective painbodies, and that these may be particularly "dense" for some demographics. For example, alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence are prevalent on many Indian reservations. One can only guess what epigenetic switches were thrown in indigenous DNA by the white man's wanton destruction of the habitat, culture, livelihood, and spirituality of native races. Could the high incidence of hypertension and diabetes among African Americans be the biological residue of slavery's inhumanity? And could achieving peace in the Middle East be so intractable because both Jews and Palestinians carry such dense painbodies?

It is well established that psychological health affects physical health. It stands to reason that collective psychological health affects collective physical and environmental health. If such speculation is on target, then epigenetics places another layer of responsibility on us Homo sapiens. There is no such thing as an individual action. So-called "individual" actions have collective consequences through the epigenome. We are our brothers' keepers, our children's keepers, and our grandchildren's keepers.

For millennia, the most spiritually evolved among us have encouraged mindfulness. First and foremost, do no harm. The practice of mindfulness insures that our words and our actions invoke as little harm as possible for current and future generations. The Great Law of the Iroquois set an admirable standard: In weighing each decision, consider its effects on the seventh generation.

But to err is human. When we err, the pain engendered by those errors should be confronted head-on rather than allowed to accumulate and fester. For this reason restorative justice is vastly superior to conventional punitive justice. Restorative justice fully acknowledges the pain caused by wrongdoing, but it doesn't feed the perpetrator's painbody through retribution. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," observed Gandhi. Witness post-apartheid South Africa, which was poised for civil war. The South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- restorative justice on a national scale -- broke the cycle of violence and spared the country.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names hurt my soul. And when my soul is damaged, I am far more likely to act in ways that damage yours.

(The author is grateful to Andy Schmookler for helpful comments on an earlier draft.)