Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Guys. Something amazing happened to me this morning.
You understand that I’m from Southern California, and therefore Dude and Guys refers to everyone, right? I say this because I’ve become hyper-aware of gender issues over the last several months and don’t want to upset anyone. But like, my two daughters are Dude. The stoplight is Dude when it turns to yellow without enough time for me to sneak through it. My own brain is Dude.
The tangents are starting earlier and earlier. Shoot, I hadn’t even started the blog!
OK, back to it. I’m gonna reuse the opener because it conveys a sense of urgency but with relaxed undertone, which is what I worked hard to convey. Guys. Something amazing happened to me this morning…
It was any other Friday. Only it was this one (God I hope you read that in Movie Announcer Voice). My friend Deb sends me emails every day with poetry or snippets of story prose in them. I know! I know. I just told her she needed to do it and she just… listened? I don’t know why she continues to but I just try not to anger the karma gods (oh fine, and goddesses, I don’t want to already have done bad gender stuffs already in this post) so that it’ll keep happening. The emails always come in the morning (don’t say it, that’s my job and I’m busy trying to be serious, so behave) and they set a lovely tone for the day. I get here before the sun comes up and I’m often the first one for hours on the entire floor. So I read my emails in total silence, often mesmerized by Deb’s uncanny and enviable ability to Ray Bradbury. Yes, I verbed him (waoh, that was meta).
Ray Bradbury is absolute KING at simple prose. Now, that’s not an insult in the slightest. Quite the opposite, in fact. He can make you feel things extremely deeply while only using the most common words. It isn’t flowery or full of exotic metaphor. And I absolutely adore him. Anyway, if you read some of Deb’s work, it’s a very similar style.
So as I’m reading this morning’s offerings, I mentioned how I don’t always remember specifics of her writing but I’m left with feelings and little snippets of imagery from her work. I listed a few for her. And that’s when it hit me: I was experiencing literary methylation. That’s right, that’s the exciting thing! I coined a term. Naturally, you’re gonna want to read on to know what in the Sam hell I’m talking about. Also, what is Sam hell? He must be pissed that he left that legacy. Or her (damn, I’m terrible today. I mean, I have a daughter I call Sam for god's sakes).
OK, I’m back. You sure are patient!
Bear with me in the following analogy: Reading is the nurture portion of the nature vs. nurture equation. Our creative minds are our genetics- nature. When we read, we absorb snippets into ourselves, whether at the time we consciously realize it or not. This is like epigenetics. Epigenetics is a fancy term for anything that happens to regulate your genes that doesn’t change your actual genetic library. One of the most common ways we do this is through DNA methylation. Yes, WE! You are doing it right now! You got a stressful email from your boss. Boom, methylation. A dog bark scared you out of your half-stupor. Boom, methylation.
DNA methylation is a process by which the environment can interact with an organism’s genes. A methyl group (a carbon and three hydrogens) can get added to a portion of a gene and can change it’s function without changing the DNA code itself. It can turn off the reading of that gene, for example. But here’s the really interesting part of this: methylation is heritable, meaning that things that happen to you can potentially affect your children.
Studies have shown that environmental factors can cause methylations that are observed in offspring. Consider extreme environmental stressors like the holocaust. This study showed that such a severe psychosocial trauma can have intergenerational effects. Why does this matter? The gene they studied encoded for a protein that mediates stress response. What we could be looking at is evolution’s way of equipping future generations to better handle adversity. Learning over generations. That is absolutely wild and beautiful. Now, this study did not claim that, and I don’t want to overstate, but this is what it suggests to me.
So, how does this relate to literature and poetry? And ohmygod how am I only just now making the connection between the term genetic library and literature affecting our DNA? Well, not to bring things back round to Bradbury again, but I’m gonna bring things back round to Bradbury. In his book Zen in the Art of Writing. He says the muse is actually just a collection of your experiences and that you draw on these for writing inspiration. Interesting hot take, Brad-cakes. He’s basically saying that you absorb material and then BAM a story happens. Oh yeah, and you also have to have lots of amazing talent to craft the dang thing.
So, all these many weeks of reading Deb’s work and I pull imagery that now just feels a part of my own real memory. And it is, isn’t it? When we read fiction and poetry, we are being brought into the experience with the writer. It is this sacred and beautiful contract in which we are time travelers together, and long after we go our separate ways, we are still parts of each other.
Thank you for bearing with me through this long post. Perhaps you’ll think of epigenetics next time you’re reading something beautiful and somewhere I’ll be smiling at the entanglement of science and art.
Your Average Neuroscientist,
Want some of Deb’s magic, too? Yeah you do. Find her on Twitter @debsvalidation and visit her blog, debnation.com. She is a fantastic freelance editor in addition to writing wonderful things.