What Your Patients are Hearing

Meditation affects genes, inflammation; art prescribed as medicine


As an adolescent, says James R. Doty, MD, he was heading down a road toward delinquency. He says his family was poor, and he was often hungry.

A man sits cross-legged in the grass, meditating. copyright/Jupiterimages

His father was an alcoholic, his mother had debilitating depression, and he was so reflexive that, after a nun at his Roman Catholic school slapped him, he slapped her back. But a random decision to browse a magic shop changed the way Dr. Doty was able to imagine his life.

The magic shop owner’s mother, Ruth, taught him about focusing on the present moment – rather than dwelling on past traumas. “What she taught me truly rewired my brain,” he says in an interview with Krista Tippett. “When I met her, I had little to no possibilities. Yet, my own personal circumstances did not change at all.”

“There was a study that was done that showed that the average person, almost 80% of the time, they’re not focused on the present, they’re focused on exactly that: regret about the past or anxiety about the future. When your attention is in those places, you can’t give your full attention to even what’s happening to you at that moment,” Dr. Doty says in the interview with Ms. Tippett for “On Being,” a radio conversation and podcast available online and in some NPR markets. [Distracted attention] “limits what you can accomplish in that moment. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible distraction, and it, again, limits us to the connections we are able to make and actually even who we are.”

Dr. Doty’s life so far has taught him that pain can be harnessed to enrich life.

“Most of us have a tendency to desire pleasure rather than pain. ... I think anyone who has lived a life, which means you have had pain and suffering – is that you realize that there is a gift in the pain and suffering because what it allows you to do is to see the reality that this is part of life. And it’s part of a meaningful life. When you’re able to take that pain and suffering and use it to not hide from the world, to use it not to be afraid of every interaction, but to use it to say, yes, it is hard sometimes, but I have learned so many lessons and have become more appreciative and have more gratitude and see in so many examples how in the face of the greatest adversity, people have shown their greatest humanity,” he says.

An important part of his journey of discovery has been the beneficial role that meditation can have on the body.

“In fact, even after brief periods of meditation, we actually can study the epigenetic effect of how our genes are changing their expression, even with brief periods of meditation, in the context of inflammation markers,” says Dr. Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford (Calif.) University, and the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “It’s extraordinary, because even with people who have meditated in this manner for as little as 2 weeks, you can see effects in regard to their blood pressure, in regard to the release of stress hormones and effects on the immune system.”

Next Article: