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Mind control

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He's known today as one of the leading figures in the field of alternative medicine, but Deepak Chopra's career began on a much more traditional path. Born in New Delhi and trained in Western medicine at an Indian university, he later emigrated to the United States, where he became a part of the Boston medical establishment. An endocrinologist in private practice, he was also Chief of Staff at New England Memorial Hospital and an instructor at Tufts, Harvard and Boston University.

It was only after 10 years in New England that Dr. Chopra began to study yoga, transcendental meditation and Ayurveda (traditional Hindu medicine). And it was then, standing at the intersection of Western medicine and Eastern mysticism, that Chopra found the question that would animate the next three decades of his career.

This Friday, Nov. 20, the wildly popular -- and often controversial -- physician and author will speak at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.

"For 40 years, we've known that if you are experiencing anxiety or fear -- but also when you're feeling depression or hostility or anger -- that this results in the so-called 'stress response,'" Chopra said in a recent interview with the Weekly. "We know from thousands of studies that stress increases your risk of cardiac incidents and that it increases inflammation in the body, thus raising risk factors for Alzheimer's, auto-immune disorders, bronchial asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and also many cancers."

But, he went on, "We did not know what the opposite does. Do deep mediation, sleep, exercise and yoga, do the opposite? Do equanimity and peace of mind have the opposite effect?"

Chopra's desire to find and communicate these answers has spawned dozens of books. The latest of them, "Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being," will be the focus of discussion this Friday evening, Nov. 20, when Chopra visits Foothill College for a public presentation organized by Mountain View's East West Bookshop.

"Super Genes" is co-authored by Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a prominent researcher into the genetic causes of Alzheimer's. According to Chopra, the pair met "in the men's room" at a TEDMED conference and "began conversing about the brain and genes." Their chance encounter turned into a collaboration that produced 2012's "Super Brain," a book exploring the idea that we can improve our physical and spiritual health by tapping into the unrealized potential of our brains.

Now, in "Super Genes," Chopra and Tanzi go a step further, purporting to show a mechanism by which our thoughts, emotions and attitudes can actually switch on or switch off the genes that control our biological well-being.

It's a radical idea, to say the least. For decades, genes were regarded as destiny. Our behavior (diet, exercise, etc.) could affect our general fitness, of course, and environmental factors (such as pollutants) might have adverse effects on our health. But beneath it all, we were prisoners of our genetic inheritance, cursed or blessed with specific traits coded into our DNA.

In recent years, as researchers -- Tanzi among them -- began to decode the human genome, identifying individual genes responsible for specific traits, it became clear that the reality of genetic inheritance was more complex than previously believed. It is now generally understood that the mere presence of a so-called "cancer gene," for instance, does not automatically mean that an individual will develop cancer. Instead, a new field known as epigenetics seeks to understand why a given trait -- a predisposition for Alzheimer's, say -- might manifest in one individual while remaining dormant or "unexpressed" in someone else with the same cluster of genes.

"Epigenetics is here to stay," Chopra said, and indeed the basic tenets of the discipline are widely accepted. The instructions embedded in our DNA, he explained, are interpreted by a "sheath of complex proteins" that surround and "influence the genes. They can turn up or turn down the volume of a gene ... even silence a gene altogether."

Chopra and Tanzi venture beyond the established outlines of contemporary epigenetic science, though, when they suggest that the operation of these influential proteins -- and therefore the operation of our genes -- can be affected not just by environmental factors and infectious agents but also by our thoughts and feelings. In Chopra's words: "Your genes are constantly responding to every experience you have -- even emotional experiences."

While this notion may prove controversial with many in the scientific community, Chopra's fans are more likely to see it as Chopra himself does: as a natural extension of the ideas that he has pursued for nearly three decades.

"The first book I wrote that went deep into how your mind can influence your biology was 'Quantum Healing' in 1988," the author explained. "At that time, my premise was based on observations of my patients in clinical practice. I was able, coming from medical science and also yoga, to intuit that we can influence the body with the activity of the unconscious mind.

"Now, 27 years have gone by, and we have validation not just from our own research but from researchers all over the world. It has taken this time to build up the evidence that your mind and body are intrinsically one."

His attempts to collapse the mind/body dichotomy have made Chopra a popular writer and lecturer within the holistic health movement, but his characteristically ambitious claims have, in the past, ruffled the feathers of some scientists and medical practitioners who regard his evidence as insufficiently rigorous and his conclusions as speculative.

Asked how his ideas have been received on previous visits to the Bay Area -- especially within the tech-centric culture of Silicon Valley -- Chopra replied, "I'm a fan of technology. Everything I do, I try to integrate technology and metrics. I've spoken at Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. I get overwhelmingly positive responses."

Hosted by the alternative-leaning East West Bookshop, Friday's event at Foothill College is likely to draw an enthusiastic crowd as well. Chopra's talk will cover issues of epigenetics, consciousness and the human microbiome, and the cost of admission includes a complementary copy of the just-released "Super Genes." It is an opportunity to hear a leading figure in the alternative medicine movement as he discusses the latest chapter in his quest to bridge the mind/body divide, making the case for a radical new idea in genetics that just may prove revolutionary.

"Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being" by Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.; Penguin Random House, New York, 2015; 336 pages; $26

What: "Super Genes: the Future of Well-Being," a talk by Deepak Chopra, M.D.

Where: Smithwick Theater, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Friday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $60

Info: Go to eastwest.com or call 650-988-9800.

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