Our Ancestors’ Memories and Us

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Did you know that the traumatic experiences of our ancestors can affect the genes of our children?

In my own family’s case, we have experienced a series of events that we really cannot explain. Our family left Spain before the 1492 Expulsion, we left Belarus for the US before the Russian Revolution; other relatives left Europe before the Holocaust, we left Iran before the Revolution, we left Los Angeles before the Northridge earthquake. Friends who know these stories always ask me to tell them if I plan to leave New Mexico! I experienced the last two myself and cannot explain it as anything other than a very strong feeling of anxiety urging me that it was time to go. Who knows what my ancestors had experienced to trigger this urge to flee centuries ago?

Ancestor syndrome and genetic memory are even implicated in the case of phobias, which might be based on inherited experiences of their ancestors, such as a fear of spiders and an ancestor’s frightening experience.

Faculty members at McGill University in Montreal asked a similar question concerning those who went through the January 1998 ice storm in Quebec, one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history. People had no electricity for weeks. It was stressful. The researchers recruited 176 mothers who were pregnant at the time of the storm, or who became pregnant soon after, and assessed the degree of hardship they had experienced (days without electricity, time spent in a shelter, damage to their homes) along with their personal feelings of distress. Thirteen years later, they analyzed blood cells of 36 of the children born to those mothers and found chemical changes. They compared those results to 34 of the same children tested eight years earlier to find changes. The result is that the chemical changes were linked to the degree of prenatal hardship reported by the mothers years before.  The researchers claimed the findings offered the first human evidence supporting the conclusion that prenatal maternal stress results in lasting, broad and functionally organized DNA signatures.

For an explanation of these “on and off switches,” https://www.wired.com/2015/03/fat-sick-blame-grandparents-bad-habits/

Historical trauma – as defined by the Indigenous Institute for Knowledge and Development, at the University Of New Mexico in Albuquerque, refers to the effect of memories, facts, tales, images, places, circumstances, reenacting traumatic historical events and triggering emotional and physical distress.

The intergenerational transmission of trauma has been mostly viewed as based on recollection of events, whose memory has been handed down from one generation to the next one, in the natural context of family and community values and habits, including storytelling, sharing experiences, traditions, and specific historical events. However, although this sharing has a large role in trauma responses in the younger generations, it does not fully explain why individuals not explicitly part of this sharing of memory, events, can show signs of historical trauma (i.e. helplessness, apathy, detachment and alienation from their communities).

Other studies have shown such indications in Native Americans, in families affected by the Holocaust, and in Black Americans. Stressors can include famine, stress, toxins, affection

The first research with Holocaust survivors was performed by professor emeritus (University of Nice, France) Anne Ancelin Schützenberger, now in her 90s. Her book, “The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree” (Routledge, London/New York, 1998), demonstrates that we are mere links in a chain of generations, and we may have no choice in having events and traumas experienced by our ancestors visited upon us in our own lifetime.

She worked with Holocaust survivors and showed that the trauma they suffered was passed on to their children and that a person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.

Later, Mount Sinai Hospital (New York City) carried out a genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who been in concentration camps, experienced torture or who had hidden during WWII. The genes of their children, who were known to have increased stress disorders, were compared with Jewish families who lived outside of Europe during the war. Scientist Rachel Yehuda said, “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents.” She says her study provides the first demonstration of transmission of pre-conception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes in both parents and children.

Although the importance of Holocaust survival on the next generation has been studied for years, the challenge has been in proving that these intergenerational effects are not just transmitted by social influences from parents or regular genetic inheritance.

An interesting experiment with mice at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) paired the fragrance of cherry blossom with a small electric shock. Eventually, the mice shuddered at the smell without the shock. The mice’s offspring had the same fear of the fragrance although hey had never smelled it. Their brains had an increased number of cherry blossom smell receptors, showing that they had inherited association of the fragrance with fear. Another study used sweet almonds with the same result. Scientists agreed that such results in rats can survive for at least four generations.

At the time, it was felt that this would be impossible to scientifically prove. However, recent experiments have demonstrated that it is possible.

Doreen Carvajal, a former New York Times reporter, who has been investigating her ancestry and genealogy for years, is intrigued by the notion that generations pass on particular survival skills and an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries.

In the 1990s, Jerusalem psychotherapist Dina Wardi worked with the children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that survivor parents often designated certain children as “memorial candles,” who served as a link to preserve the past and connect the future. The children of survivors who actively struggled against the Nazis, Wardi found, had a compulsive ambition to achieve.

An additional twist in this field is offered by a Wisconsin psychiatrist Dr. Darold A. Treffert, who maintains a registry of some 300 “savants,” who through a head injury or other condition acquire skills they never learned. Conceivably, he says, those skills like music, mathematics, art and calendar-calculating, were buried deep in their brains. He calls it genetic memory, or “factory-installed software,” a huge reservoir of dormant knowledge that can emerge when a damaged brain rewires itself to recover from injuries. He says the only way that knowledge can be there is through genetic transmission.

A recent book, “Evolving Ourselves,” by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans (Penguin Random House, 2015) states that, at conception, our grandchildren listen to distant tales, and sometimes pass them on.

Does your family feel they have a connection to the past via the experiences of your ancestors? Share your comments below.

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