inherited memories


Having raised an adopted son and having taken on a parental role with so many young people over the years who are biologically unrelated to me, I have spent more time than most reflecting on what these kids are missing that biological children take for granted.

I am close to my biological forebears and sometimes when thinking about my grandparents and even ancestors that I never personally met, I can “taste” snatches of what life must have been for them. Some stories told by my grandparents are invested with an emotional component that makes me feel that I had actually been there—although I know that the events of which they spoke were sometimes experienced years before I was even born.

For years I had explained this phenomenon to myself as the result of having an over-active imagination, yet there has always been a part of me that has trusted my understanding of the described situations as correct in detail and context. What justified or explained such a perspective?

Cellular memory is a theory that states the brain is not the only organ that stores memories or personality traits, that memory as a process can form in other systems in the body and can be stored in organs such as the heart. When organs are transplanted, some of the recipients have reported surprising mental developments.

A woman called Claire Sylvia received a heart and lung transplant in the 1970s from an 18-year-old male donor who had been in a motorcycle accident. None of this information was known to Sylvia, who upon waking up claimed she had a new and intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets, and green peppers—all foods she didn’t enjoy prior to the surgery. A change in food preferences is probably the most noted in heart transplant patients. Sylvia wrote a book about her experiences after learning the identity of her donor called A Change of Heart.

This theory is not new. Fiction writers were probably writing about the concept as early as the 1800’s, long before transplants of anything were even considered plausible. Perhaps it was Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac that popularized the idea for the first time. In Renard’s story a pianist looses his hands and a killer’s hands are transplanted in their place. The story ends with the killer’s hands possessing the main character to kill.

Cellular memory is one thing, and genetic memory is another. Can we inherit memory from our ancestors?

Neuroscientific research on mice suggests that some experiences can influence subsequent generations. In a study, mice trained to fear a specific smell passed on their trained aversion to their descendants, which were then extremely sensitive and fearful of the same smell, even though they had never encountered it, nor been trained to fear it.

The idea of genetic memory has been around since the late 19th century, and has been invoked to explain the racial memory postulated by Carl Jung. In Jungian psychology, racial memories are posited memories, feelings, and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a “collective unconscious.”

Scientists have tended to be skeptical of this theory in the 20th century. There is no evidence or credible scientific theory suggesting that we can inherit specific episodic memories of events that our ancestors experienced. Yet it is uncontroversial that procedural memory can be inherited—for example, babies know how to suck without being taught how to do it. This is a kind of procedural memory, and it is clearly genetic. The central, and much more controversial, question is whether episodic and other forms of memory can be inherited.

According to an article which appeared last week, the idea is experiencing a resurgence of interest.

Research from the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA. During recent tests researchers have shown once again that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences—in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom—to subsequent generations.

According to the Telegraph, Dr. Brian Dias, from the department of psychiatry at Emory University, said: ”From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations.

“Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.” This suggests that experiences are somehow transferred from the brain into the genome, allowing them to be passed on to later generations. The researchers now hope to carry out further work to understand how the information comes to be stored on the DNA in the first place. They also want to explore whether similar effects can be seen in the genes of humans.

Professor Marcus Pembrey, a pediatric geneticist at University College London, said the work provided “compelling evidence for the biological transmission of memory. He added: “It addresses constitutional fearfulness that is highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, plus the controversial subject of transmission of the ‘memory’ of ancestral experience down the generations.

“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously, he continued. ” I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

Professor Wolf Reik, head of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said further work is needed before such results can be applied to humans. “These types of results are encouraging as they suggest that transgenerational inheritance exists and is mediated by epigenetics, but more careful mechanistic study of animal models is needed before extrapolating such findings to humans,” he said.

Does our DNA carry spiritual and cosmic memories passed down in genes from our ancestors? If you are as intrigued by this possibility as I am, you can access an abstract of the research here.



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1 Response to “inherited memories”

  1. 1 anonymouse
    October 23, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I never met my maternal grandparents and barely knew my paternal grandparents before they were gone, but my family has a significant collection of photographs dating back to pre-Civil War, and those, combined with family stories from my parents, have given me a good sense of family. I suppose as a result of my fascination with such stories, I became the family genealogist, and soon it will be time to pass it along to the next generation. I find a sense of grounding in knowing such things, and to the point of your article, recall my brother claiming to remember events that occurred before he was born or was old enough to possibly remember. I guess that is how we each personalize our family history and pass it along.

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