I met and friended a woman on Facebook who is the wife of an old friend from high school – it seemed almost instant that her and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on almost everything. We had those knock down drag out back and forth arguments regarding what most people fight about these days – race relations and politics. I am a white Libertarian (more conservative), she is a Democrat African American. It got quite contentious and I couldn’t figure out why everything appeared to be racial with her. However, instead of two very different people deciding to unfriend each other, we decided to do the harder thing and talk through our differences (I am thankful we did – she has a good heart and is an awesome lady. In fact, I sent this blog to her before posting for feedback.) What I am learning through her is that sometimes people just want to be heard and understood. At first I couldn’t figure out why she is so affected by something that happened “so long ago.” But between actually talking with her and gaining understanding, coupled with this new scientific finding, it could literally be in our DNA. New fascinating breakthroughs in science are determining that the DNA of our ancestors, and their emotional responses to traumatic situations in previous generations, can cause emotional responses and potential trauma in the current generation.
According to an article in The Guardian new research on genes and DNA done on the offspring of Holocaust survivors, scientists have found genetic markers of anxiety and stress disorders. They believe that grandparents who experienced excruciating pain, stress, and anxiety, changed their DNA and those feelings and trauma became embedded, which is therefore passed down to children and grandchildren. According to Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of Mount Sinai’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division, “The pattern – known as epigenetic change because it affects the chemical marker for the gene rather than the gene itself – suggests that profound stress in the older generation translated into an adaptation that passed on to the next.”
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist with a PhD in Communication Pathology specializing in Neuropsychology seconds this find. According to Dr. Leaf, “…something outside the cell (diet, exercise, thoughts, nurturing) changes the ‘on/off’ switches on the genes of the DNA in sperm and eggs.”
She continues, “Scientists has (sic) known for a while about these switches – clusters if (sic) atoms called methyl groups – but the fact they can pass through the generations and that these tags can be reset is a new idea.”
This is a profound find. My first thought goes to the issue of slavery and civil rights in America. One of the arguments has been that we are now several generations out of slavery and our children two generations from the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, there often times is genuine anger from those that most would say have never been directly affected by slavery (Yes, there will always be an affect in not knowing full ancestry, the knowledge of what was done to ancestors, and the socio-economic factors that are still impacting many African Americans.)
While there is sometimes a “get over it and move on” mentality in our country, perhaps the emotions and feelings that are being felt by the current generation are not just from the knowledge of what happened, even if they are raised in the best circumstances America has to offer. It is embedded in their DNA to feel the feelings their grandparents felt of widespread racism, slavery, and the violence associated with it in the last century and beyond, and it’s possible they passed down trauma from the slavery era. My friend on the opposite side of the aisle also pointed out that if trauma is found in DNA, what about prejudice? Racism? Could it be that somehow ancestors in their hate for another race also left markers in their DNA for that emotion as well?
Not that this potential finding in any way absolves those committing these horrible and ignorant sins against humanity – we are all responsible for ourselves ultimately – but if some humans come pre-wired for certain behaviors would this change the way we perceive this issue? It’s interesting to note that a passage in the Bible might actually address this behavior. Exodus 34:7, “Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” In other words, the sins of the father’s, and maybe the effects of sin toward others in previous generations, affect their future generations up to four generations. Perhaps could it be that this was written because our Creator knew about the affect we have on our DNA and it being passed on?
Perhaps not all bad habits and mental health issues are learned behavior or circumstantial, maybe many of us are suffering because of something that happened twenty five, fifty and perhaps even over one hundred years ago. What a profound thought.
Two things we should learn from this, especially those who have not yet had children – our thoughts, feelings and trauma won’t just affect our lives, but could affect future generations. Also, maybe it’s time we stop shouting each other down, being quick to dismiss other’s feelings, and due the harder thing, sit down and try to understand one another. We might not end up agreeing in the end, but sometimes, people want to be heard and understood. Some maybe be reading this and dismissing the notion because the other side is irrational, or other excuses, but what does hurt to put your own desires, beliefs, and notions aside for a moment to just listen? To gain understanding? As a result, maybe we can change our DNA for the better.