Mark O Brien


Are our memories actually ours?

With Mark O’Brien

Ever had a déjà vu experience? Ever wondered if are our memories actually ours? Ever wondered why you have an extreme response to certain situations and feel irrational fear of something?

In the journey one undertakes in spiritual growth, we go through a process of unravelling our psyche to uncover who we really are, underneath our layers of conditioning, our past traumas, all of those things that prevent us from living fully in the present.

Traditional psychology says that perhaps something traumatic that occurred in childhood or in the birth process that has been triggered hence the pure visceral feelings.

Those who believe in past lives might say that some past life experience was triggered and therapies have been developed to assist in the transformation of such feelings.

But what if these feelings had something to do with an experience our parents had, or our grandparents? Or even our great grandparents?

It has been well known for decades that skeletal factors get passed down through the generations.

For example if your parents were long distance runners and had developed the physique and aerobic capacity suitable to long distance runners, then you will have a predisposition to having that capacity.

Or if they were a tennis player with a strong right elbow then you will also inherit a predisposition to having that, or good eye hand co-ordination.

Basically any particular neural pathway that became well used and therefore more efficient in your parents is more likely to be passed down to you.

Often if we think of traits we ‘inherit’ from our parents, we consider that a conditioned thing. In other words, we mimic the behaviour of our parents in response to stress or emotional challenges.

But what if it is actually a genetic inheritance that predisposes us to feeling fear in the same situations as our parent, hence we have a similar response?

A recent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience sheds a whole new light on the possible origins and therefore treatment of such emotional responses.

This research, on mice, involved training mice to feel fear when they were exposed to a certain scent, in this case a cherry blossom flavoured scent.

Even though this training occurred prior to conception, the offspring were twice as likely to have a fear response when exposed to this scent than offspring from non-trained parents.

This affect was also passed down to the next generation, and in some cases even more so.

What researchers found was that the very structure of the brain was altered in the mice whose ancestors had learned this fear response, and this was accumulative over the generations.

This is useful from an evolutionary viewpoint, as it is useful for baby mice to have a fear of cats and other predators. And maybe of fire and water, all the stuff that enhances their ability to survive.

This is useful so the parents do not have to teach their young everything about how to survive. It also applies to all of the senses.

The neural ‘understanding’ of the scents of fresh or rotten food would also be useful to have already implanted in the brains of babies.

So what does this have to do with us?

Well, lots, assuming these results are relevant to humans, and it intuitively makes sense that they are.

Our ancestors, even our parents, lived in quite fearful times – many fought in wars, or were afraid of a multitude of things, did not have enough food or money, or were afraid of violence, sexual violence included.

As a result of this fear we will carry the genetic markers making us predisposed to feeling afraid or anxious about being hungry, or lonely, or being raped or a multitude of other things.

In the past decades there has been lots of stories about sexual abuse and the advent of ‘false’ memories whereby a person with some fear of sexual abuse has, via their therapist’s suggestion, ‘experienced’ some memory of abuse as a child.

Now clearly there has been an enormous amount of real sexual abuse, and there continues to be revelations almost daily in our media about this as our society comes to terms with the abuse of power that has run through every modern society.

Many lives were unnecessarily ruined due to such false memories after going through trials along with media crucifixion. Not a great result that undermined authentic sexual abuse as an issue and also therapists in general.

However, what this research points to, is that some of these memories or fear responses that the therapists were trying to allocate to an actual source, may actually belong to the parent, or even grandparent.

How do we distinguish our own trauma from that of our ancestors? How do we resolve issues that are not so much in our minds as in our genes?

Is it possible to distinguish between them? And does it matter? How do we go about healing the trauma of our parents that manifests in our anxiety?

Cutting-edge therapy worldwide is moving in the ‘mindfulness’ direction, where meditation, or at least a meditative approach to therapy, is the major tool instead of traditional psychoanalysis.

This is more about simply being aware, of simply observing feelings (which is where ‘transgenerational’ trauma will present) and dealing with those instead of necessarily digging through our past to find some event.

So the next time you have an irrational emotional response to something, just take a moment to slow down, to breathe, to quieten yourself down, and pay attention to what you are feeling, and try and relax, letting the feeling be there without judgement and let it pass when it goes.

Maybe also consider if this an anxiety that one of your parents may have felt.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes, with the more we learn the more we realise that we don’t know. We are complicated creatures aren’t we?!!

November, 2013

Written by Mark O’Brien

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Visit here see the original study ‘Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations’. Nature Neuroscience.