Behavioral Epigenetics

“The future enters into us in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens”
(Rainer Maria Rilke)

“Seven Generations: It’s about seed, It’s about life, the Seventh Generation is about looking ahead, it’s about responsibility. The Seventh Generation reminds you that you have responsibility to the generations that are coming.”
(Faith Keeper, Chief Oren Lyons, Iroquois Confederacy)

Versions of a belief that children suffer consequences for the actions of their forebears appear in The Bible as well as in Shakespeare. In Exodus 20:5 we find: “ for I, the LORD God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare wrote, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”. Versions of this message can be found around the world and extend back through the ages. This frightening notion was a common theme in Greek tragedy; in the story of Orestes and The Furies, as well as with the difficult fates that befall the House of Atreus before and after the Trojan War.

In more modern times the subject of the family curse appears in the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles. Along a similar theme we have the haunted family in Edgar Allan Poe’s, American gothic masterpiece, The Fall of the House of Usher. This now classic tale tells of the Usher twins, Roderick and “Mad Madeline”, who as children, vow to never have children of their own in order to bring the nightmare saga of a cruel and evil family line to a final end.

More recently, we continue to witness what our media calls, the “Kennedy Curse”, in which many generations of this wealthy and powerful political dynasty have suffered a multitude of premature deaths, as well as many other varied misfortunes.

Within the psychological realm, the seminal work of French psychiatrist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, presents her psycho-geneological approach in work with French patients, whose families have suffered many generations of misfortune, overwhelming life events and various unresolved traumas. Similar patterns have been mapped out in the form of genograms, used by many family therapists, and have taken on physical representation and other dimensions in Bert Hellinger’s innovative Family and Systemic Constellation Work, which originated in Germany. And now, with the advent of an exciting new field of Behavioral Epigenetics, it appears that there is a sound biological basis for the transmission of multigenerational patterns.

Researchers have known since the 1970s that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside the nucleus of each cell require something to inform them as to exactly which genes to transcribe. One such extra element is a common structural component of organic molecules known as the methyl group, which acts something like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA only those genes necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Since these methyl groups are attached to genes, alongside but separate from the double helix DNA code, this new area of genetic research was named epigentics, from the Greek epi meaning over, outer or above. While it was originally believed that epigenetic changes only occurred during fetal development, ongoing research revealed that this molecular bric a brac could be added on during adulthood, as well.

It appears that these methyl groups can attach to DNA as result of dietary changes, exposure to chemicals and I would imagine to radiation, as well. Most surprising was the discovery that epigenetic change could be passed along from parent to child, generation after generation, and that methyl group changes could be inherited much like a genetic mutation. Even more astonishing is the notion that, if diet and chemicals can cause epigenetic changes, certain experiences such as child abuse and neglect, substance abuse or other negative stresses can set off epigenetic changes to the DNA within the human brain. This notion then became the basis for the even newer field of behavioral epigenetics. According to the premise of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our own past or in that of any of our recent ancestors, can leave what might be termed molecular scars, adhering to our DNA. Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine, after the tsunami recedes, our own overwhelming life experiences, as well as that our forefathers, can remain and become an integral part of us. While these experiences may have been forgotten, and the DNA remains the same, methyl group attachments allow psychological and behavioral tendencies to be inherited. (Dan Haley: Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on your Genes, Discovery Magazine, May 12, 2013)

This research has profound implications not only for the understanding and resolution of individual trauma but for trans-generational and social trauma, as well. It can now be understood, that survivors of the Holocaust or any genocidal horror; war or any variety of violent social, religious or political upheaval, cataclysmic man-made or natural disaster, forced migration or immigration, famine, epidemic etc., are likely to carry more than just memories.

Here it is important to remember that whatever molecular scars may be passed on they are only tendencies and not mandates. In my own work with trans-generational individual and social trauma, it seems clear that not all negative experiences leave an imprint; especially those which came to some degree of healing and resolution. Those traumatic experiences that reverberate through the generations, seem to be those which involved lies, cover-ups, hidden crimes and denial. While one can find both hope and challenge within this new field of behavioral epigenetics, it seems clear that resolving our own issues as best we can, as well as being mindful of the long term consequences of our life decisions, can be an important contribution to the well-being of our descendants.

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