There is growing evidence that we don’t just pass on our smiles, our eye color, our heights, or our ability to sprint. We also share the knowledge of past experiences, deeply encoded in our RNA. And if there is a better reason to deal with your own hurt besides the knowledge of what you inadvertently pass on, I haven’t found it.
My daughter, Abigail, turned 8 this week, and it got me thinking about planarians, the flatworms that thrive in freshwater, saltwater, and in the soil of many continents. Someday, when she’s older, I’ll tell Abigail why she made me think of worms.
In the 1960s, a researcher named James McConnell led an effort to prove the biological process dubbed “memory transfer,” a chemical basis for memories that can be passed to offspring via flesh and RNA instead of the traditionally accepted full nervous system in which it was previously theorized memory lives.
McConnell, et al., exposed planarians to bright light and electric shock, cut them in half, and recorded the reactions of the regenerating worms. Brutal and hopefully disallowed by modern science, the experiments showed that we pass on intense pain and, more importantly, distinct knowledge to those we create. While many of McConnell’s peers rolled their eyes and poked holes in his findings, more recent scientific efforts have upheld the idea that not all memory is stored in the mind and we are, like the flatworms, passing along so many pieces of ourselves we don’t suspect.
Three years ago, scientists did a similar, if slightly more humane, experiment on snails and were able to transfer memory via RNA injections from sensitized hosts to test groups. This modern research goes hand-in-hand with writings on things like intergenerational trauma. The evidence has mounted that we are in many ways held captive by the pain of those who have gone before.
In 1966, Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD and colleagues documented high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors. In the years since, researchers have assessed anxiety, depression, and PTSD in trauma survivors and their progeny, with Holocaust survivors and their children the most widely studied longitudinally.
In the early 1980s, Yael Danieli, Ph.D., co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children in New York, identified at least four adaptive styles that she and others observed among Holocaust survivors. Examples include “victim,” people who have difficulty moving on from the original trauma and are emotionally volatile and overprotective, and “numb,” those who are emotionally detached, intolerant of weakness in others, and who maintain a “conspiracy of silence” within the family. Other styles include “fighter” and “those who made it.”
Whether the trauma that lives in your genetics is a holocaust, war, famine, alcoholism, or abuse, I believe in the unending power of consciousness. When we bring consciousness to things, especially things that are uncomfortable or challenging, we become empowered within them. So, there is no sense in burying the pain.
That is a spiritual principle borne out by science. The difference between what psychologists call post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth is our consciousness. Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change experienced as a result of struggling with highly challenging life circumstances. Psychologists insist that this “growth” does not occur as a direct result of trauma, but rather it is the individual’s struggle with the new reality in the aftermath of trauma that is crucial in determining the extent to which post-traumatic growth occurs. It demands the re-evaluation of one’s core beliefs, which has become one of my favorite exercises.
So snails and flatworms and my daughter.
My life is built around the study of change, the efforts guided by Kabbalah and a goal of never-ending evolution that will help me work to perfect myself. As I get older and, more apropos, as my children age, it becomes more clear that I am on this journey not just for myself. I recognized early on that I come from a line of people who suffered and had the consciousness of victims. I had to fight that tendency and choose a different consciousness. It is something I recommit to always choosing, as sometimes those moments of darkness creep back in.
I passed along a thousand years of horror and triumph and mediocrity and miracles to my kids, and that lives within them now. But I don’t believe that intergenerational passages and memories end with RNA and science. I believe that I can continue to illuminate their lives with each choice I make. They may be their own people with their own lives, but in a tight hug or wrapped in a blanket on movie night (current favorite on repeat in our house: Harry Potter), they still breathe in my cells and take a bit of me and my history and my ongoing journey with them.
That is me at my most positive. In darker moments, I have wondered if my early struggles with anorexia and fearfulness have somehow marred my progeny. I think that’s a worry that is nigh-universal for parents who know a bit about transferred memory and have taken the time to inventory their own concerns. But as I looked at Abigail on her birthday, cake frosting at the corners of her grin, I was recharged and calmed once more. I believe that there is a path through generational trauma and memory transfer. I believe as we better ourselves through fearless change, we can pass on wonders.