My grandparents were interesting people. My maternal grandmother Elizabeth was the kind of woman that refused to “Heil Hitler!” the Nazi soldiers while in Germany while my grandfather King got his PhD in musicology at the University of Munich. My paternal grandfather Howard was raised in a small hotel in Belen, New Mexico (which my father suspected also operated as a brothel) by a friend of the family, while my grandmother Corrine was the grandchild of the youngest Senator to be elected (at the time) from Arkansas.
I loved all my grandparents fiercely, even though I didn’t see them too often as we were all scattered around the country. Some of the genetic legacy they gave me is obvious; my eyes look exactly like my paternal grandmother’s, and I inherited alcoholism partly from my maternal grandfather. But I’ve generally assumed that while my physical characteristics are genetic, most of my behavior was based primarily on the way I raised, because I’ve believed that”nurture” is stronger in the debate of nature vs. nuture.
But a group of scientists may have actually discovered that events in a person’s life leave a GENETIC fingerprint that is passed down to children and grandchildren. Yes, MIND BLOWN.
If you aren’t familiar with the nature vs. nurture argument, you can read all about it here. There are many schools of thought on this issue which are broken down in this great graphic.
Generally, though, most psychologists believe that events in an individual’s childhood have the biggest impact on behavior and emotional development. But a pair of scientists began to wonder if this is true; what they discovered is fascinating. It was well known that something called epigenetics could be changed in your lifetime due to changes in diet or exposure to chemicals. Here’s an explanation of epigenetics.
One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules. The methyl group works like a placeholder in a cookbook, attaching to the DNA within each cell to select only those recipes — er, genes — necessary for that particular cell’s proteins. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside but separate from the double-helix DNA code, the field was dubbed epigenetics, from the prefix epi (Greek for over, outer, above).
But the scientists took this theory one step further and asked if diet and chemical exposure could bring changes to DNA and epigenetics, could severe stresses such as child abuse or neglect make the same changes? The answer is yes, launching a new field called behavioral epigenetics.
According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.
I am alternately amazed and dismayed by this information. As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict married to a recovering alcoholic, I worry deeply about passing on the disease of alcoholism and addiction to my daughter. It’s well known that alcoholism is a family illness, impacting even those family members that don’t drink or use drugs. My husband and I watch our daughter for behaviors we’ve realized were in place for us long before we took our first drinks – particularly abnormal anxiety and fear that we both “treated” with alcohol.
We’ve always comforted ourselves with the knowledge that our daughter has never seen us drunk (we’d been sober over a decade when she was born), and we’ve worked hard to not pass on the negative messages we got from our families about food and body image and intelligence. But my husband was badly abused by his mother, receiving little comforting or love from her; in fact, because of reading the article about behavioral epigenetics I asked him if his mother ever held him or comforted him and he said, “Once.” Maybe this explains my daughter’s need to constantly lean into me when we’re together, even though she’s been loved and held and cuddled her whole life.
The good news is, even if these epigenetic changes are inherited, the damage can be helped or even undone.
The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too. And for those unlucky enough to descend from miserable or withholding grandparents, emerging drug treatments could reset not just mood, but the epigenetic changes themselves. Like grandmother’s vintage dress, you could wear it or have it altered. The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch: Shake it hard enough, and you can wipe clean the family curse.
What do you think? Read this whole article about the science (the article that inspired this post) and share your thoughts in the comments. But I think it might be time for the phrase “get over it!” to be excised from our language; if the damage is genetic as well as psychological, that might not be possible.