Are our memories of trauma actually ours?

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Are our memories of trauma actually ours?

Ever wondered why your response to something that happens seems way out of proportion to the actual event? Are our memories of trauma actually ours?

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In the journey of growing into a more evolved human being, most of us go through processes of unravelling our psyche to uncover who we are underneath our layers of conditioning including our past traumas which can 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.

This usually means paying attention to what arises in our consciousness and then delving into our unconscious and locating the memory that was provoked and then dealing with that issue.

Others might say that some past life experience was triggered and therapies have been developed to assist in the transformation memories.

But what if these feelings and memories had nothing to do with our own lives but had more to do with an experience our parents had, or our grandparents? Or our great grandparents?

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

For example if your parents were athletes or sprinters and had developed the physique and aerobic capacity suitable to that activity, then you will inherit a predisposition to having that capacity.

Types of muscle fibres vary according to the activity. Sprinters have different muscle fibres to marathon runners, and so the next generation will have a physical predisposition to having whatever type of muscle fibres their parents had, or grandparents.

Basically what happens is that any particular neural pathway that became well used and therefore more efficient in your parents or other ancestors is more likely to be passed down to you than something new.

These factors include the ability to deal with IT, where we have all seen how fast kids learn IT stuff relative to those whose parents lived in the pre-IT world.

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

We learn from watching our parents that this kind of behaviour gets certain results including love, or what is called ‘negative love’ which is attention for negative behaviour.

But what if it is actually a genetic inheritance that predisposes us to feeling a strong emotional response in the same situations as our parent?

A study published recently (Sept 13) in the journal Nature Neuroscience opens up whole new realms of possibilities in the origins and therefore treatment of such emotional trauma-based responses.

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

Even though this programming occurred prior to conception, the offspring of these mice were twice as likely to have a fear response when exposed to this scent than offspring from parents who had no training.

This affect was also passed down to the next generation, and in some cases this was exaggerated in each successive generation.

What researchers found was that there were changes in the structure of the brain of those mice whose ancestors had learned this fear response, and this was accumulative down the generations.

This is useful from an evolutionary viewpoint as it is very useful for baby mice to have a fear of cats and other predators, to have fear of fire and water, inbuilt fears that that enhance their ability to survive.

This is handy as parents do not have to teach their newborns every survival skill. It also applies to all of the senses. A 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 of course that these results are relevant to humans, and it intuitively makes sense that they are.

Given that most of our predecessors lived in quite fearful and dangerous times – there have been so many wars, a multitude of things to be anxious and fearful about, or maybe there was not enough food or money, or were rightly anxious of violence, sexual violence included, then it makes sense that we will carry the genetic markers making us predisposed to feeling afraid or anxious, or simply being sensitive to feelings of being hungry, or lonely, or being raped or a multitude of other things.

What this means is that we may have an over-the-top response to something that we must then question. Why do we have this response/memory? Are our memories of trauma actually ours?

In the past decades there has been many stories about sexual abuse and the advent of ‘false’ memories whereby a person presenting with some sexual neurosis that afflicts their relationships, has, via their therapist’s suggestion, perhaps under hypnosis, ‘remembered’ some childhood ‘memory’ of abuse.

These events may have actually occurred, but not to this person, but instead to their mother, or their grandmother.

Now there is no doubt that there has been an enormous amount of real sexual abuse, with revelations almost daily in our media about sexual and other abuse as our society comes to terms with the abuse of power that seems to underpin every modern society.

Lots of lives were unnecessarily ruined, including those of the ‘victim’, due to such false memories that ended up in the legal system.

While well meaning, and a sign of therapists trying to help, this result actually undermined authentic sexual abuse as an issue and also therapists in general.

How can we, the victim and the therapist, distinguish our own trauma from that of our predecessors? How can we go about resolving issues may be not so much in our minds as in our genes?

Is it possible to distinguish between actual and inherited memory? And does it matter?

How do we go about healing the trauma of our family trees that manifests in our anxiety?

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

This is more about bringing awareness to the situation, of observing feelings (which is this ‘transgenerational’ trauma will present) and dealing with those instead of digging through our past to find some event that may have caused the neuro psychology that makes us look for help in the first place.

So pay attention the next time you have an irrational emotional response to something.

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, see if it really rings true with your own feeling and let it pass when it goes.

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

There are no easy answers or quick fixes to healing traumatic memories regardless of who they actually belong to, with the more we learn the more we realise the more we don’t know. We are complicated creatures, aren’t we?!!

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By Mark O’Brien, December 13

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

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