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Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors Through Our DNA?

- VICE 02/03/17 12:51

STUFF

Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors


Through Our DNA?

KATHERINE GILLESPIE
Dec 21 2016, 2:15am

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Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors Through Our DNA? - VICE 02/03/17 12:51

We ask a philosopher about the scientifically-debated concept of


genetic memory.

This article is presented by Assassin's Creed


Creed, out in cinemas on New Year's
Day. Genetic memorythe idea that you can inherit memories from your
ancestors without having to experience them firsthandis a key theme in the
film. In this article we explore the scientifically-debated concept.

Some psychologists, most famously Carl Jung, have theorised that we're born
with the memories and experiences of our ancestors imprinted on our DNA.
We're not necessarily unlocking them, but it's possible that our most basic
survival instincts might stem from some long ago trauma experienced by a dead
relative. It's a theory that's also subscribed to by television psychics, though, so
you can see where things get tricky.

While you might not be able to remember the specific horrors experienced by a
great grandfather in a WWI trench, or the weary footsteps taken by ancestors as
they migrated from Africa to Europe, it's not an uncommon thing to feel in touch
with those whose genetic material you share. We define ourselves by things like
race and family history, and sometimes those experiences of the distant past feel
very present.

So how possible is it that the memories of our ancestors are embedded into our
DNA, perhaps influencing us in ways we are barely aware of?

VICE spoke to Dr Berit Brogaard, a University of Miami philosopher specialising


in the areas of cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind, to find out more
about a controversial but fascinating field of research: genetic memory.

VICE: If we were to have memories from our ancestors stored in our

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Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors Through Our DNA? - VICE 02/03/17 12:51

DNA, how would they have got there?


Dr Berit Brogaard: The memories would have to shape the genetic material in
a way that can be carried on to your children. So firstly you'd have to have the
memories before you have children, and they would have to have impacted your
genetic material in a way that would be manifested in the genetic material of
your child. If that hasn't happened, then there's nothing to unlock the memories.

What evidence have we seen of this happening?


There's evidence in rodents that you can breed learning how to run a maze
into the next generation. So that's something that has been shown rather
recently: that if rodents find themselves in a certain maze, and their parents had
learned some things about the maze, then the little rodents don't have to start
from scratch when they learn to navigate it. This at least shows that it is possible
that you can have some memory in your genetic material and this material is
carried on.

What's the relationship between memory and instinctis it possible


that our survival instincts are based on the memories of our ancestors?
In some sense, instinct could be considered a form of memory from our
ancestors. Instinct is carried on in the genesso in that sense it's genetic and it
shapes your brain in a certain way. To that extent, it resembles memory, because
it's also the way of wiring the brain a certain way. So we could consider instinct
as a simple form of genetic memory, though usually when people talk about
genetic memory, they are interested in something more superficial.

Like specific memories from the life of a great grandmother, or


something like that.
Yes, whereas instinct is more a way of remembering something that has been
carried on through the generations from ancestors. A good example would be
how babies have an instinct to actually crawl towards their mother's breasts so

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they can breastfeed, even though they lose that ability afterwards. And that's an
instinct of family that's been carried down, maybe from a time where the mother
may not have been fed enough to take the infant to her breasts if it was a really
difficult childbirth. But that's not the episodic "great grandmother" memory
most people want.

It seems like there's definitely potential for our DNA to contain more
memory than we're aware of, though.
What we don't know is whether our environmental experiences are making a
greater mark on our DNA than we might think. I mean, we know about mental
conditions that are geneticpartially geneticlike anxiety and depression, for
instance, but it hasn't been shown that if your mum had some non-genetic
EN
anxiety and depression before she had you, then that would somehow be stored
in your DNA. That, we don't know. It's possible that it's there. It's probably less
plausible that you could actually have very colourful, vivid, intense memories
that your ancestor had.

The genetic memory theory has been linked to intergenerational


trauma and the transmission of historical oppression, too. How likely is
it that, say, holocaust survivors or subjugated Indigenous people pass
down their experiences genetically?
There's a possibility that this could happen, that the trauma and the experience
could lead it to happen. If it's possible for rodents that you can transfer a certain
kind of fear and learning experience in a maze, then biologically it can happen. I
don't know to what extent you could pass down specific experiences as opposed
to the trauma of the experience itself. If your trauma is severe, it could impact
your genetic material, depending on the condition of what your body is inso
what you're passing on when you're having a child. We don't have evidence it
happens in human children, but it is biologically plausible for those kinds of
memories to be passed on.

You've written a book about tapping into the human brain to unlock its

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Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors Through Our DNA? - VICE 02/03/17 12:51

hidden potential. How might genetic memory play a role in this?


We constantly find out there are new things that can be unlockedabilities or
potential to do certain things that we don't need to learn in the standard way.
Like people with brain injuries who develop extraordinary abilities after the
injury occurs. There are people who think those extraordinary abilities are a way
of tapping into genetic memories. Again, it's not this specific scene you're seeing
from your ancestor's pastit's still a kind of ability that has been locked down in
memory and is suddenly unlocked in an accident. This ability could be a sudden
artistic, mathematical, or musical ability.

If there was more research into this area, how could it help human or
scientific progress?
It would be very interesting to find out if you could encode DNA with
experience. Say, before you have a child, something happens and that is encoded
in the DNA you're passing on to the child. It should be possible to look at that
more extensively. What we need to find out is whether something that occurs
during your lifetime can impact or imprint the DNA that's being passed on.
There are certainly some changes to the DNA within our lifetimeswe see how
the human body changes in different environments. We know which genes are
expressed or locked out. We know that we can impact our DNA for sure, and it
would be useful to do that to say, make more resilient offspring.

This article is presented by the new film Assassin's Creed


Creed, in cinemas New
Year's Day

Illustration by Ben Thomson

AUSTRALIA AUSTRALIA/NZ ASSASSINS CREED VICE BLOG GENETIC MEMORY

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