Illustration by Ben Thomson

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

We ask a philosopher about the scientifically-debated concept of genetic memory.

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Dec 21 2016, 1:15am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is presented by Assassin's Creed, out in cinemas on New Year's Day. Genetic memory—the idea that you can inherit memories from your ancestors without having to experience them firsthand—is 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 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 instinct—is 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 genes—so 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 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 genetic—partially genetic—like anxiety and depression, for instance, but it hasn't been shown that if your mum had some non-genetic 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 in—so 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 hidden potential. How might genetic memory play a role in this?
We constantly find out there are new things that can be unlocked—abilities 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 past—it'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 lifetimes—we 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, in cinemas New Year's Day

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