Studies Confirm There’s Such a Thing As Genetic Memory

Marsden Hartley, Himmel (1914-1915), Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City

Undying Memories

The next time you experience déjà vu think about this. It might be more than a trick of the brain. Scientists have recently confirmed that genes can pass down the memories of our ancestors to us.

It sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings,” but medical researchers at the University of Cambridge have determined with experiments that DNA might pass down some genetic markers from generations ago ( David Cornish, Wired Science, “ Study: Genes Could retain ‘Memory’ When Passed to Offspring”).

This means that if you have a phobia about boarding an airplane it might be because your great grandfather had a fear of flying. It also might mean that if you have a certain condition or disease, it could be because someone in your family history had that disease. We have had the latter idea of genetic inheritance being linked to disease for some time. That is why, with women, doctors might ask who in their family had breast cancer. Doctors even know that it is a greater risk if it is on the mother’s side of the family.

Until now scientists did not understand this process of passing epigenetic markers on, piggy-back style, through generations. Epigenetics was the mystery person in the room no one wanted to question or talk about, whether out of politeness or ignorance.

First, what do epigenetic markers do? They are like the managers in a factory telling the cells to either “use or ignore a particular gene.” For this reason, although it should not be ignored, it is not the entire story if you discover with genetic testing that you, or someone you know, have a genetically high risk for a certain disease like breast cancer. It is possible to get lucky and have an epigenetic marker that is telling a gene to just sleep a few decades and not turn into cancer (Carl Zimmer, “Hope, Hype, and Genetic Breakthroughs”).

But how are epigenetic markers passed down through generations? Most of them are erased from one generation to the next (Cornish). However, James Gallagher, in his article, “‘Memories Pass Between Generations,’” says that traumatic events can alter DNA and affect both the “brains and behavior of subsequent generations.” Reputable publications now suggest that genetic memory is not science fiction. Genetic memory is stored in your DNA. Both genetic memory and epigenetics are now considered mainstream science.

Painting:  Marsden Hartley, Himmel (1914-1915), Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City.

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