Can ancestral trauma haunt the living?

20 Dec 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Dec 2018

Pic: Monica Silva, Unsplash

Northern Ireland has high levels of mental ill health, self-harm and suicide. Attributing this to “inter-generational trauma” has become a mantra amongst commentators.


So how is it possible for people who have not personally experienced violence to be traumatised because their parents or even grandparents have?

The answers are startling and lead to unsettling questions about the nature/nurture debate that has raged for centuries.

They even raise the possibility that our lives are, to some extent at least, influenced by the ghosts of our ancestors. Some of the latest scientific research chimes with ancient beliefs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)   has published a study into the lifelong consequences of what it calls “adverse childhood experiences.”

It concludes that “many of the most common adult life-threatening health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, alcoholism, and drug use, are directly related to childhood adversity.”

Childhood adversity can range from physical or sexual assaults, malnourishment, neglect or emotional abuse. These provide negative stress for the child, overwhelming its undeveloped coping mechanisms.

It is not that big a leap to include being parented by people who are themselves deeply traumatised by living through conflict.

This research has important repercussions. It suggests that the medical profession should not just ask patients “what’s wrong with you?” but also “what happened to you?”. This represents a radically new way of approaching ill health. The AAP’s study suggests that 60% of American adults have experienced some form of childhood adversity and so therefore understanding how to deal with it may be just as important as life-style impacts on health.

The AAP concludes: “Never before in the history of medicine have we had better insight into the factors that determine the health of an individual from infancy to adulthood.”

Its study suggests that inter-generational trauma is a genuine condition, at least in the sense that people can be traumatised if those parenting them are.

But what about situations where the trauma occurs before the child is born, or even those where it is not the parent but the grandparent who suffers it?

There have been many studies carried out by psychiatrists and geneticists to try to establish evidence. Many of these have involved offspring of Holocaust survivors. Work here is complicated because of the different experiences that parents had. There were what were categorised as “victim families, numb families, fighter families and families of those who made it."

However in 1988 Israeli scientists studied soldiers who had suffered PTSD during the Lebanese War. They discovered that those who were offspring of Holocaust survivors had the condition for longer than those who did not. This established that otherwise healthy children of survivors had a greater vulnerability than the rest of the population.

Closer to home researchers from Queens University carried out research into how parents’ experiences of conflict impacted a group of children who were born after the peace agreement.

From them the issue is much more complex. It concluded: “Children’s behaviours and awareness of the conflict emerged as being influenced not only by their parents’ experiences and narratives, but also by their age, gender, and contextual factors.”

So it was not the mere fact that their parents lived through conflict that influenced children, but how they talked about it, what experience they had had and also their social class and level of education.

One interesting finding was that children whose parents found it easiest to talk about the conflict experienced lower levels of behavioural problems than those whose parents found it hard.

Therefore it does not follow that because an individual has experienced trauma that their children will as a result. There are other factors at play.

One of the most startling pieces of research suggests that intergenerational trauma can cause genetic changes in people which can be passed on to children and therefore to subsequent generations.  

Researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital carried out a genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war and found gene changes which they attributed to the experiences of their parents.

This research is claimed as evidence of “epigenetic inheritance” the controversial theory that it is not just DNA that is passed on from parent to child but that environmental factors can affect genes as well and that they can be passed down from one generation to the next.

An experiment with mice has added to the evidence of epigenetics. Scientists trained male mice to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossom by exposing them to electric shocks when they were exposed to the smell. They found that their offspring and their offspring’s offspring were also afraid of cherry blossom, despite never experiencing pain.

This opens up the intriguing possibility of multi-generational trauma. Native American scientists are especially enthused because it appears to vindicate traditional beliefs.  LeManuel Bitsoi,  PhD Research Associate in Genetics at Harvard University said:  “Native healers, medicine people and elders have always known this and it is common knowledge in Native oral traditions.”

Others are a little more sceptical.  Professor Ewan Birney has claimed that the Mount Sinai research was riddled with errors. He also pointed out that although epigenetic inheritance is common in plants it is very difficult to find evidence for it in humans. One of the main reasons is “a female foetus that is growing in the womb already carries its full complement of eggs. This means that there is physical DNA of any future grandchildren present inside every pregnant mother. This DNA is potentially being exposed to changes in the pregnant mother’s environment, so you need to look at least four generations down the line – to great grandchildren - to study true trans-generational inheritance in females.”

So when we talk about intergenerational trauma in Northern Ireland we are entering the frontiers of psychiatric and biological science. Questions with enormous implications are being posed, yet the answers are elusive. It is a mystery yet to be unravelled.  


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