My mom, Anne Meshanko, has always been a bit ahead of the pack. Sometimes, so far ahead of the pack, that others around her thought that her ideas were a bit far out…even weird. Count me in that crowd when she first suggested, probably 15 years ago, that children carry the emotional scarring of their parents. And she didn’t mean metaphorically. She specifically said that they carried the trauma of their parents genetically. Had my mom been a neuroscientist or geneticist, I might have given the notion a second thought. But she’s not. While very educated, my mom has her Master’s Degree in Theology. So what could she possibly know about genetics or hereditary trauma? Evidently, more than I thought.
I’m not a researcher. Never have been nor want to be. I simply don’t have the disposition for the kind of careful, methodical (tedious) work that must be done to either validate or disprove carefully thought out hypotheses. But what I do exceptionally well is synthesis and tease out the “so what” from other people’s research, especially in the areas of neuroscience, anthropology, psychology and organizational development. So when I started spotting references to my mom’s “crazy” notion about inherited trauma, I paid attention. Could there really be something to it? It turns out that there is.
The most recent evidence that we do, in fact, pass our traumatic experiences on to future generations comes from research at the Brain Research Institute at the University of Zurich. There’s even a very academic sounding term for the process: non-genetic inheritance of behavioral symptoms induced by traumatic experiences in early life. Without boring you with the technical descriptions of the encoding of “microRNAs”, here was the conclusion reached by the researchers in studying the phenomenon in mice:
After traumatic experiences, the mice behaved markedly differently: they partly lost their natural aversion to open spaces and bright light and had depressive-like behaviors. These behavioral symptoms were also transferred to the next generation via sperm, even though the offspring were not exposed to any traumatic stress themselves. The effects on metabolism and behavior even persisted in the third generation.
There it is. Mom was right. How she figured it out, I have no idea. Maybe my own ability to synthesis published research is just a crude adaptation of something that she is able to do through observation, intuition and pure genius.
Here’s where I can (hopefully) add a few of my own original thoughts about why this finding is so important. It’s important because how we treat each other not only affects our own immediate well-being, it has the capacity to affect the physical and emotional wellness of our future generations. When we intentionally engage in behaviors around each other the convey respect, dignity, belonging and value, we create an emotional foundation that unlocks our greatest potential around each other. But when we treat others in ways that demean, devalue, exclude, or dehumanize, we create wounds that damage our health and productivity which may persist for generations to come.
When I wrote The Respect Effect last year, I knew that the work was important for helping pave the way for healthier, more productive workforces in my generation. It now appears that rationale and tools for building truly respectful cultures at work and in our communities will be important for every generation.