Research investigating the intergenerational transmission of trauma tells us we can be affected long after the abuse, violence or oppression is over. If we carry on the past hurts of our ancestors, what trauma will we end up passing down?
Democracy, clean drinking water and toaster ovens—these are just a few of the once-luxuries many western populations now enjoy in abundance. In comparison to many of our ancestors’ quality of life, these few attributes of modern times can feel surreal. Yet, as we hope to move step-by-step into the future and further away from the famines, world wars and oppression that characterized centuries prior, what exactly happens to our past, our ancestors’ experiences?
The lasting impact of trauma exposure
Epigenetics, a branch of scientific investigation on how environmental factors can modulate the behavior of DNA, is bringing the concept of “intergenerational trauma” to light. For instance, this study investigates how the byproducts of environmental (or trauma) exposure can impact future generations by influencing offsprings’ DNA. These epigenetic changes could manifest as the psychological trauma of a parent, for example, who then passes the effect down upon conception of their child, or as the environmental exposure that child is faces in early life and even before birth. Moreover, another study investigating the link between parent and grandparent nutrition and its impact on future generations uncovered that overeating could increase the risk of an offspring’s mortality by diabetes four-fold.
Understanding the ripple effect
Theoretically, we understand that every one of our actions can potentially impact future generations, whether we’re promoting poor diet as a culture, investing money into environmentally-problematic commercial efforts or limiting dialogue around tendencies of abuse and oppression toward marginalized groups of people. Science seems to be validating these theories on a biological level: Who humans choose to be today only bleeds into the future.
For some people, the path to leading a more ethical life might begin by addressing their own inherited trauma. A number of modalities including therapy, hypnosis and meditation can help us unbury the hidden motivators that inspire our tendencies, giving us the perspective we need to change maladaptive behavior. As a result, we can begin to regard the past, present and future iterations of our species with more compassion.