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The Smell of Fear, An Epigenetic Trauma

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The Christian Bible notes “the sins of the father” can pass from one generation to another, denoting the need for each person to take full responsibility for his or her own values as they create a ripple effect upon the world. It seems as though science is saying the same thing.

When U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jacek Debiec, MD/PhD, worked with the grown children of Holocaust survivors in Poland, he was fascinated to discover they experienced nightmares, avoidance instincts, and even flashbacks related to traumatic experiences they never had themselves. While the survivors’ children would have learned about the Holocaust from their parents, this deeply ingrained fear indicated something more was at work in the population.

Is this phenomenon of generational memory sharing more than just the product of folkloric tales? The University of Michigan Medical School has shed light on this epigenetic process of fear and memory transmission.

In the first direct observation of this kind of fear transmission, Debiec and a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and New York University studied mother rats who had learned to fear the smell of peppermint – and showed how they “taught” this fear to their babies in their first days of life through their alarm odor released during distress.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression not originally caused by changes to the DNA sequence. What exactly does that mean? It means that our behaviors, thoughts, actions, and hobbies have the ability to cause physiological changes that are more than just responses of the moment. They create genetic alterations that become heritable, or able to be passed on to our offspring. This means that in each and every moment the fear we latch on to has an opportunity to embed itself in our lives and the lives of our progeny, creating a fear-based victimized family tree that shares in the “sins of the father”. Because of the power of epigenetic trauma transmission it seems critical that each of us gets a handle on our fears and limitations, with whatever tools and resources we have at our disposal, as a way to make lasting change in the world around us.

What we do to ourselves we do to our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

How are you learning to renegotiate your traumatic stories?


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