Can we remember our ancestors’ memories?
I was fascinated by this question while binge-watching the TV series “Who Do You Think You Are” on YouTube.
Originally a BBC series that debuted in 2004, the show has since been picked up and adapted by other countries such as the US and is about celebrities tracing their ancestry.
I was prowling online for documentaries when a WDYTYA episode featuring Scottish actor Alan Cumming came up. It turned out to be so moving and educational that I thought I wanted more.
As I binge-watched, I noticed a common thread that wove through the episodes. There were almost always parallels between descendant and unknown distant ancestors.
Consider the following:
JK Rowling, before she became one of the world’s most beloved writers, was a struggling single mother. Turns out she comes from a long line of single mothers going back generations.
Sir Ian McKellen, an advocate of LGBTQ rights and revered actor on stage and film, descends from ancestors who were activists in their day – one of whom campaigned for the rights of Victorian workers to have a day off and actually succeeded. McKellen’s ancestor can be said to be responsible for the weekend as we know it today (no work on weekends). Another ancestor was an accomplished professional actor.
Brooke Shields who always thought she was of Italian descent but had an affinity for anything French. She even majored in French literature in college.
In the episode, she discovers she is descended from a Frenchman who had escaped to Italy who later became one of the most powerful men in 17th century Rome. What is more, she is a direct descendant of the Bourbon kings of France straight up to Louis IX, the saint.
Liv Tyler whose dad Steven Tyler was originally a drummer before he became Aerosmith’s vocalist. An ancestor who fought during the Civil War turned out to be a professional musician, to be specific, a drummer.
These are a few samples but enough to send chills up and down one’s spine. Mine, at least.
It is easy to dismiss these as coincidences, fate, or reincarnation (depending on what you choose to believe), but I thought there had to be a more logical explanation.
So because WDYTYA is about tracing one’s ancestry and because ancestry means genes, I wondered whether memories were transferable to DNA.
We already know that physical traits are handed down through generations. Just how far can be amazing like UK celebrity Danny Dyer’s uncanny resemblance to his ancestor Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII’s closest adviser, and the kind of villain history loves to hate.
So why not actual memories? I searched the internet, and it turns out the concept is nothing new.
It is called genetic memory.
Wikipedia defines genetic memory as a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.
What this means is that memories already existing before birth are passed on to the offspring within the womb. These are specific memories that were not learned physically but have been imprinted on the child genetically.
Say for instance a study in 2013 where scientists instilled a fear of certain smells in mice. The mice had children and grandchildren who exhibited the same phobia of only these particular smells even though the scientists did not expose the offspring nor trained them to fear these specific scents.
Of course mice and humans are different but this only goes to show that genetic memory is a force to be reckoned with and not entirely impossible.
After all, natural instincts such as a baby reaching for a mother’s breast to feed is itself a form of genetic memory. How does a baby know to reach for the breast and not the nose, for example?
DNA is complex. Science is only just beginning to explore its capabilities. For example, new technology is now being developed where enormous amounts of digital data – as much as 5.5 petabits – can now be deliberately stored in DNA. The process has not yet been perfected but the point is, our DNA is a truly powerful storage tool. Somehow, there has to be a way for our ancestors’ memories to have been stored there somewhere.
The subject of genetic memory is a young and exciting field (also hotly debated as it runs counter to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, some would say). Who knows what future studies might yield?
The next time you travel to a new place or if you feel some kind of unexplained affinity for a place or language, or even when you experience some kind of déjà vu, you might want to think twice.
Somewhere in your ancestry, a great grandparent must have experienced it all before you. It must be your genes crying out in recognition at a memory long buried in your blood.
Exciting thought isn’t it?