How We Give Power to the Past to Haunt the Present

After reading Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, by Peter A. Levine, I was struck by how the power of the past may haunt us (or help us) in the present.

Do we really carry forward the memories from our family’s past?

In the chapter entitled “Generational Trauma: Hauntings,” Levine describes several fascinating research studies that suggest we not only have our memories from the lives we have lived, but we may have memories transmitted from previous generations that somehow are carried into our own memory systems.

I am not a fan of experiments using animals.

However, since some of these have been used in the past and provide valuable information, I decided to share the information he provided in his book.

So, Levine describes an experiment in which mice were exposed to the neutral sent of cherry blossoms and simultaneously were given an electrical shock. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, after a while, the mere scent of cherry blossoms caused the mice to freeze in terror. Amazing though, was that mice who were the great-great-great grandchildren of the group of mice who were conditioned to freeze in fear at the smell of cherry blossoms also froze in fear at the same smell.

He describes other research, too, such as studies done with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Levine states that the research “… has demonstrated clear changes in the cortisol levels and other physiological markers of anxiety in this population.”  [P.163]

Levine describes patients of his with parents and grandparents from this time in history who could share surprisingly specific and often horrific images, sensations, and emotions about events that seemed quite real but could not possibly have happened to them.

He says, “I was able to confirm that many of the specific events had actually happened to the patient’s parents and could not have possibly happened to the children. However, the children were clearly experiencing their parents’ traumatic memories as if they were their own. Significantly, most of the parents and grandparents had not initially shared these memories with their children.” [p.163]

Take Native Americans as an example.

Levine states that Native American tribes tell that the suffering of the fathers are carried forth for four generations on to the children and the children’s children.

This is similar to what the Bible says in Exodus 34:7: “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” He posits that the concept of “sins” could be metaphors for the trauma of slavery that the Jews were subjected to in Egypt.

Levine makes a very important observation when he states that, “I strongly suspect that many African Americans are still suffering from the residual dark clouds drifting ominously behind the eradication of slavery. In fact, the lack of adequate educational opportunities in US ghettos today, as well as the subjugation and mass incarceration’s of millions of black men and boys, reinforces this tragic legacy of generational trauma.” [p. 164]

I think of the many haunting images from the movie Twelve Years a Slave.

It made me think about what might have been transmitted in terms of feelings and sensations— feelings of humiliation, shame and terror that were part of everyday lives of those who were enslaved. I suggest that if we stop to consider the ramifications of this, many things will make more sense in terms of explaining some of the current struggles and issues faced by so many African-Americans.

The first step in healing is understanding.

Considering this, can’t we be motivated to be vigilant about promoting the recovery and healing that is needed from the pain of transgenerational legacies and memories?

Another story Levine shares suggests a positive outcome for transgenerational memories is that of a young woman who had been in the Sioux City, Iowa airplane disaster in 1989 in which the plane lost its rear engine in an explosion.

The pilot and emergency flight instructor were somehow able to make an emergency landing; however, upon impact, the plane exploded and split apart. Flames were everywhere. The young woman survived by crawling through what he describes as a twisted maze of metal and wires toward a crushed opening and into the daylight.

As Levine worked with her, she was able to experience a procedural memory of crawling on her hands and knees toward a pinpoint of light. She shared that she recalled hearing the voices of her father and grandfather shouting: “Don’t wait! Go now! Go to the light! Get out before the fireball!”

What was remarkable was that both her father and her grandfather had survived separate plane crashes.

Both had narrowly escaped death by leaving the wreckage as soon as the plane hit the ground. For more information check out YouTube.

One other fascinating study he described involved an experiment in which a particular strain of mice from Sydney, Australia was taught to run a maze.

Then mice of the same strain who had been born and raised in New York and never transported between the continents were run through an identical maze in New York City. What was surprising was how they were able to run through the maze at a statistically significant faster pace than other mice.

They then reversed the experiment. The offspring of a different group of mice who had been taught to go through a maze in New York who were raised in Sydney, Australia also were able to do a statistically better job of running through the maze than mice who did not have parent or grandparent mice who had been exposed to the maze in a previous generation.  [p. 167]

What does this mean for us as people and as parents?

I think there are a few conclusions we might make.

One is to appreciate in general the incredible power of memory. Another is to realize that some of our beliefs and behaviors in response to life situations might somehow be connected to the experiences of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond.  Sometimes this might be positive and sometimes more negative and even toxic or destructive to us and others in our families.

This information might provide some direction to where we need to place focus in promoting healing from the possible trauma and toxic stresses of those in our distant past whose experiences could influence our thoughts, feelings, sensations and even behaviors today.

Perhaps we need to focus more on being compassionate towards those who struggle with what can seem like unexplainable anxiety, fear, destructive beliefs and behaviors and appreciate that certain people can continue to be influenced by the histories of their families.

Maybe this information provides an incentive for getting clearer about what happened in a families’ past. It may provoke us to become more intentional about recovery and healing so our children are less likely to have to perpetuate some of these stresses and memories.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Are there any indications that your family members’ beliefs, feelings, thoughts, attitudes, sensations and behaviors might somehow be connected to experiences of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents or beyond?
  2. To what extent are you familiar with those family experiences?
  3. What might you do to learn those stories? Have you ever interviewed your parents or other family members to find out what they experienced that might contribute to some of the family memories you and perhaps your children have inherited?
  4. In general, how does this information impact or add to your understanding of destructive or confusing behaviors of others?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network