Trans-generational memory: resonance and adoption.

I found an article online: Scientists have found that memories may be passed down through generations in our DNA:

New research from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA. During the tests they learned that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences—in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom—to subsequent generations.

It is one of those articles that I can imagine a lot of people will be jumping all over in terms of adoption, on all sides of the issue, for various and likely contradictory reasons. And this without being necessarily skeptical of the article, or the reasons for it; I remain a bit skeptical until I know who funded such research and why it was undertaken. It makes me think of bad science-fiction plotlines….or disturbing periods of human history.

I won’t elaborate on my reactions and thoughts just yet; although I will say that reading this was a bit of a relief. I’ve often spoken about a sense of “resonance” here in Lebanon that I cannot explain; I feel less prone now to think that others think I’m crazy or projecting as well as less prone to think that I am myself crazy or projecting for the same reasons.

I’d like to ask two questions:

First, what would/might this notion of “trans-generational memory” mean for you? This can be based in the actual science of the article, or else can be more a “flight of fancy” if you wish.

Second, what do you imagine such a concept might mean for prospective adoptive parents? Especially as concerns the notion of the “perfect” and “blank-slate” baby?

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6 thoughts on “Trans-generational memory: resonance and adoption.

  1. In principle, it is a complete misnomer to refer to this effect, if it is actually even supported, as a memory. Were I even to grant it validity, then it would be an instinct, not a memory.

    From Jung, he would have spoken of the collective unconsciousness, and it would not have had a biological basis. Like many, he tried to identify the nexus or link between “body” and “mind” and he sometimes spoke of a psychoid layer that was neither strictly biological nor psychological, which (in the terms I’m using here) would be some sort of instinct/memory.

    As, by definition, a human universal, then one’s collective unconscious would be in play, no matter what culture you were raised in or dislocated from. But one might say that different sectors of the collective unconscious manifest in different ways in different cultures. In any case, Jung would have denied that a human being is a tabula rasa at all.

    I could fantasize that, say, on a biological level some sort of modification occurs that changes the function of (human) organisms in an area. I don’t mean a mutation, as a full-on systemic change, but the sort of niche-adaptation one sees with certain kinds of disease resistance: one tribe may be totally immune to local disease, another moves in and they drop like disease-ridden humans. So a survivor of Rwanda might have this sort of biological “adaptation” (let’s say). On this pretty tenuous premise, we are dealing with something antithetical to a tabula rasa at the very least, but also something such that any white colonialist-seeming adopters taking children from colonially traumatized lands would indeed be putting the “cherry fearing” mice right in the cherry orchard.

    However, I see this biological argument as extremely dubious. Were I even to attempt to support it for use in an argument against adoption I might make, I’d have to translate the thing into the psychological (not biological) domain. And I, personally, would try that through Jung’s collective unconscious or something like it (I would, I mean, if the adopted child wasn’t simply already old enough to have been traumatized by her environment)

    In the personal realm, this smacks of a rationalization for recovered memories. It also philosophically resembles the sins of the father (or in this case the traumas of the father) being revisited upon the descendants. Why is only trauma inherited? The intensity of suffering? Then any intensity should be inheritable: religious ecstasy, sexual arousal, unmitigated will-to-power. Fear (along with love) is one of the laziest explanatory principles ever.

    In point of fact, the notion of memory is weird as fuck. I think between memory and sleep, there’s little else so common in human experience that is also so metaphysically bizarre when I really get down to think about it. I say it is no exaggeration to say that we ARE our memories (even if some of those memories are, ultimately, unconscious). The religious notion of inheriting memories in this sense means they do not derive from our (biological or spiritual) forebears, but from ourselves, as karma.

  2. I admit readily that I am skeptical of anything that points to essentialist “truth”; and I’m also hyper-aware of the conservative basis of the efforts to find in our DNA an inescapable encoding that governs us somehow and of “evolutionary biology”. This to me is reductive in the extreme, and leads to the reductionisms if you will that we know too well, racism, etc.

    I like your focus on Jung and the collective unconscious. Whenever thesis students came to me with Jung, I’d have them also explore the notion of archetype as examined by other philosophers. I think the philosophical end of things leads to a more fruitful discussion.

    Because no matter what we do, we seem to always stand at the edge of an abyss of reductionism. I’m wondering how to make this expansive; how to explain “resonance”…how to move this into the realm of, say, quantum physics as opposed to … phrenology, or some other dubious exercise….

    If that makes sense, I’ll stop here. If not, just let me know.

    • Daniel:

      It does make sense, and in order to keep this from bifurcating too many directions all at once, I’d say just a couple of things in reply for now.

      First. A most striking thing to me about reductionism involves its perennial recurrence. Putnam describes Western philosophy as 2,500 years of unremitting naïve realism (and sceptical dismantling of that naïve realism, as simply the equally “neurotic” obverse of that naïve realism). Why does this perpetually recur? I will return to this in a moment.

      Second. When you describe a move toward (the potentialities and possibilities) of quantum physics rather than (the certainties and problematic interplay with Power) of phrenology you describe it seems to me a difference of opinion about what constitutes—what shall be taken as—the real. It is a move away from Absolute Truth and more toward some “quantum” understanding that may remain tenuous (but is at least not blind), that may be only provision or hypothetical (but not blindly religious). Obviously, those who claim absolute certainties about outcomes are fools, but many people respond to such claims as a basis for eliciting their participation in some venture. It’s a lie, a form of discourse: you convince me with your confidence, but this no more makes your certainty warranted, &c. But what I would underline in this is that some people respond powerfully to these kinds of claims of certainty, while others see other possible (quantum) outcomes and remain unconvinced by such (unwarranted) certainty.

      So back to the first point: why this will to reductionism? Without a bunch of citations, I would start by remembering Jung’s distinction of extraverted and introverted modes of consciousness. (I don’t say “introvert” and “extravert” to avoid reifying what are modes of cognition we each possess into character traits. Certainly we each practice one more than the other, and in that way seem like “extraverts” or “introverts”—note that this is a reductionist gesture itself—but we always have both modes of cognition available to us, however little we use one or the other).

      The extraverted mode of consciousness orients to a (hypothetical) external object as existent, while the introverted mode of consciousness orients more to the “inner experience” of the object. Extraversion orients to “facts” (the quotation marks are necessary); introversion centres on “meaning”. Extraverted thinking, then, by definition will tend to reductionist, because it defines “the real” as that which is externally existent and “factual”; introverted thinking, by contrast, will tend to be phenomenological, because it recognizes that all experience gets generated by our perception. (My descriptive language betrays where my sympathies lie here.)

      Jung describes the difference between these two modes of consciousness, when they dominate (one or the other) in a person, as “fundamentally irritating”. And since people dominated by the extraverted mode of consciousness (“extraverts”) outnumber those dominated by the introverted mode of consciousness (“introverts”) 3 to 1, there is a social bias in place (and in fact embedded in language itself) that insists rhetorically that what we should call “the real” must be “the facts”. And so the unquestioned premise of “objective reality” (which goes unquestioned simply because 3 of 4 people say the phenomenological/introverted view of the matter is either wrong or, in pragmatic terms, simply gratuitous—as Aristotle objected to Plato’s ideal forms) becomes the staging ground for the next iteration of some reductionism. But once the moment of intellectual history gets past the breezy, ill-advised “pragmatism” of that “extraverted” assertion, then various forms of “introverted” scepticism show all of the gaping holes in that “pragmatism” and thus the lack of any basis or support for the “system”.

      • This sums it up well. There is often an inherent or systemic tendency toward reductionism which is often based in language; there is sometimes a desire for a reductive simplified order which is cultural. On the flip side, there is often cultural awareness of the holistic nature of “what is known” and “what is unknown” and the balance between the two. Then there is a willful push in a reductive direction knowing that there are benefits from this worldview, economic and political. For these reasons we have tendencies, I think, “toward” fascism, or toward collective action, for example. The difficult realization is when you see that your language and your culture leans in a direction that you don’t find healthy.

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