50 thoughts on turning 50: #27 We are the sum of our ancestors, at least when it comes to fear

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.
Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a lab mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

I remember, many years ago, watching an episode of “Touched By An Angel” in which the angel Monica is counseling a young girl brought up in difficult circumstances who is fearful that she’ll go on to live the same life her parents led. Monica assures the girl that just because her parents before her made bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean she has to follow in their footsteps.

“We are not the sum of our ancestors,” says the soft spoken Monica.

I wrote that quote down (as you know, I’m a quote junkie) and have mused on it often over the years. We are not the sum of our ancestors. Or are we?

According to a study out of Emory University, researchers have used olfactory conditioning to study whether or not fear can be passed on genetically to offspring. In other words, if your great grandmother had the bejeesus scared out of her by spiders, does that explain your own spider phobia?

Turns out the answer may be yes.

In the study, researchers used mice and the smell of cherry blossoms, along with electric shock, to scare the wits out of mice. Mouse smells the cherry blossom, gets shocked, does it again, until it’s clear the mouse now exhibits measurable fear when presented with the scent.

They then traced the fear of the scent of cherry blossom in the mice offspring. Turns out that, even though the offspring had never smelled cherry blossoms, when presented with the smell they exhibited the same fear response as their parents and grandparents (if mice ancestors are called parents and grandparents; you know what I mean). The fear caused a chemical change in the mouse DNA that was then passed on to the next generation.

In other words, it seems possible that we may actually be the sum of our ancestors, at least when it comes to fear.

As I’ve been studying my own family tree, I’ve been surprised again and again by things that I have in common with my ancestors, things that have helped explain my own desires and choices, from how I prefer to live in community to how I deal with conflict. I’ve felt a “coming home” of sorts, particularly with my Irish ancestry. What about fear? Are my own anxieties – those panic attacks, for example – really something from my own childhood?

It’s an interesting concept.  Could your fear of enclosed spaces have been borne from your ancestors’ experiences hiding during wartime? Is my fear of being on a boat in ocean (no cruises for me, thank you very much) borne from some ancestral experience that imprinted itself in your DNA, possibly while immigrating across the sea? (And is it balanced with my love of being near water thanks to my Irish ancestors hometown on the River Shannon?)

Maybe it’s all in our DNA.

You can read more about the study in this article in The Telegraph, and and the actual study findings here.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #23 Confessions of a non-recovering introvert

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