Sunday, December 16, 2012

Past Lives and Genetic Memories

A couple of months ago, I read this very interesting article written in the New York Times by Doreen Carvajal. In the article, she explores the idea of epigenetics, which she states: "is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents -- what they breathed, saw and ate -- can directly affect us decades later" (Carvajal, 2012). She mentions that her ancestors moved to Costa Rica during the Inquisition and hid the fact that they were Spanish Jews (also known as Conversos, Anusim, and/or Marranos). Many of the Spanish Jews hid the fact that they were Jewish to avoid persecution but, as Carvajal notes, would entrust usually a woman in the family to hold the secret, which would get passed down from generation to generation throughout the family -- in Doreen's case, her great-aunt Luz. Throughout the article, she brings up people such as French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schützenberg who studied "Ancestor Syndrome" and Dr. Darold A. Treffert who maintains a registry of savants who attained previously-unknown skills after receiving some sort of head injury or even dementia. There's more to the article, so I'll leave that for you to read -- I don't wanna ruin the whole thing!

It got me thinking, could genetic memory be real? Other animals (including ourselves) exhibit some form of genetic memory usually on a biological level; such as when our immune system learns and remembers pathogens to later ward them off. But could we receive memories connected to our ancestors from the past? Many genealogists throughout their paper-trail searches, find some sort of connection to a specific ancestor (sometimes a couple) who stand out strongly to them for various reasons. Could this just be coincidental or are they learning the true reason for their love of art, food or whatever other unexplainable trait they have --which is something I realized with myself as well.

I specifically remember two things from when I was little-- I wanted to be a microbiologist when I grew up and I wanted to learn French. The former was a career path choice I wanted to take and the latter was just something I always wanted to do. But I couldn't explain why, there was no known root to my random desire to learn French. I didn't grow up around or in a French community, I didn't know anyone who spoke the language, and nothing connected me to the French culture in the least. Yet I wanted to learn French. As I got older I knew that I wanted to visit France, I started saving up money once I started working to visit the country. I decided to take French in high school and my idea of becoming a microbiologist began its slow death. I remember watching TV, seeing the Muzzy commercial (linked here!) and thinking "I want to learn French!". But why not Italian or German which were also offered by BBC? When I first heard about genetic memory, I always thought-- well, no one in family was inclined to learn languages from what I know and no one is French so I couldn't have gained that from anyone. Yet with my recent discovery of Martinican ancestors, I've decided to delve deeper into thinking about epigenetics and genetic memory. 

Could I be the carrier for these specific memories in my family? I started thinking more about my childhood and my random connections to things. Why would I want to learn French when I was younger? It also got me thinking about randomly liking the name Charles -- to only then figure out my 4th great grandfather's middle name was Charles. I could be making all these connections by stretching out these random likes and attaching them to other random connections in my ancestors. But what if it wasn't so random? That somewhere deep down in my DNA there was encoded a knack for French and a remembrance of the name Charles? I don't really lean to believing it or not but I stand in the middle taking in both sides, just pondering what could actually be the case for these "genetic memories".


  1. We have been exploring this idea of "Crypto Jews" for a while. I helped my husband trace his roots in Spain, and each generation had a Jacoba, Moises, Benjamina or Samuel while all the other kids were named Jesus or Maria. I encouraged him to get a DNA test, and he is an exact match to the Cohanim DNA! After investigating the ancestral town and its barrio judio, we are now wondering about genetic memories and other things in the family that go back to the days of the Jews in Spain before 1492. We are all intrigued...

    1. Thank you for sharing Heather! I, like your husband, discovered that my grandfather's paternal line is J1/J1e which is commonly found amongst Jews as well as in the Middle Eastern. I'm excited to find out more about this haplogroup and how we connect to it whether through Spain or another area of the world. Very intriguing indeed!

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  2. I grew up in South-East Asia but I always wanted to learn German. I used to watch programs on the German channel all the time when I was in my teens, even though I don't speak the language. When I grew up, I even commuted to the city just to take German classes. No one in my family spoke German and I was the only one interested in it.
    I just recently found out that my ancestors are Swiss German and my deceased grandfather might have spoken a colloquial version of it in Pennslyvania. Now it makes sense why I always wanted to learn the language. I do believe that there might be some truth in genetic memory :)