Collective Memory: Are We The Sum Of Our Ancestors' Experiences?

Collective memory and epigenetics teach us about how experiences are passed down from one generation to another.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci

Collective memory is a term that refers to shared experiences and knowledge passed on within a social group or society.

This is a popular term in history, sociology, and psychology that has recently gained relevance in the field of genetics. In the social sciences, the concept of collective memory is centered on the sharing, constructing, and passing of experiences around groups and through generations.

For example, mistrust of doctors amongst Black Americans can be traced to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the U.S. government ran a decades-long study on the effects of untreated syphilis in the black male without the knowledge (much less consent) of the participants.

This experience is firmly planted in the collective memory of Black people and is often a determinant of their health behaviors because of the literal bad blood between them and doctors who treated them as guinea pigs. 

How Collective Memory Is Shaped

This concept of collective or social memory is often used to explain how cultures both arise and continue. The recalling of information between individuals and subsequently larger groups helps them form similar memories that are then solidified as collective memory. This is how history and knowledge are passed on.

Collective memory is most easily discussed in the cases of traumatic events such as conflicts, but collective memory can also be a tool that helps form national identity. National holidays, ceremonies, artwork, and even monuments are tools that help form and preserve the identity of a nation.

On a smaller and slightly humorous scale, collective memory can even help solidify false memories in the collective memory pool. We all remember the movie Shazaam, right? 


So people get together, talk about things that have happened (perhaps recall movies that never existed), write about them, maybe celebrate them and this is how memories are “agreed upon” and shared. Simple. Or not.

What if the idea of collective memory is more than an abstract psychological explanation for how we interact and ensure the continuity of our social groups and various identities? What if we were actually passing down the collective memory to our descendants through genetic information? 

Can Memories Be Inherited?

Scientists have investigated the theory of inheritable memories for years, with controversial findings. Curious researchers have examined bacteria, worms, and even toads to find out whether living beings can pass their memories down to subsequent generations.

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Evidence has proven in all the aforementioned species that memories can impact their progeny in ways that help them adapt based on the nature of the particular experience. So how does this apply to humans? Are we all living adaptations of the collective experiences of our ancestors? 

Epigenetics: Nature Meets Nurture 

The answers to all of these questions lie in epigenetics. Epigenetics is defined as “the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence — a change in phenotype without a change in genotype — which in turn affects how cells read the genes.” 

Collective Memory: Are We The Sum Of Our Ancestors' Experiences?
Source: National Human Genome Research Center

Epigenetics explains how our experiences can affect the way genes are expressed - which genes are turned on or off - in our offspring. Studies of the offspring of Holocaust survivors have driven quite a great deal of the research on how our environments and experiences are transmitted via the genetic expressions of our descendants.

It was found Holocaust survivors and their descendants had altered stress hormones. 

The children of the genocide survivors were born with lower levels of stress hormones which would ideally prepare them to survive similar conditions (starvation and high-stress levels), but because of how their parents had adapted, the children adapted a step beyond to survive the in-vitro environment.

This left them highly susceptible to PTSD and a wide variety of stress-related illnesses.

Similar results have been found across populations that endured cultural trauma. Basically, the collective memories of genocide, war, famine, slavery, and the like have a tendency to show up in the children and grandchildren of survivors as predispositions to illnesses.

Children of trauma survivors can be born with a high risk for developing PTSD and high sensitivity to stress, in addition to a high risk for developing some type of stress-triggered metabolic imbalance.

The implications of the experiences of parents being passed down to children in the forms of genetically triggered health problems could revolutionize the way societies handle health care.

What Does Epigenetics Tell Us? 

Although much of the early work on epigenetics involves the connection between collective memories of trauma and negative health outcomes, epigenetics is more than the science of passing down tragedy. Collective memory can also be shaped around cultural events and norms.

Epigenetics demonstrates this with discoveries about genetic responses to cultural food favorites that develop over time. For example, a study found that some Japanese people have developed a digestive enzyme over time in response to a type of seaweed that was unique to their diet, allowing them to digest seaweed-based dishes that cannot be digested by people from other cultures.

The good news about epigenetics is that it is an emerging field that still has a lot to teach the scientific community. Another piece of good news is that we are not all doomed due to the hardships of our ancestors.

Collective memory is in speech and thought and relation part of the essence of who we are, but just as we have the power to change the course of our lives regardless of our pasts, we also have the power to change the course of our lives in spite of our DNA.

Laughter can decrease your potential to develop diseases as much as grandma’s hardship can increase it. The same goes for diet, exercise, and thinking patterns.

The power of collective memory and its relationship with genetics is that it is all code that is continuously being written. 

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