A bagpipe player. Photo by Noralí Emilio on Unsplash
I like Tudor architecture and bagpipe music, and for a great deal of my life, I’ve wondered why. I like to think that, somewhere in my past, there was an ancestor—perhaps a member of the Tudor gentry—who so loved half-timber floors and oriel windows that he vowed to live among the beauty of them into eternity. My taste for Tudor homes and churches would then be, at a DNA level, his wish come true until I pass on the fondness to the next generation.
And then, there is my enjoyment for bagpipe music. I imagine this hails from the adoration of some ancestral Scotsman who marched across the moors in his Highland regalia, his bagpipe resting on his shoulder. As he serenades with the hum and whir of music he thinks, “I must be surrounded by this music and me pipes forever.” And now, for reasons I can’t otherwise explain, I actively seek out bagpipe music and weep as I listen.
Yes, I realize this is a fanciful notion, but I still allow myself the notion that, perhaps, my ancestors felt powerful draws to certain things that manifest in my tastes today.
And apparently, I’m not alone in wanting to channel ancestors this way. The popularity of genealogical research and DNA matching suggests that others are looking to their ancestors to explain their certain preferences as well as personality.
This search comes from our need to bond to our past, building a bridge to explain who we are in the present. And since I’m enamored with the concept of “genetic remembering,” it made perfect sense that an excerpt from Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” would jump out and scream validation to me as I explore this possibility—science though, many say, it lacks.
Raised in Chicago, Michelle’s family made frequent visits to Georgetown to see her father’s family. She describes the ties she felt for the South, although it was not her home. “Even as a kid, I understood innately that the South was knit into me, part of my heritage that was meaningful enough for my father to make return visits to see his people there.” And ka-ching, that phrase “knit into me” struck right at my thoughts of preferential connections that transcend time.
Michelle’s recognition of the “pull” to a place compelled me to think more theoretically about the possibility that our tastes and preferences may, at some level, be genetic. So excited was I with the concept that I discussed it with my family, who expressed some skepticism. Of course, I’m no scientist. And thus, inspired by their doubts and my ability to weave fact and fiction to prove my point, I went hunting through Google to get more specific.
NEMATODES AND EPIGENETICS
Robin Andrews over at IFL Science provides a concise and brief explanation of the process of “genetic remembering” at a genetic level in his article titled, “Ancestors’ Genetic ‘Memories’ Could Be Passed On For 14 Generations.” He explains that epigenetics actually act as a kind “clothing” that overlays DNA sequences of nucleotide bases, and that clothing determines which genes are expressed or suppressed in our DNA.
We inherit our DNA from parent to child, of course, and those sequences inherently remain the same. However, epigenetics can be altered environmentally both by the chemicals we ingest and by psychological events we experience, and when the overlaying epigenetics change in the mother, any children she bears can inherit her epigenetics as well. Andrews describes research with a nematode that demonstrates this phenomenon which you can read more about in his post.
If you don’t find the worm story compelling, there is an article I found over at Vice titled, “Can We Access the Memories of Our Ancestors Through Our DNA?” by Katherine Gillespi. She speaks with Dr. Baret Brogaard, a philosopher specializing in cognitive neuroscience, about the possibility of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Brogaard explains that we don’t transfer a specific memory, but that traumas can change the epigenetics for the mother, who will then pass those changes onto her children. Traumatic societal events such as slavery and the Holocaust were discussed as examples. These events impacted the initial generation and may have passed a sort of “memory” on to future generations manifested by gene expression.
OUR BRAINS AND THEIR FACTORY-INSTALLED SOFTWARE
I found the post over at Scientific American by Darold Treffert titled “Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned” especially interesting. Treffert discusses the phenomenon of savants who master talents at an accelerated pace without the normal path of life experience to explain it. It turns out this can happen to those who have suffered brain damage as well. When areas of the brain are damaged other parts turn on, and savant-like tendencies emerge when patients exhibit new talents they had not had before.
Treffert suggests that our brains don’t start off as empty hard drives, but instead have a factory-installed software that comes along with accessible information and programming to start with.
I like the thought that our software is still uncharted territory and that no amount of sequencing can explain everything about how we work—yet. Maybe there is room for some philosophical possibilities that even science, much as I love it, can’t completely explain.
YOUR TASTES A REFLECTION OF YOU AND THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
As for me, I did just enough research to convince myself that I can keep my ideas about ancestral memories as my story proceeds. These Tudor-bagpiping preferences are my tastes, but they could also be the conduit to the lineage of people who made my life possible. I like thinking I’m part of this continuum of life because it makes me feel less alone.
So, what are your inexplicable aesthetic preferences? Go on and tell. You can raise your head high knowing you represent your ancestors with your unique combo today.
ABOUT STORIED GIFTS
Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
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