Krista Tippett interviews neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Yehuda about the effects of trauma (and, sometimes, resiliency) passed down genetically from one generation to the next. The interview, including a transcript, is here. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in the field of epigenetics, which Krista describes:
epigenetics is the idea that not only do experiences lodge physiologically, but that physiological changes can actually be passed on to the next generation — transmitted generationally, trans-generationally. One helpful way, to me, that you’ve talked about epigenetics is, you said, “Think about genetics as the computer and epigenetics as the software, the app, the program”
The conversation is interesting throughout, but the second half gets very deep. Krista begins:
This whole notion of generationally transmitted trauma, it gives a kind of a chemical basis for talking about what happens to populations of refugees, or African Americans in this country who have this history of generational trauma, or aboriginal peoples in Australia, or — I was reading about some work in generational trauma that Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart did on the Pine Ridge Reservation, using the term of the “soul wounds,” the wounding of the Native American soul. This is science that is putting something to that phenomenon that seems to me to be quite new. It’s a more holistic way of describing what happens to human beings.
Dr. Yehuda: Yes, but it doesn’t all have to be negative. I think the purpose of epigenetic changes, I think, is simply to increase the repertoire of possible responses. I don’t think it’s meant to damage or not damage people; it just — it expands the range of biologic responses. And that can be a very positive thing, when that’s needed. Who would you rather be in a war zone with — somebody that’s had previous adversity, knows how to defend themselves, or somebody that has never had to fight for anything, but might be very advantaged in many other social and cultural ways?
Ms. Tippett: Right. So you’re saying that our — that there’s an intelligence in our bodies, behind this adaptation?
Dr. Yehuda: Oh, yes. There is a wisdom in our body, for sure.
Me: And we have to be told this kind of basic human thing, in our culture, and hear it explicitly, to understand what we need as human beings, as sentient creatures– to feel, be listened to and heard:
Ms. Tippett: … I’m so struck by the fact that this knowledge itself, just acknowledging the force of what has happened to us — that the force of trauma itself is a piece of knowledge that — I don’t know if you want to say it’s healing, but that it helps, that it’s kind of a — that it’s a building block to healing.
Dr. Yehuda: I think it’s a necessary prerequisite for healing. You have to do more than just recognize it, but you have to recognize it. We have a culture that goes to two extremes — they either completely dismiss something as “Nothing happened, don’t worry,” or they get very hysterical about what might have happened. And really, what we have to do is give ourselves a little time after an adverse event, to kind of take stock and not be so hard on ourselves, or not set expectations, and just listen to our bodies and give ourselves the space to be quiet and to heal and to see, to ascertain what has been damaged and try to counteract that by putting ourselves in the most un-stressful, healing environment that we possibly can have, to counteract some of that and promote a biological and molecular healing process that might forestall some of the epigenetic and molecular changes.
Ms. Tippett: I keep having this memory of an experience I had a couple months ago. I was in the city of Louisville, where they’re working on — from the mayor to the chief of police to the school system, they’re trying to figure out what it would be to be a “compassionate city.” And they’re actually using some science in this, they’re bringing some contemplative methods into schools — it’s very interesting and very holistic. And there was an — actually, a pastor, an African-American leader, who leads one of the — an important church there. And he said that one of the most important, transformative things that this mayor had done — that young people in his community had said this to him — was to sit with their grief.
Dr. Yehuda: Beautiful.
Ms. Tippett: To be — to dwell with the — and they may have used the word “trauma,” but just to let that be in the room.
Dr. Yehuda: Feel it. Feel it, instead of running to someone to give you a sleeping pill. Feel it. If you want to have that kind of a culture, it boils down to two words. It boils down to being able to ask someone, “You OK?” Just the idea that you are acknowledging the possibility that something bad has just happened to someone, and inquiring about them, is really, really at the heart of how military cultures really check up on each other. And in other healing cultures, you really hear a lot of people saying, “Hey, you OK?”
Their conversation ends beautifully, with one of the most profound statements I’ve heard in a long time. I tip my hat to these two brilliant, empathetic women:
Dr. Yehuda: “How are you?” has become a pleasantry that is devoid of all meaning. But just really taking a second to inquire, in a real way, about how someone is doing — and even if they don’t tell you, and even if they lie to you, it will probably have a beneficial effect.
What I hear from trauma survivors, what I’m always struck with is how upsetting it is when other people don’t help, or don’t acknowledge, or respond very poorly to needs or distress. I’m very struck by that. And I’m very struck by how many Holocaust survivors got through because there was one person that became the focus of their survival, or they were the focus of that person’s survival. So how we behave towards one another, individually and in society, I think, can really make a very big difference in, honestly, the effects of environmental events on our molecular biology. [laughs]