When asked about his formative experiences with psychedelics, Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) pays tribute to his ancestors, survivors of the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism leading up to it.
Intergenerational trauma, ancestral trauma, collective trauma: we have heard a lot about these terms since COVID-19. Let’s dive a little deeper into what ancestral trauma really is, and how we can heal it using the latest tools and technologies backed by cutting-edge research.
Genotype vs. Phenotype = Nature vs. Nurture
The genotype is like an architectural blueprint. It’s a set of coded instructions for morphology (your shape, size, structure, and so forth) and other biological constraints (hair color, neurobiology, etc.).
If the genotype is the blueprint, the phenotype is the finished product, the edifice. The phenotype is what the building actually looks and feels like, as well as how it holds up in case of a fire, earthquake, or hurricane.
The genotype gives us a handy set of constraints or limits. Without it, your mother could have given birth to some alien demon baby! We can even say genotype is the deterministic part of ourselves.
The phenotype is constrained by the genotype, but free will and self-determination play a huge part in our personal and collective evolution via epigenetic coding.
Or if you prefer, genotypes are the hand we’re dealt, while the phenotype is how we play that hand—consciously and unconsciously, skillfully or not.
One of the neat things about epigenetics is that the source code stays pretty much the same from one generation to the next but over long periods of time, we may experience an evolutionary leap.
In fact, we are experiencing an evolutionary leap right now, aided if not catalyzed by the COVID-19 virus, which is an mRNA virus. Placenta evolved from an mRNA virus, and placenta was the main factor causing mammals to form their own branch off of the evolutionary tree of animals.
Epigenetics is about proteins and the codes that inform them; it’s about the interaction between individual and environment. In fact, epigenetics may illuminate the interface between mind and matter.
Intense experiences—any profound phenomenology such as trauma—get passed down but not as actual changes to the DNA code. It’s more like someone scribbling notes in the margins. The original document—the blueprints, the DNA—remains intact.
However, generation after generation of master builders and architects include the information contained in the liner notes when they make renovations or annex the structure, eventually they’ll have to update the blueprint. That’s when an evolutionary leap takes place and changes are made to the genotype, our biological firmware.
Epigenetics works much like tagging and meta-tagging. If you add tags to a file or to a piece of code, those tags do not alter the content of the file or the script. However, the tags do indicate how that information should be classified, prioritized, or used somewhere down the road. The tags are sometimes private, their meaning knowable only to the user. Some tags are public, like hashtags and SEO tags.
Information encoded directly onto a gene is decipherable, thanks to CRISPR. Using CRISPR it is even possible to alter some epigenetic tags. In other words, some epigenetic tags can be considered universal in nature as opposed to private and personal.
Epigenetics and Erasing Intergenerational Trauma
Can we prevent or mitigate intergenerational trauma, just as we can prevent or mitigate some types of genetic illnesses?
Sure. It’s not as straightforward as using CRISPR to edit epigenetic tags, but with tools like psychedelics we are finally figuring out how it might be possible to undo the damage done by thousands of years of human stupidity.
To heal intergenerational trauma, we essentially need to reprogram our minds. When we reprogram our own mind, we help reshape human destiny. We embark on an epigenetic recode.
Research Emerging on Psychedelics and Epigenetics
Psychedelics cause us to perceive reality a little differently.
Especially with a trained guide or therapist, psychedelics can initiate powerful breakthroughs and ah-ha moments.
By promoting neuroplasticity and rebooting the default mode network, psychedelics also give us an edge on an epigenetic recode.
Rather than reflexively respond to triggers due to ancestral epigenetic coding, we can—with the right tools—respond to those triggers the way we would prefer. We become willing to endure the discomfort entailed by making changes to our lifestyle and behavior because we have a new North Star.
Easier said than done, but anyone who has taken psychedelics knows that the potential is there, and finally the scientific research is starting to support what human beings have been practicing for thousands of years in terms of using plant medicine to heal individual and collective trauma.
The research on psychedelics and epigenetics to date has been limited. However, the results have been promising enough to warrant future research in this area.
It does appear that ayahuasca in particular may be implicated as a medicinal compound for mitigating the effects of dysfunctional epigenetic tags from intergenerational trauma, but psilocybin and LSD have also been studied as catalysts for healing ancestral trauma.
Intergenerational Trauma, Culture, and Storytelling
Ancestral trauma is encoded using language, memes, and semantics. What is the Hebrew Bible if not a catalog of ancestral trauma?
Language, cognition, semantics, memes, sensemaking/meaning-making, identity, culture: all of these things impact epigenetic tagging.
It’s tough to undo centuries or millennia of programming, but it can be done, especially with the aid of psychedelics.
Psychedelics allow us to access the source code, or at least modify the tags. And because more and more people are opting for psychedelic-assisted therapies, it’s easier to implement the lifestyle changes that go along with healing.
Storytellers are, as Steve Jobs put it, the most powerful people on the planet. They determine how people interpret events and how to respond to specific triggers. Storytelling can be a form of brainwashing or a key to self-liberation.
When we engage in an epigenetic recode, we also have to tell ourselves new stories. It helps when the culture or at least the people around us support our new stories.
Psychedelic therapies (with or without molecules) can be adjuncts to guided meditations and other therapeutic interventions for rewiring the brain. You can use metaphors, archetypes, images, and symbols in guided meditations. These practices can help us to unravel the source code of ancestral trauma on the semantic and linguistic level, which can really trigger changes in our cognitive-emotional and behavioral states.
COVID-19: Collective Trauma, Triggers, and Resilience
Almost as soon as the pandemic shut us all down, we were hearing about collective trauma and the importance of resilience. Encouraged to build community online, we learn also how to incorporate various practices into our daily life to ensure mental and emotional hygiene.
Some core practices do have a substantial evidence base backing their efficacy.
Ancestral trauma can be encoded on strands of DNA as tags, without affecting the source code of the genome.
We are sensitive to environmental triggers based on the epigenetic tags encoded by our ancestors.
Psychedelic-assisted therapies allow for epigenetic recoding.
Further Reading and Research:
Modern Spirit: https://www.modernspirit.org/
Third Wave podcast episode: https://thethirdwave.co/podcast/episode-74-david-rabin/
Mass General Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics: https://www.massgeneral.org/psychiatry/treatments-and-services/center-for-the-neuroscience-of-psychedelics