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Recoding the Human Genome: Can Psychedelics Help?

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.