Trauma, Epigenetic Change, and Empathetic Development — A Speculative Meditation


On the row out, upstream from Riggins, ID, Main Salmon River

One of the things I’ve been pondering is the effect of trauma on evolution and development in people and organizations.  Trauma can be a powerful reset for both, taking people from whatever v-Meme they’re comfortably (or not) residing, and likely shoving them back down the Spiral to the Survival v-Meme.  When you’re traumatized, you hunker down and hope something isn’t going to kill you.  That’s a reduction in one’s temporal and spatial scales, and as we’ve discussed in the past, a reduction in empathetic capacity, as connection must follow the rules of thermodynamics — time, space and energetics must all come into play.  Reduce all three, and you’re sliding back down the empathetic pyramid.  Think about how someone else thinks?  Or feel sorry for someone else?  Please.  We’ve got our own problems here.

And then there’s a cascade of effects.  How we respond to trauma (or heal from it) definitely changes the way we perceive and process the world.  It could make us more rigid and less likely to explore unfamiliar spaces, both physical and virtual.  This may lead to a corresponding decrease in metacognition — a longing for the comfortable known knowns.  “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” goes back to 1576 and George Pettie.

But maybe not.  Trauma is also associated with a psychological phenomena called hypervigilance.  Hypervigilance is an increased level of sensory arousal that leads to anxiety, an increased sense of arousal, and a constant scanning of the environment for threats.  Hypervigilance itself is a bad thing.  But the habit it teaches — another mode for stimulating the brain for data-driven processing — might be a more profound pathway for empathetic evolution.  Especially if there is healing, and the neural systems return to what Dr. Dan Siegel has called ‘The Window of Tolerance’, the benefits to empathetic development — especially rational, place-taking empathy due to the data-driven nature of the transition experience (always watching out to make sure you’re not going to get creamed!)  can’t be understated.

With appropriate recovery, it could dismantle old beliefs that failed us and make us more aware of our surroundings — essentially giving us a data-driven outlook, and a corresponding increase in metacognition, that we might not have naturally had.  I’ve always been pretty data-driven myself, even at a young age.  And lest someone thinks that is some admission of benevolent precociousness, it’s far more likely a result of being in charge of my alcoholic father, whose rapidly changing mood drove my place-taking empathetic development.  What to do with Papa was my problem from the age of nine.  Needless to say, it didn’t make one feel like mapping behavior to the old Authoritarian v-Meme societal definitions and expectations.  At the same time, one can see the issues with inappropriate developmental progression.  No nine-year-old, even if they’re rational, has a very good ability to discriminate from good and bad data.

Research in the last 20 years has led other interesting angles on the effects of trauma — some that are truly mind-boggling.  The developing field of epigenetics —  behavioral patterns, dispensations and knowledge passed not just through the memetic structure of cultures, organizations, and communities, but through the actual genetic code of the sentient actors, is becoming more well understood.  In this article, researchers Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist, and Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist, both at McGill University, showed the effect of maternal care and trauma on the neurochemistry of rats, and how this was passed from generation to generation.  The short version?  If you came from a traumatized rat mother, you could see genetic change and pass down the effects of that trauma through the generations.

Research on complex behavior is preliminary, but one thing the reader might think about is the value of the Tribal/Magical v-Meme.  Epigenetics give a potential scientific explanation to magical beliefs held around the world regarding reincarnation.  And while it’s important not to get too carried away with this — do remember that it’s the purpose of this blog to explain complex social phenomena without reference to magic or mystery — it’s important to recognize the potential power of aggregated, collective knowledge.

One of the other interesting meditative potentials is to consider how psychosocial development creates actual physical neurogenic structures inside the brain. As we move up the ladder of empathetic development, I’d argue our brains physically change.  And as was discussed previously in the post on Dunning-Kruger, research has been done showing that experts effectively go through a v-Meme compaction of more sophisticated knowledge structures, creating automatic, impulsive behavior that normally would reside in the pre-frontal cortex, does some process of migration to utilize other parts of the brain.  In my thinking, it’s much more likely that simple structures, or predilections toward more complex structures, are more likely to be transmitted than the actual complex structures themselves.   People initially scoffed, then considered seriously, then scoffed again at the experiment on transfer of RNA in cannibalistic planaria (flatworms).  Epigenetics research opens up, once again, this can of worms.

And some entire cultures bet on it.  According to their faith, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, gets to specify whether he will reincarnate or not.  If so, he lays out a series of symbols and such that a child, who will be the reincarnated one, will recognize, that monks in charge of finding the child will know that this individual is the one.  Discounting the more complex story, clearly there exists some subsets of children that have a v-Memetic ‘leg up’ on evolutionary intelligence — and epigenetic theory offers an explanation for how that might occur.

Instead of looking at the higher v-Memes and their potential for physiological changes in the brain, one of the more interesting thought questions I’ve proposed involves the darker side of all this — the psychological state of Genghis Khan’s army.  When it comes to percentages of historic rape-and-pillage, no one can really compete with the Great Khan.  And while it’s true that WWII killed more folks (this video by Neil Halloran  is a great video to put it in perspective), no one beats Genghis’ percentages.  The Mongol Conquest wiped out 40 million people in a much smaller world, while spreading the genes of the Khan himself (through his sons) to something like 8% of the Asian population.  That’s a lot of raping.  How did their brains hold up?

We might connect v-Meme development (or lack thereof) and empathetic level (pretty doggone low) to the supposition that Genghis Khan’s army did not seem to suffer too much from PTSD.  One of the largest tribal cultures in history, due to low empathetic development, just did not feel the pain that a more empathetic culture might feel in the amount of historic destruction the Mongol Hordes did across central Asia and into Europe.  And while interesting theories have been proposed (see this book) on why the Khan’s armies were stopped, such as delamination due to heat, one I haven’t seen is that the Mongol Armies suffered from psychological damage — because they likely didn’t.  Their brains were simply not empathetically connected enough to register a shock.  For them, raping and pillaging were just another day at the office.  They couldn’t suffer certain kinds of trauma — can’t damage circuits that aren’t there.  It gives kind of an inverse credence to the notion that sensitive people are more likely to be hurt.

And you don’t have to look at a particular racist perspective to rationalize this.  Alexander’s Macedonian armies, while perhaps a little more constrained with regards to local populations, were still embedded deeply in the Chthonic transition of tribal authoritarianism.  Though the Greeks gave us some major v-Meme evolutionary tracks, the Hellenic farmers had a very similar predilection for constant warfare, with a little time for planting crops.  They did only a roughly modified version of Genghis Khan’s tactics.

Contrast that to the modern view of warfare, which has something like 11-20% of active duty soldiers getting PTSD during any given year of active warfare.  We’ve changed — or rather, our brains have changed.  And considering how that may be related in epigenetics of populations and their dominant empathetic social structures.  We’re more empathetically developed, and as such, just more connected to everyone.  So when we go out and kill Vietnamese villagers, or even currently, hear about 276 kidnapped young girls in Nigeria, not only do we react.  We have the neural circuits to feel their pain.

Even post-Enlightenment, that level of devolution can happen — make no mistake.  But it takes a radical, psychopathic departure of authority to devolve us, and it’s simply rare.  But things could be conflated.  In Daniel Goldhagen’s famous book, Hitler’s Willing Executionershe makes the profound point that most of the Germans and Austrians, a more genetically homogeneous population pool, who worked in the concentration camps weren’t profoundly affected by the carnage they created, or thought much of it.  Could it be more than profound In-group/Out-group dynamics?  Having an epigenetic, historic disposition toward dehumanizing Jews would explain a lot — as opposed to the more common, psychopathic devolution being exhibited by ISIS.  And then there’s the obvious takeaway from all of this regarding the Jewish population.  What’s the epigenetic effect of the Holocaust on an entire population?  How does one recover an entire, self-restricted gene pool?  Others have asked that question, and answered with research.

There’s much to think about here.  I’ve done most of my own pondering on genes vs. memes.  Hardware vs. Software.  Maybe a better paradigm might be Hardware vs. Firmware vs. Software.  Genetics <-> Epigenetics <-> Memes.  Stay tuned.  And keep thinking yourselves!

5 thoughts on “Trauma, Epigenetic Change, and Empathetic Development — A Speculative Meditation

  1. I’ve often written about epigenetics. There have been some amazing studies. In one, rodents were shocked when smelling a particular scent and in reaction they’d jump to get off the electrified floor of their cage. Then when only the smell was present without any shock, they’d still jump. But for generations of rodents after that, they would continue to jump in Pavlovian response to the scent, despite never having been shocked. Similar patterns have been found in humans, such as how the grandchildren of famine survivors have higher rates of obesity.


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