Many nations are on the brink of a major revolution. Such a scene has not arisen since the end of the First World War when the Treaty of Versailles was used to punish the German population for the devastation by dividing the people and creating new borders. The result was a despotic leader named Adolf Hitler who promised to reunite Germany and give the suffering Germans the power to govern the world. The rise to power has its origins in the plight of the oppressed and a pain that all too often leads to a mass psychosis.
We look to science to resolve the social problems, but I always caution people to be consciously aware of science as a discipline because science is never neutral. Science involves personalities, particular perspectives on the world and complex methodologies, which are often misplaced or inappropriate. Indeed, science has been a crucial part of the divisiveness across the globe.
We live in a racist and unequal world, but the issues are not clear cut and unequivocal. The sordid history of racism is not about colour, it is about power. Colour is merely the arbitrary classification of a group marked as powerless. When the dynamics change, as in some African states, we have seen the minority white populations similarly oppressed.
When there is a differentiation of power in a society the strong will always elect to eradicate the weak and conversely, the weak will always fight back in an attempt to gain absolute power. This can be an ongoing chain of events. Consider the 100 year’s war and ask, do we really want to live in this perpetual state of violence?
Revolutions are not about equality. Rather, revolutions are the quest to have what the Other has. Power is absolute and totalising. Power is not something that is equally shared, it can be mediated, but there will always be one side that must concede to be the lesser power. Power is a value that is always already embedded in a rate of exchange, generally played out in the distribution of labour. The value of power lies not in its abundance, but in its scarcity.
The anxiety created by this power politics is immense and it sits at the core of what has become a major pandemic of mental illness across the globe. In a book called The Sane Society (1955) Eric Fromm related mental illness to forms of hardship and injustice. He wrote:
An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility [and] distrust, which transforms man into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives him of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he submits to others or becomes an automaton… Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself. 
In the 1950s and 1960s there was an obvious rise in mental illness, that resulted from two World Wars. Added to this, poverty and inequality were rife. The Anti-Psychiatry Movement of the 1960s and in particular the work of R.D. Liang attempted to link all mental illness to various inequalities within society, noting that these inequalities were the main cause of anxiety and trauma, this in turn manifests in crime and social misbehaviour.
Clearly, those who rate highly on the scale of traumatic experience are the powerless and the oppressed and the etiology of these problems runs deep into the historical landscape. There are two primary issues. First, as a society we have failed to comprehend the effects of intergenerational trauma. Second, there has been little scrutiny of what has historically caused the trauma.
Mental illness does not arrive in the same way as the common cold. It happens in conjunction with certain traumatic events. (unless it is a consequence of developmental dysfunction or other bodily illness, such as heart disease, neurological compromise or other).
For Liang, mental illness was viewed distinctly as a social problem, which was a huge step away from brain dysfunction and idiocy. However, there has been almost no recognition of intergenerational social problems as a cause of trauma. Intergenerational trauma as a basis for mental dysfunction received little efficacy in the realms of medical diagnostics. The word ‘trauma’ was used to describe a condition of immediate pain and urgency. The notion of intergenerational trauma was never considered until much later, around the 1970s and even then, it was never taken seriously.
In Britain and elsewhere, the neurological elements of mental illness became the core focus of treatment for mental disorder, generally with the use of anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs. Trauma studies did not rise in popularity because they challenged the very nature of power relations across the world and how that power was unequally distributed. Hence, as a society, we have not fully addressed the impacts of colonialism, slavery, genocides and a whole host of other long-term disparities. Indeed, we are still perpetrating the same system and wondering, why would anyone object?
For example, we have not dealt with the science of eugenics, which still has a strong, but discursive influence on various groups and their decisions as to who will be helped and who will not; otherwise put, who lives and who dies in the context of modern and late capitalism. By default, we are blinded to the consequences of our actions (or non-action) because we refuse to acknowledge our scientific, social and political histories of oppression and genocides. We simply repeat them.
The eugenicists did not see their ideas as racist, they believed they were purely scientific. The eugenics movement first arose in Britain during the Edwardian period around 1907. The Eugenics Education Society began to campaign for sterilisation and marriage restrictions aimed at stopping people with perceived inferior genes from breeding. This included people with disabilities, mental illness, impoverishment, social dysfunction and aberrance. Eugenics was supposed to prevent the degeneration of Britain’s population, it then moved towards maintaining a superior race that was white, middle-class and dominated by an elite of upper-class males. Britain was not the only supporter of this regime. American also applied a rigid policy of eugenics as did the colonies.
Eugenics was never truly condemned until the Nazis carried out horrendous forms of experimentation on Jews for the purposes of perfecting racial purity. We still conduct practices of eugenics on animals and think this should be permissible. We are all animals. Disunity in one act does not create unity in another.
In 1859 Charles Darwin published his seminal work on the Origin of Species, which detailed his theory of evolution by natural selection. It prompted scientists and political theorists to apply Darwin’s theory to human beings. Later Darwin wrote his 1871 treatise, The Descent of Man, which clearly gave credence to eugenics as a guard against creating weakness in the human race. It was Francis Galton, (1822-1911) a cousin of Charles Darwin, who was instrumental in inaugurating the eugenics movement. Galton was greatly influenced by the Origin of Species, especially its ideas on breeding domestic animals. He thought that humans might also be bred for their better qualities and not their weaknesses.
Galton was aware that British society was changing. The upper-class families were having fewer children, while the working-classes were breeding constantly and growing in their numbers. With worker’s revolutions happening elsewhere in the world, the upper-classes worried about the potential for social unrest. Breeding restrictions appeared to be a way out of the ensuing threat of worker conflicts. By the end of the Second World War many people were blaming the lack of a eugenics programme for the ensuing insurgence of neo-fascists groups, while the neo-fascists were advocating eugenics for the purpose of exterminating Jews and other perceived undesirables.
The fact is, there are still subtle forms of eugenics taking place around the world because one group is fearful of being relegated to extinction by another more powerful group. Take for example the distribution of food or medical supplies to poorer countries, or the cost of a life-saving procedure. In particular, this affects those nations who are unable to contribute much to global capitalism. Those who hold the power must ask, are these people worth saving? This is a bizarre abstraction of humanity and a major cause of anxiety and mental illness happening on many levels. Ultimately, who will determine which of us are to be saved? As pandemics spread across the world, as they will; these are serious questions.
When Galton wrote his 1869 book on Hereditary Genius to promulgate the view that procreation should be predicated on the multiplication of the best, the fittest and the most civilised, the definition of what was civilised appeared acceptable. History has perceived it tainted and flawed, we cannot rewrite history, but we must be aware of it.
Many of the societal problems we are experiencing today can be traced back to intergenerational trauma. Research into intergenerational trauma has yet to be a feature of serious study in medicine although it has been embedded into traditional philosophies for thousands of years. The biblical warnings about bad times being passed on from generation to generation were not just fanciful prophecies. Today, experts have the proof that trauma can be passed on in our genetics and epigenetics.
Genetics as a scientific discipline stemmed from the work of Gregor Mendel in the middle of the 19th century. Mendel believed that certain traits were inherited, although he knew nothing of the physical or chemical nature of genes at the time, his units became the basis for the development of the present understanding of heredity.
The word genetics was introduced in 1905 by English biologist William Bateson. He discovered Mendel’s work and followed Mendel’s principles of inheritance. It would be well into the future before we could fully understand the importance of genetics and how it would impact on peoples’ lives. We are now building a bigger picture.
In 2016 the links between trauma and epigenetics became popularized when the UK’s Sue Armstrong reported on a study of generational trauma in her radio program (Radio 4) All in the Womb (produced by Ruth Evans). The Spectator magazine picked up the story and further detailed how recent developments in the understanding of severe trauma affects both the mind and the body by creating physical changes. Armstrong noted that people who lived through the Holocaust and who were in prison camps were found to have low levels of cortisol. This is the hormone that the body releases into the bloodstream as we experience panic and fear. It is often referred to as the survival hormone. Scientists have found that the descendants of those who have suffered war, violence and incessant fear also have lower levels of cortisol than average.
A study by Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of Mount Sinai’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division examined the DNA of Holocaust survivors and their children and found similar variations from the norm in both generations for the gene associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Although the study involved just 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, the findings imply that children of individuals who experience profound stress in life may be more likely to develop stress or anxiety disorders themselves. The pattern is known as an epigenetic change because it affects the chemical marker for the gene rather than the gene itself. Findings suggest that profound stress in the older generation translated into an adaptation that passed on to their offspring. Scientists have long-known that parents pass genetic traits down to their children, but Yehuda’s research suggests that life experiences can also produce chemical effects in the DNA. Similar research has been done into the effects of famine on later generations, as well as stress levels in the children of women who survived the New York September 11 attacks. The findings were thought to provide an explanation for why some people struggle with anxiety and stress disorders despite having never experienced trauma themselves.
Since the 1970s, researchers have known that the tightly wound spools of DNA inside each cell’s nucleus require something extra to tell them exactly which genes to transcribe, whether for a heart cell, a liver cell or a brain cell and more. One such extra element is the methyl group, a common structural component of organic molecules. Because methyl groups are attached to the genes, residing beside, but separate from the double-helix DNA code, the field was dubbed epigenetics, from the prefix epi (Greek for over, outer, above). Originally these epigenetic changes were believed to occur only during foetal development, but new studies showed that molecular structures could be added to DNA in adulthood, setting off a cascade of cellular changes resulting in illness, namely cancer. Sometimes methyl groups attached to DNA were due to changes in diet; other times, exposure to certain chemicals appeared to be the cause.
A study from Randy Jirtle of Duke University showed that when female mice are fed a diet rich in methyl groups, the fur pigment of subsequent offspring is permanently altered. Without any change to DNA at all, methyl groups could be added or subtracted, and the changes were inherited much like a mutation in a gene
According to the new insights of behavioural epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jewish people whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese people whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents all carry with them more than just memories. Our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited.
It has been the case that most childhood trauma studies have been linked to childhood abuse, with many depending on retrospective self-reporting of child abuse cases, which is not always reliable or fully disclosed. In addition, we understand human relations in terms of the cultural setting in which they take place. In the 1950s and 1960s abuse of children in schools was simply regarded as discipline. The damage done has never been accounted for. Nonetheless, abuse or recollections of past abuse can function to provide meaning for current issues of trauma and intergenerational distress. Many parents, carers, teachers and perpetrators of abuse may not be aware that their behaviour was abusive and the cause of long-term effects. Abuses would include, corporal punishment within the education system, emotional and physical abuse in the military, school and workplace bullying. Today, this kind of behaviour is being addressed, but for many people born at the end of the previous century the scars of canning, shoving, pushing and shouting insults are still very real, both at a conscious and unconscious level and this imprint is likely to be passed on. Today, with the advances in neuroscience and the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), not only can scientists see the impacts of abuse on the brain, they can measure the way different forms of abuse impact on memory and reduce the size of developing brains.
Childhood abuse can alter important parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and this is believed to cause childhood problems often leading to more serious psychiatric illness later in life. The hippocampus has a lot of receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, which interacts with receptors in these neurons to affect the development and the branching of neurons and a failure to generate the necessary new neurons (neurogenesis). We now know that conditions such as depression, drug addiction and other mental health problems often have their roots in difficult childhood experiences. We have to include poverty and powerlessness into this assessment.
Martin Teicher, of Harvard University studied the brains of 193 individuals between 18 and 25 years old, who had already undergone several rounds of testing to be qualified. They then analysed the size of areas in the hippocampus and compared the results with the patient’s history. They saw that those who had been abused, neglected or maltreated (based on well-established questionnaires) as children had reduced volume in certain areas of the hippocampus by about 6 percent, compared with those who had not experienced childhood abuse. They also had size reductions in a related brain area called the subiculum, which relays the signals from the hippocampus to other areas of the brain, including the dopamine system, also known as the brain’s reward centre. Volume reduction in the subiculum has been associated with drug abuse, depression and schizophrenia. In animal experiments (including non-human primates), the hippocampus can shrink because of high exposure to the stress hormone cortisol during two developmental periods: between ages 3 and 5 and between ages 11 and 13, the researchers said. These stress hormone levels stop the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, leading to smaller volume in the adult human brain.
When we look at the situation of abuse, rebellion, revolution and violence on our streets today, we need to take into consideration the longer-term impacts. Similarly, we need to be aware of the historical background of those who have current stresses. We can only break the cycle of violence if we fully understand the past and the present consequences of violence and deprivation. If we ignore this now it will only get worse.