Saturday, November 21, 2015

Genealogy and Your Genes - Experiencing Trauma Can Last Longer Than a Lifetime!

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A week ago I attended The Science of Character Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston.  Lots of theoretical and not a lot of practical info given but one keynote session keeps reverberating in my mind.  Although the research findings are still being examined, according to Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, the line between nature and nurture is blurring.  This has implications for a genealogist and reinforces our research practices!
How many times have you re-discovered that you had several ancestors in the same or similar career that you engage in today?  Of course, if you live on the family farm that wouldn’t be surprising but hubby and I have both found that we have educators back into the 1500’s.  Who would have thought?  My mom was a bookkeeper and may dad worked in a steel mill and farmed.  Husband’s dad was a chemist and his mom, a secretary.  None of our grandparents were educators, or so we thought.  I did uncover that my paternal grandmother taught for a brief time prior to her marriage but that discovery was long after I became an educator.  Every time I complete a career interest inventory it points me into the direction of education so I must have inherited traits from a long list of predecessors.  Hmmm.
When I think of genetics I think of gender, body type and eye, hair and skin color.  I also think of diseases, such as hemophilia, Tay-Sachs and sickle cell.  As a counselor, I’ve never really thought about the fact that past traumatic experiences genetically influence the future. 
Ginsburg mentioned a study regarding Holocaust victims and changes in their genetic makeup being passed to their offspring and their children’s children.  I’m not talking about horrific medical experimentation, either.  I’m talking about changes resulting from living during the time of the Holocaust.  You can read about the study here,
What does this mean for genealogists?  I think it drives home the importance of not just searching for records pertaining to a particular individual but also finding out about events occurring during that individual’s life.  Knowing the family’s socioeconomic status  can shed light on the person in more ways than just a marriage license ever could.  Here’s an example:
My mother, a product of the depression and a daughter of immigrants, had to leave school to support the family.  Later, as a single mother, her limited job choices hindered her earned income.  My husband’s family also experienced the depression geographically close to where my mother resided.  His maternal line, though, was not as severely affected as my family.  His grandparents were all born in the U.S. and none of their children had to quit school.  There was a tough time on his paternal line but the children were younger than my mother and with the help of extended family, bore less of a detrimental long term effect.
Am I cheap (my husband likes to call me thrifty instead) because I inherited a cheap gene due to the depression and my husband did not inherit one?  According to the research findings that’s possible. (Well, maybe there isn't a cheap gene but gene markers may have been altered.)  I suspect changes occurred on the X chromosome as my daughter is cheap, too, and my son is not.  Mom could have passed it to me and I passed it to daughter. My maternal grandmother and great grandmothers were definitely not frugal!  Since I wasn’t there I can only go by hearsay but they didn’t like the monetary constraints of the depression at all and once the family’s finances improved, went back to spending on home improvements, new clothing and trips as they had done before the depression happened.  I can validate that by looking at pictures and items purchased by them over their lifetimes. My mother self reported many times as I was growing up about how stressful it was to live through the depression.  As the article mentioned, stress can influence genes.
Stress results not just from socioeconomic status.  Other areas need to be explored, as well.  Think about church and organizational affiliations (imagine the stress of being shunned!), military involvement (my dad stationed in Alaska was not as stressed as hubby's uncle who was a prisoner of war), education (struggling academically or being forced to quit vs. being a valedictorian), relocation (being alone instead of having family and friends as support), and weather disasters (starting over after the Chicago Fire or Hurricane Katrina) could all alter a family's future.  These examples are limited - there are lots of stress factors that I haven't even mentioned.  
Genealogically best practice:  we need to keep stress events of our ancestors in mind as we research and examine the stress level for the identified event.  A broken car axle would stress me out today.  I could have been killed or severely injured when it broke so a threat to my safety would have occurred, the financial impact would be painful and the lost time from work would make me anxious.  A broken axle on my ancestor's Conestoga wagon, however, could have been far more stressful than what I would have experienced today.  No wagon shop on the prairie, safety threats would also include having to face severe weather, wild animals and unsavory individuals.  My ancestor's stress level would far exceed what I would be feeling.  
I want to caution, Dear Readers, that the implication of experiencing stress does not mean that future family members are doomed for eternity.  This blog was certainly not meant to be an excuse for being stuck in a detrimental family cycle.  There are many ways to cope with stress and traumatic life experiences that you or perhaps, an ancestor, had experienced. Definitely seek help if you're affected!
All this reflection on stress also got me thinking about the changes being made to the Ancestry.com website. If you haven't heard, by December 15th only the “new” Ancestry will be available.  Perhaps I’m giving Ancestry.com more credit then they deserve but maybe why they are featuring life events now is due to their revamped dna service.  I don’t know that for sure but it will be helpful if they can improve upon the no brainers featured of say, the years that World War I occurred.  If Ancestry could identify events that might be specific to the area where the ancestor lived would be just awesome! Until that time, we need to hunt down the events ourselves so we can better understand our families.
With the holidays approaching I will be letting you know about genealogy gift items that may be of interest to you.  Some of these flexoffers may provide me compensation.  

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