Can trauma pass from one generation to the next?
We must return and claim our past in order to move toward the future. It is in understanding who we were that will free us to embrace who we are now.
—The meaning of Sankofa

Tamra Olsen-Harris has her mother’s eyes, her father’s smile, her grandmother’s name and her great-great-great-grandfather’s trauma print. Tamra is 12 and lives in a distressed urban area in southwest Michigan. Along with 10 other young people from her neighborhood, she volunteered to participate in a community-based field study during which her brainwave functioning would be tracked, assessed and improved.

The end goal was to help increase academic achievement and life success for African American children who faced a number of challenges—lack of financial resources, parents who were ill or without jobs, occasional homelessness and neighborhood violence.

According to the analysis of the children’s brainwave functioning, it was found that people can inherit brain patterns from distant generations. Although the children were varied in ages and background, each of them exhibited an important similarity in brainwave function: Their brain patterns indicated that they were sympathetic dominant–based on right-side temporal-lobe brain function. Sympathetic dominance is most likely caused by a trauma of infringement—a situation in which a person is violated or stripped of their freedoms or rights as a human being. Rape, beatings, psychological abuse and slavery certainly qualify as traumas of infringement.

“What we found was that each of these young people exhibited hypertension and a body mass index that would be classified as obese or near-obese,” says primary investigator Lee Gerdes, CEO and founder of Brain State Technologies and developer of Brainwave Optimization, an advanced neurotechnology that detects and assesses brainwave patterns and provides noninvasive audible neuro-oscillatory feedback to balance and harmonize brain function, which led to the study.

In its sympathetic-dominance mode, participants’ brains were directing them to remain vigilant and retain fat. “Above all else, the brain is wired to survive,” says Gerdes. The fight-or-flight dominance does not mean that they are constantly in fight-or-flight mode but that they are prone to that state with little or no outside stimulus. This over-activation is also indicative of accompanying hypertension, poor sleep and lack of focus and concentration.

“A history of abuse may ‘tune’ the nervous system to be cautious and prepared for defensive fight-or-flight behaviors, even when real danger does not exist,” writes Stephen Porges, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
“As we worked to achieve balance and harmony in brainwave functioning, hypertension decreased and dietary habits started to improve,” Gerdes says. “Try as you might to exacerbate these issues with diet and exercise, if the brain is working against you, it’s an uphill battle.” Think of people who emanate from a similar geographic, cultural or historical background whose ancestors experienced years of war, conflict, chaos or repression. “Show me chaos,” says Gerdes, “and I will show you how it manifests in people, and how those people pass it along to others.”

For Peter Sterling, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, “Hypertension seems to be more strongly associated with various sources of social distress than race per se.” Sterling explains that he first began to think about this issue while canvassing door-to-door in a blighted Cleveland neighborhood. “I noticed that many people who answered my knock were partially paralyzed—faces sagging on one side, walking with a limp and a crutch.” He wondered why a stroke—rare in his own neighborhood—was so prevalent in this poor, racially segregated area. He soon discovered the work of biologist Joseph Eyer, who had assembled epidemiological evidence that stroke, heart disease and hypertension have a correlation to forms of social disruption—that “physiology is indeed sensitive to social relations.”

These questions led to Sterling’s core theory that the traditional model of physiological regulation was all wrong. The norm of using homeostasis—accepting a single “normal” set-point for measuring physiological functions like blood pressure for all adults—was not the way to measure health. Instead, he believed that the healthiest people were those whose brains and physiological functions were resilient and adaptive to the demands of their environment. Eventually, this led to his conclusion that the goal is not to set brain functioning to meet a prescribed formula but to achieve variable brain functioning that performs in such a way that the energy expended meets the needs at hand. In other words, someone who is deep in meditation requires a different level of brain functioning than someone who is at a cocktail party.

African Americans experience twice the rate of infant mortality as whites and higher levels of stroke and obesity than the general populace. Native Americans experience higher rates of diabetes and addictions. There are endless and conflicting theories on why these disparities continue to exist, and even more theories about how they can be addressed.

For Gerdes—and a growing legion of scientists—it all begins in the brain. In his view, the disparities are not the result of weakness, recklessness or bad habit. They are caused by a trauma print in the brain that passes from one generation to the next and creates extreme vulnerability to specific human issues and behaviors. “Once you understand that the brain controls everything, you begin to see how illness can afflict groups of people for generations to come.” Gerdes sees how brainwave patterns are altered by trauma, both direct and intergenerational. With a database of more than three million brain patterns collected from people around the world, Gerdes is able to extract data and patterns that lead to new discoveries—as well as to many more questions about the nature of the brain and how it affects our behavior.

When working on Native American reservations, Gerdes was haunted by the question of why this group of people—who had come from a strong lineage of respect for the earth, nature, order and connectedness—were suffering inequitably from diabetes, addictions, lower life expectancy and suicide.
“Native people have a proud history connected to their land,” Gerdes explains, “and they freely communed with nature—with Mother Earth—for generations. This open, natural communion was the road to find their internal peacefulness and well-being. When they were displaced by warring tribes—the last of which mandated that each individual native tribe was relegated to specific lands or reservations—this displacement caused a certain kind of ‘internal anxiety,’ or an uneasiness internally which is seen as an abundance of high frequencies in neural oscillations. This uneasiness is medicated effectively with alcohol and sugar—an internal medication, but one with major side effects of substance abuse and diabetes.”

“Depressive Symptoms in Urban Population Samples in Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic,” a 2006 study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, reported an unusually high prevalence of depression those countries. Rates of depression were 34 percent higher in women than men. The study made a connection between depression and binge-drinking.

“Alcoholism is nothing more than the brain seeking balance with an outside substance,” Gerdes says. “Whenever an internal anxiety exists, alcohol is self-medication which can help mitigate it. Alcohol is also the beginning of the slide to substance abuse, as this medication process requires an increasing amount of use to continue to still the anxiety.”

Why do Jewish people contract higher rates of Tay-Sachs, Canavan disease, Bloom syndrome and Crohn’s disease? Why is Celiac disease—a gluten intolerance— more common in the Irish and those of Irish descent? Does that gluten intolerance have any connection to the high rate of alcoholism perceived to affect the Irish? What does this all have to do with brain function?

Sterling’s work concludes that vigilance increases among distressed groups, having a pronounced effect on physiology, and that these related emotions and reactions “can be stored for decades within individual brains, but also transferred across generations.”

In the end, these findings raise powerful questions about how we treat illness. While diet and exercise are noble endeavors, can they truly be a solution to obesity and hypertension when the root cause lies in the brain and our engrained physiological response to the brain?

The brain holds the answers. As new technologies make it more possible to see inside the brain, increasingly accessible and effective solutions are emerging. “Perhaps,” says Gerdes, “by getting to the root of the matter—the brain—we will be able to stop the cycle of inherited trauma and illness and become the limitless individuals we were born to be.”

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Author's Bio: 

Lee Gerdes, Founder and CEO of Brain State Technologies®, is the creator of the cutting edge technology Brainwave Optimization with Real-Time Balancing™, which is transforming lives all over the world.

As the author of Limitless You: The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain, published in 2009 by Namaste Publishing and now in soft cover, Lee's work emanates from a combination of his interests in how the brain works and its effect on mind, body, and spirit, coupled with his personal experience of trauma in the form of a violent assault in 1992.

This effort has now evolved into the neuro-technology known as Brainwave Optimization™, which is produced and distributed by Brain State Technologies®, with nearly 200 affiliate offices in 18 countries worldwide serving over 50,000 clients.

As a result of this trauma, in 2000 Lee began working with his own brain to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His success in overcoming the effects of trauma led him to dedicate his life to understanding neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself) and how the breakthrough insights of neuroscience can be applied to improve peoples’ lives. His work is daily proof that by optimizing our brain, we can optimize our entire life, empowering us to "at last be the limitless individuals we were born to be."