Epigenetic Memory and the Mind

Epigenetics is fascinating, even bizarre by conventional thought. Some worry that it’s another variety of determinism, just not located in the genes. I have other worries, if not that particular one.

How epigenetics work is that a gene gets switched on or off. The key point is that it’s not permanently set. Some later incident, conditions, behavior, or whatever can switch it back the other way again. Genes in your body are switched on and off throughout your lifetime. But presumably if no significant changes occur in one’s life some epigenetic expressions remain permanently set for your entire life.

Where it gets fascinating is that it’s been proven that epigenetics gets passed on across multiple generations and no one is certain how many generations. In mice, it can extend at least upwards of 7 generations or so, as I recall. Humans, of course, haven’t been studied for that many generations. But present evidence indicates it operates similarly in humans.

Potentially, all of the major tragedies in modern history (violence of colonialism all around the world, major famines in places like Ireland and China, genocides in places like the United States and Rwanda, international conflicts like the world wars, etc), all of that is within the range of epigenetis. It’s been shown that famine, for example, switches genes for a few generations that causes increased fat retention and in the modern world that means higher obesity rates.

I’m not sure what is the precise mechanism that causes genes to switch on and off (e.g., precisely how does starvation get imprinted on biology and become set that way for multiple generations). All I know is it has to do with the proteins that encase the DNA. The main interest is that, once we do understand the mechanism, we will be able to control the process. This might be a way of preventing or managing numerous physical and psychiatric health conditions. So, it really will mean the opposite of determinism.

This research reminds me of other scientific and anecdotal evidence. Consider the recipients of organ transplants, blood and bone marrow transfusions, and microbiome transference. This involves the exchange of cells from one body to another. The results have shown changes in mood, behavior, biological functioning, etc

For example, introducing a new microbiome can make a skinny rodent fat or a fat rodent skinny. But also observed are shifts in fairly specific memories, such as an organ transplant recipient craving something the organ donor craved. Furthermore, research has shown that genetics can jump from the introduced cells to the already present cells, which is how a baby can potentially end up with the cells of two fathers if a previous pregnancy was by a different father, and actually it’s rather common for people to have multiple DNAs in their body.

It intuitively makes sense that epigenetics would be behind memory. It’s easy to argue that there is no other function in the body that has this kind and degree of capacity. And that possibility would blow up our ideas of the human mind. In that case, some element of memories would get passed on multiple generations, explaining certain similarities seen in families and larger populations with shared epigenetic backgrounds.

This gives new meaning to the theories of both the embodied mind and the extended mind. There might also having some interesting implications for the bundle theory of mind. I wonder too about something like enactivism which is about the human mind’s relation to the world. Of course, there are obvious connections of this specific research with neurological plasticity and of epigenetics more generally with intergenerational trauma.

So, it wouldn’t only be the symptoms of trauma or else the benefits of privilege (or whatever other conditions that shape individuals, generational cohorts, and sub-populations) being inherited but some of the memory itself. This puts bodily memory in a much larger context, maybe even something along the lines of Jungian thought, in terms of collective memory and archetypes (depending on how long-lasting some epigenetic effects might be). Also, much of what people think of as cultural, ethnic, and racial differences might simply be epigenetics. This would puncture an even larger hole in genetic determinism and race realism. Unlike genetics, epigenetics can be changed.

Our understanding of so much is going to be completely altered. What once seemed crazy or unthinkable will become the new dominant paradigm. This is both promising and scary. Imagine what authoritarian governments could do with this scientific knowledge. The Nazis could only dream of creating a superman. But between genetic engineering and epigenetic manipulations, the possibilities are wide open. And right now, we have no clue what we are doing. The early experimentation, specifically research done covertly, is going to be of the mad scientist variety.

These interesting times are going to get way more interesting.

* * *

Could Memory Traces Exist in Cell Bodies?
by Susan Cosier

The finding is surprising because it suggests that a nerve cell body “knows” how many synapses it is supposed to form, meaning it is encoding a crucial part of memory. The researchers also ran a similar experiment on live sea slugs, in which they found that a long-term memory could be totally erased (as gauged by its synapses being destroyed) and then re-formed with only a small reminder stimulus—again suggesting that some information was being stored in a neuron’s body.

Synapses may be like a concert pianist’s fingers, explains principal investigator David Glanzman, a neurologist at U.C.L.A. Even if Chopin did not have his fingers, he would still know how to play his sonatas. “This is a radical idea, and I don’t deny it: memory really isn’t stored in synapses,” Glanzman says.

Other memory experts are intrigued by the findings but cautious about interpreting the results. Even if neurons retain information about how many synapses to form, it is unclear how the cells could know where to put the synapses or how strong they should be—which are crucial components of memory storage. Yet the work indeed suggests that synapses might not be set in stone as they encode memory: they may wither and re-form as a memory waxes and wanes. “The results are really just kind of surprising,” says Todd Sacktor, a neurologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “It has always been this assumption that it’s the same synapses that are storing the memory,” he says. “And the essence of what [Glanzman] is saying is that it’s far more dynamic.”

Memory Transferred Between Snails, Challenging Standard Theory of How the Brain Remembers
by Usha Lee McFarling

Glanzman’s experiments—funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—involved giving mild electrical shocks to the marine snail Aplysia californica. Shocked snails learn to withdraw their delicate siphons and gills for nearly a minute as a defense when they subsequently receive a weak touch; snails that have not been shocked withdraw only briefly.

The researchers extracted RNA from the nervous systems of snails that had been shocked and injected the material into unshocked snails. RNA’s primary role is to serve as a messenger inside cells, carrying protein-making instructions from its cousin DNA. But when this RNA was injected, these naive snails withdrew their siphons for extended periods of time after a soft touch. Control snails that received injections of RNA from snails that had not received shocks did not withdraw their siphons for as long.

“It’s as if we transferred a memory,” Glanzman said.

Glanzman’s group went further, showing that Aplysia sensory neurons in Petri dishes were more excitable, as they tend to be after being shocked, if they were exposed to RNA from shocked snails. Exposure to RNA from snails that had never been shocked did not cause the cells to become more excitable.

The results, said Glanzman, suggest that memories may be stored within the nucleus of neurons, where RNA is synthesized and can act on DNA to turn genes on and off. He said he thought memory storage involved these epigenetic changes—changes in the activity of genes and not in the DNA sequences that make up those genes—that are mediated by RNA.

This view challenges the widely held notion that memories are stored by enhancing synaptic connections between neurons. Rather, Glanzman sees synaptic changes that occur during memory formation as flowing from the information that the RNA is carrying.

Ancient Memory

Forgetting something is a common human experience. We forget where we left our keys or parked our car, the name that goes with a familiar face or the birthday of a family member, a friend’s phone number or what we ate last night. Et cetera.

This can seem like the fate of humanity with our feeble brains. Yet some people have great memories. That is even more true for some societies. The next time you forget something think about the indigenous people who can remember things for centuries and millennia, in some cases all the way back to the Ice Age.

In our society, a large part of the population can’t even keep straight the details of recent history. We are bad enough about recall of info from within our lifetime. Anything before our birth is usually a vague blur. Maybe we need to work on that.

* * *

Ancient Ruins Older Than The Pyramids Discovered In Canada
By Gabe Paoletti, ATI

Using carbon dating on the charcoal flakes, the researchers were able to determine that the settlement dates back 14,000 years ago, making it significantly older than the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, which were built about 4,700 years ago.

To understand how old that truly is, one has to consider that the ancient ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra lived closer in time to you than she did to the creation of the pyramids. Even to what we consider ancient people, the Egyptian pyramids were quite old.

This newly discovered settlement dates back more than three times older than the pyramids.

Alisha Gauvreau, a Ph.D student who helped discover this site said, “I remember when we got the dates back, and we just sat back and said, ‘Holy moly, this is old.’”
She and her team began investigating the area for ancient settlements after hearing the oral history of the indigenous Heiltsuk people, which told of a sliver of land that never froze during the last ice age.

William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said, “To think about how these stories survived only to be supported by this archeological evidence is just amazing.”

“This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years.”

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 560-584

I believe that it would be only certain genres of information that would survive reasonably intact. The landscape is the basic structuring system for many indigenous cultures, so it is to be expected that records of landscape features would be the most enduring of all traditional knowledge. Consequently, I am very comfortable accepting the long-term records quoted in the following pages that relate to changes in the landscape. Although the content of stories may vary, what will survive longest is the base structure, a description of Country.

Many researchers argue that oral tradition is not a reliable source for information on historical events. I have no reason to doubt their research. Historical events are less critical to survival than the practical knowledge of plants, animals, the environment and the laws and expectations which bind the community. The natural sciences cannot be so readily adapted. Reality acts as an audit on the knowledge stored. As with all cultures, literate and oral, history is adapted to the political will of the powerbrokers who tell the stories.

There are some cultures that recall hundreds of years of historical data. In many Pacific villages, hereditary lines of the chiefs were used as a basic organising structure for the knowledge system. Some Māori can recite an 800-year genealogy dating from when their ancestors first reached New Zealand. In Africa, the king lists for Rwanda were structured by their reign and the quality of their kingship, which in turn acted as a set of subheadings for the many different anecdotes associated with their reign. The Fang of Gabon and Cameroon were able to recite genealogies of up to 30 generations in depth, recalling associated events from centuries ago. However, it is the landscape that offers the best examples of robust, long-term oral tradition.

The Dyirbal language group has lived in northeast Queensland for at least 10,000 years. One myth describes a volcanic eruption and the consequent origin of the three volcanic crater lakes which were formed at least 10,000 years ago: Yidyam (Lake Eacham), Barany (Lake Barrine) and Ngimun (Lake Euramoo). It describes the very different terrain in that time. Only recently, scientists were surprised to discover that the rainforest in that area is only about 7600 years old. Another Dyirbal storyteller told of how in the past it was possible to walk across the islands, including Palm and Hinchinbrook islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age.19

Similarly, the Boon Wurrung and Kurnai people from Victoria, Australia, gave evidence to a select committee of the Legislative Council in 1858 detailing the landforms in Port Phillip Bay, including the path of the Yarra River. These details have since been verified by scientific mapping of the bay floor. It is debated whether the bay was last dry at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, or had possibly dried out again, about 1000 years ago. At the very least, the geographical knowledge has been passed down accurately within oral tradition for a thousand years.20 Examples like these are being published regularly as geographers explore indigenous stories as scientific records.

What and where is memory?

Memories May Not Live in Neurons’ Synapses
By Roni Jacobson, Scientific American

“If memory is not located in the synapse, then where is it? When the neuroscientists took a closer look at the brain cells, they found that even when the synapse was erased, molecular and chemical changes persisted after the initial firing within the cell itself. The engram, or memory trace, could be preserved by these permanent changes. Alternatively, it could be encoded in modifications to the cell’s DNA that alter how particular genes are expressed. Glanzman and others favor this reasoning.”

Mice Inherit the Fears of Their Fathers
By Virginia Hughes

“Now a fascinating new study reveals that it’s not just nurture. Traumatic experiences can actually work themselves into the germ line. When a male mouse becomes afraid of a specific smell, this fear is somehow transmitted into his sperm, the study found. His pups will also be afraid of the odor, and will pass that fear down to their pups.”

 

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

I was talking to someone the other day who was telling me about a recent family visit (by the way, her telling of it reminded me of the type of story David Sedaris writes).

It was her older sister who was visiting and they were discussing the past. The older sister claimed that she used to go for rides on a pony that a neighbor had. The neighbor gave pony rides somewhere for money and would allow the sister to ride the pony home. However, the older sister also claimed that this pony owner also owned an elephant who would also sometimes follow along. The woman I was talking to didn’t believe her sister’s story about the elephant and so investigated by asking other family members and some old neighbors from the area. No one else remembered the elephant, but the older sister was absolutely certain about the elephant’s existence. It was real in her mind.

I find that amusing. None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story. I mean it’s logical that where there is a pony there might be an elephant. Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

We all live in our own private fantasy worlds. I’ve been drawn to this idea. I think I first encountered it with Robert Anton Wilson’s writings about reality tunnels. It’s not just individuals but whole societies that get caught up in reality tunnels. In the case of personal memories, another person who knows us can offer a reality check. A collective reality tunnel is different because everyone within the society will reinforce the shared view of reality. Our collective retellings are rituals that remake the world in the way the Australian Aborigines remake the world by retracing the pathways of the gods. What if there is some truth to this? Maybe scientific laws and evolution are simply forms of collective memory.

This avenue of thought is explored in great detail by Philip K. Dick and by those influenced/inspired by PKD (for example: Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon and Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven). I just finished reading PKD’s Eye in the Sky. I was mostly reading that novel while at work which led me to contemplate the world around me. I work late at night and staring into the concrete interior of a parking ramp (where I work) offers an interesting opportunity for contemplation.

My job at the parking ramp is cashier. In the large picture, it’s kind of a pointless job. With developing technology, it’s almost obsolete for all practical purposes. I sometimes envision myself working there in the future after the robots have taken over the job and my only purpose will be to wave and smile at the customers as they drive out. My job is merely representative of most of the pointless work humans occupy themselves with… but is it really pointless? Or is there some purpose being served that is less than obvious? Work is a ritual that sustains our society, the reality tunnel of our culture, of our entire civilization. From a practical perspective, most jobs could be eliminated and many things would run more smoothly and effectively without all the wasted effort of keeping people employed. But if all the pointless jobs were eliminated, there would be chaos with the masses of unemployed. Employing the mindless masses keeps them out of trouble and keeps them from revolting. Make them think their life actually has purpose. Still, a purpose is being served even if it’s simply maintaining social order. My point is that social order is merely the external facet of any given collective reality tunnel.

In PKD’s stories, the protagonist is often faced with a true reality that is hidden behind an apparent reality. This true reality isn’t somewhere else but is instead all around us. This is a gnostic vision of the kingdom on earth. PKD had a few spiritual visions which inspired his theologizing and his fiction writing. I too have had some visions that have made me question the status quo of normal reality.

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

“As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
~  J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur