On rearing decent people: how the imprint works

A kid acts up and acts out and we ask, “who does he take after, his mom or dad?”  Maybe his grandmother? Or maybe none of them or all of them. I will need to explain. The point I am going to make is that we are pretty much driven not so much by our genes but by our epigenes; that is, what happens to our genes as we mature. Because experience, especially while we live in the womb, channels those genes into diverse circuits, turns them on or off, and generally, controls their behavior.

Is it nature or nurture? It is what happens to nature through our nurture, and that is not a play on words. What happens to us early on doesn’t change our genes but changes how and when and if they are expressed. And there are chemical processes that help explain all this, as well. I won’t make this complicated but it helps us understand ourselves and others if we take a little effort to suss  out how this all works.

So it is not surprising how signals from the environment change the expression of our genes. What may be surprising is how early all that takes place; from the earliest months after conception on. The fetus (and embryo) changes according to its environment; we are too used to thinking about environment as what happens on the playground, in school or at home. But what is crucial is that the mother is the key and only environment for the fetus in the womb.

What happens to the mother happens to the baby, as well. When she is anxious her stress chemicals are dumped stressful environment throughout his life, and it doesn’t take much later on to set him off. His latent stress level is already very high. When the mother is depressed the fetus can be down-regulated so that many of his biochemicals are also depressed. He will be in the “hypo” mode where his vital signs are low and there may not be enough key chemicals, such as thyroid, produced. His physiology duplicates his mother’s. He is a reticent and diffident child with little aggression, diminished energy and drive and little enthusiasm for life.

Chronic stress in the womb, a mother constantly in a state of anxiety, causes more methylation which suppresses key gene activity; thus those cells which should be active against stress are dampened. And the baby and later adult lives on a runaway train, charging forth, unable to contain himself and his impulses. I have been writing about the imprint for over forty years. It is how early experience becomes engraved in our system and endures, driving behavior and symptoms for years to come. We now know a bit more about that imprint. It is a chemical signature, actually two of them. One is methylation, and the other is acetylation.

Very early on when there is stress, the carrying mother and father are arguing all of the time, there is the release of part of the methyl group which attaches to the DNA of the baby. It is like a “stop” or “caution” signal that says, “go slow,” “hold back,”  “do not express yourself.” It “speaks” in biochemistry but it still speaks; it just has not words for it as yet. There will be words for it years later.

Meanwhile, when there is serious trauma while we are being carried the genes are being methylated; and once that happens there is a greater tendency to depression and suicide later on. In the brain study of suicide cases there was a much greater incidence of methylation of the genes that turn off stress than those who died of other reasons. It would seem that in stressed babies there may not be enough steroid chemicals  to overcome the methylation, and then there is overt anxiety. The stress system is in overdrive and cannot adjust properly. It may be that there is insufficient serotonin secreted to bind or gate the stress.

Higher levels of methylation adversely affect the output of serotonin. We need serotonin to help in repression and gating in order to keep us feeling comfortable. What analysis of serotonin often reveals is not only trauma but the fact that it is unresolved. I believe we have found a way to resolve pain.

In early loss of a mother or in early abuse there is increased  methylation. And I wonder if when we resolve those pains we also decrease  or reverse methylation. It is true that genes and epigenes change us but it may also be true that we change them. And then they are visited upon our offspring. One thing has been found. If deprived animal babies are later licked a lot  by their mothers there is a reversal of methylation.

In short, methylation is one major factor in the imprint that I have been putting forth, lo these many years. It endures and can cause major serious symptoms as we go through life. Not the least of these is cancer. Cancer cells most often have changes in the epigenomes which become abnormal; that is, there seems to be trauma to the cells that may cause them to go out of control. Cells that ordinarily prevent the appearance of cancer are heavily methylated  and less efficient while the genes for cancer cells themselves seem to be less methylated. So we have a reverse function; cells which should shut off do not, and cells which should be functioning are not. We do not want a “go” in developing cancer cells. But the fact that these cells that should control cancer are heavily methylated means to me that trauma plays an important part in the development of cancer. Remember methylation is in response to adversity, to trauma and unhappy circumstances.

There is also a “go” signal that can attach, as well. It is called acetylation, and the genes are infused with acetyl chemicals. The “gates” are more open and there is greater expression, for the moment. That is, activation is enhanced. So we seem to have repressor activity (methyl), and activating processes (acetyl). Love, or positive rapport, tends to enhance acetyl production (animals who were licked a lot after birth by their mothers). And it can sometimes overcome an excess of methylation.

The point in all this is that early life trauma can change the baby for a lifetime. It puts an indelible tag on the cells. We are thereafter programmed. It is now a memory trace; an embedded memory that affects so many aspects of our neurophysiology. This methylation is a record of our past, our history of adversity. Remember, it is not just a tag affecting recall of early life circumstance, impacting only the top level cortical memory processes. It is neurophysiologic, with its effects everywhere in our system.

When we remember trauma it needs to be physiologic, as well. And it is that kind of memory that is resolving and curative. Because it is the embedded memory we are after, not the detached, disembodied, eviscerated, devitalized, etiolated memory that is never resolving. How we behave, in short, gives us clear clues to what happened to us very early in our history. We need to examine that history and experienced it; not just the subsequent behaviors.

We behave according to the imprint; and we will not make major changes until we revisit the origins of that imprint. It can be done.

Dr. Arthur Janov is the founder and director of The Primal Center in Los Angeles, California. He holds a PhD in psychology from Claremont Graduate School, where he is in the Academic Hall of Fame. He is the author of ten books, including the best seller The Primal Scream and his newest book Life Before Birth. Dr. Janov has lectured at the Royal College of Medicine in London, Hunter College in New York, and Karolinska Medical and Research Center in Stockholm. His work has been the subject of a PBS special in the United States and documentaries in Germany, England, France, and Sweden. He has presented research to the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C., and The American Association for the Advancement of Science. For additional information please visit: http://www.primaltherapy.com/