Ancestral Memory Is It Fact or Fiction?

I recently posted a blog about what makes us feel connected and this prompted a lot of debate amongst my friends, you can read the original blog here:

What Makes You Feel Connected

In the blog I talked about how I felt a sixth sense and a connection to places that I had visited that I couldn’t explain and this was before I had established a genuine family connection to the area. So that started me thinking about whether this was a genuine feeling that I had and a real feeling of Deja-Vu or was I imagining it all.

Like a games console or laptop does our brain come with some memories already ‘pre-installed’?

So I did what I normally do in these situations, I asked my genealogy friends whether they also felt the same as me, an unexplained sense of belonging to a place or places that they couldn’t explain. The overwhelming response to this question was a resounding yes, people did find they had an unexplained connection to an ancestral home or place. So how can we explain this?

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Our normal way of expressing this type of connection is by saying “that’s spooky”, or that’s a “sixth sense”, but is there something more going on? How do you explain it when you clearly know something that you haven’t previously learnt before? Is there really such a thing as ‘ancestral memory’ and are these feelings that we experience inherited via our DNA? Are the imprints of our ancestors memories and experiences handed down to us via our DNA, or is that just a bit of wishful thinking? There have been lots of scientific studies on the subject, far too many to quote here and this is not the purpose of the blog. All I am merely suggesting and wondering is if anyone else has the same feeling as me, something inside you that you can’t explain or put your finger on it, call it a ‘gut instinct’. Is it possible for us to be born with the memories and experiences of our ancestors imprinted in our DNA? If that’s the case do some of us have the power to unlock those memories whereas the rest of us are unable to access those memories. We inherit so many physical attributes via our DNA, why then shouldn’t our memories also be part of what is passed down through our genes? Our lives can be shaped and affected on a daily basis by the environment in which we grow up in and our surroundings, so why can’t our previous ancestors experiences also be a part of this? In the main we are used to thinking of such past experiences as being limited to this lifetime. Does Ancestral Memory open the possibility that the unconscious mind has access to reference experiences stretching back several generations?

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Some people receive family heirlooms from their ancestors, precious keepsakes of sentimental value, old photographs, and other mementos which are passed down from generation to generation. But could we be inheriting much more from our grandparents than the contents of their attic, are we also inheriting some of their memories, fears, and behaviours, passed down genetically through their genes to us.

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We often compare our familial looks across the generations and also family traits and characteristic, I do it with my own son and daughter all the time. The way they look, or their response to a situation, they way they speak, I can clearly see in both of them characteristics from both myself and my wife. But can they inherit ancestral memory from myself or my wife? In a similar way that the nature versus nurture argument continues, is it possible for my children to inherit my memories and experiences? Is it possible for these experiences to be passed down in our genes? Is it more than just feelings and emotions? Can we also inherit our ancestors skills as well? Are we more naturally gifted at certain things because we have an imprint from a previous ancestor? We often hear the phrase “he or she is a naturally gifted sportsman”, what if there was more to it than just that, what if their supposed ‘natural talent’ was because a previous ancestor has left an imprint in their DNA. If you watched the Mark Wright episode of WDYTYA, then you will have seen so many examples in this one episode of unexplained connections in Mark’s family tree to his life today. Is this just a coincidence or Ancestral Memory?

Of course the scientific studies that I mentioned earlier only form one part of the argument, there are also plenty of real life experiences from each and everyone of us, that we put down as an unexplained coincidence or something ‘spooky”. I am a firm believer that we can inherit these feelings and emotions through our DNA or Ancestral Memory. Of course this can be both good experiences as well as bad and can include emotional trauma. When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered immense grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and it’s human nature; when pain is too great, for the human body to suppress it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the natural healing process. Are we then storing that pain and grief for a future generation? Can that pain resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain in our descendants? Many will argue that the transmission of intergenerational trauma is passed from generation to generation in the form of storytelling and the sharing of experiences and that these memories are handed down and are more associated with recollections than imprinted memory. However, although this sharing has a large role in inherited trauma, it does not fully explain why individuals can still show signs of historical trauma. There is also strong scientific evidence that suggests that inherited phobias can be passed from generation to generation via our ancestral memory. Do you have shared phobias within your own family tree?

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Now many of you will have a different opinion to me on this subject and you will have different memories based on your own unique life experiences, but how do we explain these unusual coincidences? It’s a fascinating subject to study and given my time again I would have loved to have studied this field a lot more. Have I got all the answers, sadly of course not.

Can we categorically prove or disprove some of the rational and theories surrounding this subject, probably not conclusively. Is there enough evidence to suggest that there is something in this after all, probably yes. As a family historian we are of course used to dealing with evidence and proving something ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, so this topic might not sit naturally with the way that we are programmed to think as researchers. But you just have to love a bit of ‘spooky co-incidence’ or unexplained happenings………now I call that Ancestral Memory.

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So let me share with just one example which was sent to me by my good friend Monique, here is her story written in her own words.

Before I was really into genealogy, I started dating a guy from Ireland, just weeks into dating he brought me to Ireland to meet his father, being the gentleman he gave me the window seat on the flight from Stansted to Knock. I knew my great-grand parents originated in Ireland, but that’s it. So looking out the window as we came into land, a huge huge rush of emotion overcame me, I felt it in my heart, throat, head, a complete and utter overwhelming rush, I just blurted out as I looked out of the window “oh my god I love it here, I need to live here, I have to be here!”

“Steady on says my fella, that’s Mayo you haven’t seen Galway yet”. I sat in tears at the joy I felt but didn’t know why. Every single time we come into that airport and I looked outside it was exactly the same. Roll on 5 years to 2017, we are married and living in Ireland. I have time on my hands and throw myself into genealogy. I took a DNA test and it showed connections and ethnicity linked too Mayo, just in the area the airport is. I contact some long lost cousins in Australia and they come to Ireland to meet me. They have a map, which their great-grandfather had drawn for his daughter, their grandmother, who was emigrating to Australia, just in case she ever got back home to Ireland, we follow winding roads, dirt track roads which lead to the ruins of a small holding. Their Great-grandfather and my Great-grandfather were brothers who lived in that small holding, the men both left Ireland in about 1873 and never returned. So we find the house on the map, we then look at google maps to see where its is and you’ve guessed it, its at the perimeter of the airport runway, about 20ft from fence.

So I will let you be the judge of what you think might have happened here………….

The power and capacity of the human brain is almost immeasurable and its capacity to learn, grow, and heal goes beyond the boundaries of science and what we know today.

So it’s over to you, what do you think, fact or fiction and have you experienced something like this yourself? If so I would love to hear from you about some of your shared experiences.

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23 thoughts on “Ancestral Memory Is It Fact or Fiction?

  1. Well done, Paul – what a thought-provoking article! I agree with you that there is something to this ancestral memory phenomenon – there are too many deja vu and coincidental happenings for us to dismiss them out of hand. I, too, feel very much at home visiting certain places in England and Denmark, countries where my parents and ancestors were born. I do get a lot of comfort hearing my Danish relatives speak – even if I can’t completely understand the language, it’s just a nice thing to have fill the room – it makes me feel safe and happy. Perhaps it’s just having relatives close by that means a lot, perhaps it’s sensing those who walked this earth before us. Regardless, the pull of genealogy and family history is likely based upon these types of memories – and perhaps those of us so involved in this fascinating hobby and industry are descendants of people who felt the exact same way. Technology has changed, but the basic principles have not: ancestors helped pave the way for our lives today and we need to learn about both their sacrifices and successes. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thank you so much Lynne for your comments and I’m pleased to hear that you share similar views to my own. Like you suggest there are just too many of these occurrences for it just to be a coincidence. Memory can come from all our senses and it’s interesting to hear your views on the Danish spoken words. Nobody before has touched on the sound aspect. That feeling when you walk in your ancestors footsteps truly is a unique feeling and I would urge anyone who hasn’t visited their ancestral home before to do so, it really does give you a very special feeling indeed!

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  2. I’ve wondered this myself. I experienced at the age of 40 when I came to live for here for grad school and it was the first time I ever felt like I was home and have lived here ever since. It was just a ‘knowing’ no adapting to life here just finally arriving in my real home

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      1. When I decided to stay here my mom told me my father had spent a short time here as a young student here at the university because his father wanted him to go to school here and left before finishing. I never knew and he had passed by the time I moved here so I could never ask him about it

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  3. Thank you Paul for this article. It certainly touched a spot within me. Many years ago in 1956 my paternal grandparents moved from Lancashire to the Isle of Man. My mother decided to take us on holiday to visit them. Aged 11 I’d never been in a plane before and we flew from Liverpool the short journey to Ronaldsway airport, Isle of Man. As we were descending on approach to the Island, the mist surrounding the Isle lifted and I had exactly the same feeling that the lady in your article had. I burst into tears and told my mother that I had come ‘home’. I had this feeling that this where I belonged but was unable to explain why.
    Every time I visited my grandparents in the school holidays I had this same unexplainable feeling of coming home as we approached the Island.
    Fast forward 50 years. I am now a genealogy buff, struggling to find details of my great grandparents on my maternal side of the family. The joy I had when I sent for the marriage certificate of my great grandfather William Little when I saw the maiden name of his wife, “Quine” I immediately knew where her roots lay.
    The census confirmed her father was William Quine, place of birth, Braddan, Isle of Man!
    Deep joy. I had known this for 50 years, unknown/ forgotten in time. But something inside me knew.
    I have had this feeling once since, when I was in Cork Ireland. Yes, I have traced family back to the Beara via DNA matches, still searching but I think I already have the answer.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your story with me Pat it’s a very powerful example of exactly what I have written about in my blog. You really can’t explain the power of these connections unless you have experienced them yourself. The fact that there is such a big time gap between your two moments makes your story all the more poignant and significant

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  4. Dear Paul
    I totally agree that there is inherited memory. A few years ago, when our son, Gwilym, was living in London he was returning to live back here in Cheshire. I did the research for houses and then Gwilym chose the ones he wished to look at. I honed in on a cottage in Haslington. We went to view it and as soon as I walked in I felt at home. Gwilym felt the same.He purchased it.It needs an awful amount of work and unfortunately life has intervened and the renovation has been put on hold but we both still love it. (I did research its history and it was built around 1873).Now I do not know of any history which we have with either the cottage or Haslington but we both feel a connection to that cottage.
    This is just one instance and there are other things throughout my life, down to little habits which I have which I find myself doing which my Mum also used to do.
    Such a sensitive blog Paul. Thank you
    Ann Simcock

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    1. Thank you Ann for sharing that with me it’s nice to know that others feel a similar connection to me with ancestral homes and places. It really is more than just a coincidence, these connections go a lot deeper than that. In another weird coincidence my daughter lived in a listed cottage in Haslington for around six months. I live ten minutes from Haslington myself

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  5. Interesting article Paul. As you know I’m a sceptic, in as much as DNA just does two things, it either produces specific proteins via RNA or acts as a switch to turn protein producing functions on or off, that’s it, there is no “storage” of data other than how to make a protein, or how to turn another gene on or off. Everything else that makes us up comes from highly complex interactions of electro-chemical transmissions in the brain and learned reactions from environmental factors. Depending on our intelligence and self-awareness we can control some of the brain chemistry, via our reactions to it. This doesn’t mean that emotional reactions to things, and the need to rationalise them doesn’t exist, as the stories above show, but they aren’t memories stored in genes. I’ve had the feeling myself, it is an absolutely normal emotional reaction to a sensory input on our emotions, that we then try to rationalise. But it’s just Brain Chemistry at the end of the day.

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    1. Thanks Paul really appreciate your thoughts somebody else rationalised this thought processes as a balance of probability.

      Coincidence and probability are very poorly understood, because we naturally see events after they happen, rather than before.

      There are millions of things that could potentially happen. Call this number N.
      The chance (probability) of any one of them actually happening is tiny. Call this p.

      N is a massive number, and p is tiny, but multiplying them together can give a large number, because N is so big.

      This means that the chance of “something” really unusual happening is actually quite high.
      and that coincidences will definitely occur. It would be really amazing if coincidences never happened.

      Because we only recognise a coincidence, or a surprising event AFTER it happens, we ignore all the other that could have happened but never did

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  6. yeah, give a virus long enough and you end up with mankind. 🙂 It’s the same reason people don’t understand evolution; things happen because they happen, anything behaviourally or genetically that doesn’t end in disaster before an organism mates, generally gets passed on irrespective of whether it is advantageous or not, therefore evolution isn’t heading anywhere, it’s just happening to genetic lines that haven’t ended in disaster yet. There’s an uplifting thought!

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