Mind Matters — From Family Therapy to Epigenetics

In my early years as a psychologist and family therapist, I had the good fortune to meet and learn from many pioneers of family therapy. Perhaps the grandfather of family therapy, Murray Bowen, and his theories captivated me the most. He did not just consider the individual, couple, or family in the session; he was interested in the inter-generational patterns in the family tree. He wanted to know who the great-grandparents, the grandparents, the parents were, both who was born and who died when and where. He derived emotional patterns in the facts of the family as they cascaded down the generations. Bowen intuited that there was a biological foundation in how the stresses, griefs, and traumas of one generation informed succeeding generations

Now, with the burgeoning field of epigenetics, Bowen’s theories prove true. Epigenetics is the study of the influence of the environment upon the genome—the individual’s DNA identity. No. Your DNA doesn’t change, but the environment does “tag” the various expressions of your genes, so that parts of your genome don’t get expressed. Geneticists, such as Randy Jirtle (see the July 24, 2007, PBS Nova program regarding Epigenetics, Ghost in Your Genes.) use this analogy: consider the genome (the particular DNA) of an individual to be like a computer, and the epigenome would be like the software.

So you can say, “Okay, big deal, I eat junk food or smoke cigarettes and debilitate my body. It’s my body, so what?” Well, the problem is what you do to your body that changes the biochemical expression of a gene gets passed down the generations. What our grandparents did does affect us. But it is not only what we or our grandparents did themselves, it is also what has been done to them or us that is especially profound psychologically. If our grandparents suffered traumas—wars, violence, poverty—the emotional effects are transmitted not just behaviorally, but in the expression of genetics.

That is the downside. The upside is that this epigenetic effect on the genome can be changed. This is where choice and awareness come in. We actually can heal the past—at least the DNA expression of our history—through psychotherapy, learning about our family mythology and transcending its constrictions, learning how to emotionally regulate and defuse our emotional reactivity. Turns out our bodies are more than ourselves! We truly are connected to the past and we can change the future generations by changing ourselves now.