Question of the Week

Are memories encoded in our genes?

Sat, 5th Jun 2010

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Creatures in Colonies


Zachary, North Carolina asked:

Can our genes code for our memories?


We posed this question to Professor Wolf Reik from the Babraham Institute in Cambridge...

Wolf - This depends what kind of memories we’re talking about.  We work on epigenetic memory which is really the memory in the genome, epigenetic markers in the genome, and that can be passed on from cell to cell, so that cells, when they divide, basically remember what they were before.  This is going on all the time, this kind of epigenetic memory.  All of the cells that we have in our body carry this kind of memory of their identity, of what they are, of what tissue they are, and this is really important because if that memory goes wrong for example, the outcome can be cancer.

DNA fragmentAnd then, is it possible that the environment and things that we experience is laid down in memories in the brain? That’s certainly the case.  Is that through epigenetic mechanisms? Maybe.

Then to extend the question even further, is it possible that those memories that get laid down in the brain as part of an epigenetic mechanism could be inherited by our children and grandchildren?  I think that’s a big leap, kind of theoretically possible, but remember that brain cells are very specialised.  The things that get laid down in the brain cells predominantly happens after birth.

Diana -   So epigenetic memory can be inherited by cells and help them to become liver cells, heart cells, or even brain cells.  But the things we experience through life create memories and they're recorded in or between our brain cells, and brain cells would’ve divided following the instructions from their epigenetic memory.  But this epigenetic memory would’ve been written before your parents had collected any memories in the first place.

Wolf -   And at that point, the germ cells, the egg or the sperm which then transmit the genetic and epigenetic information to children and grandchildren are already formed, and are far away from the brain.  And so, the short answer is that the things that happen to the brain, and may even involve epigenetic mechanisms to consolidate memory, in my view are not so likely to be passed on to our children and grandchildren.

Diana -   Perhaps you can inherit epigenetic memory from your parents, but not memories from their very varied and interesting lives.  There has been quite a bit of research on worm epigenetics.  A team in Massachusetts in the USA found that worms which experience stress whilst developing would pass on different epigenetic information to its offspring than those which had been happy larvae.  And some people think that humans who underwent stresses like malnutrition during development might pass their epigenetics onto future offspring too.


Subscribe Free

Related Content


Make a comment

Good morning.
the great psycho-analyst Carl G. Jung thinks we do inherit memories, and he coined the phrase "collective unconscious".
He noticed people had fears of snakes, which tree-dwelling animals would have in order to live longer lives. In contrast, such modern dangers as electrical cables and cigarette smoke do not cause us to avert them.
Furthermore, when people talked of their nightmares, they usually talked of being followed by bears, of monsters in their closet or under their beds. Again, such fears are out-of-place in modern society, but were likely life-saving fears when our predecessors had an arboreal life.
I wonder if subtle preferences we are born with (predeliction for and against certain foods, temperature ranges, smells, etc) are shared through generations, and will lead us to choose occupations and geographical areas to live. This could be confused with the idea of inheriting memories from our parents and grand parents.
- John Berger diverjohn, Wed, 2nd Jun 2010

That's a very interesting theory; do you have a reference for it?

Chris chris, Wed, 2nd Jun 2010

Dr Chris:
My good friend Dr Zeljko Matijevic is a Jungian Analyst living in Calgary, Canada.
He was my reference for this idea of collective unconscious and universal memory.
Sorry I don't have a publication to reference to, but you can find Dr Matijevic in the Jungian directory at
John diverjohn, Fri, 4th Jun 2010

Humans only seem to exhibit a few instinctive actions, many of which seem to disappear not long after we are born. Other mammals are instinctively able to perform highly complex actions (like running for example) almost as soon as they are born, so it might not be unreasonable to think that humans could inherit complex subconscious reactions to situations that could be very important to survival.

A subconscious reaction may not exactly constitute a "memory", but the subconscious is so powerful that I would think our minds are quite capable of constructing a scenario in response to powerful prompts from the subconscious.  Geezer, Fri, 4th Jun 2010

Dr. Chris, how about looking into the prospect of child prodigies?
A prime example of some memory connection may be sown into Human DNA sometimes. Even if the subject, (skill), was given to the child in lessons, the fact is that he had learned it so quickly.
Unknown kwirk of knowing how to learn, stored in some form of memory?
I Googled "child prodigies" and picked a reference. tommya300, Fri, 4th Jun 2010 imatfaal, Sat, 5th Jun 2010

Aren't memories handed down in our genes called "instincts?" Perhaps you don't think of instincts as proper memories but isn't that exactly what they are?

Most animals are ruled by them. It's how they survive. How does a salmon know where to go to spawn and when to do it? How does a goose know when it's time to fly south and where it needs to fly to? How does a baby deer know how to walk? How does a human baby know to suckle to get food?

All of these are things the animal is born knowing how to do. Isn't that "memory."

I don't think memories like my Grandfather's experience in the Pacific war can be handed down. Or the day My parents met (or nearly met about a year before that) If it could it might change how we see history.... mountaineirc1969, Sun, 6th Jun 2010

Funny you should choose your grandfather's experience in the war as an example; it seems that IS possible! 

The children born during the Dutch Famine during the second world war seem to have marked epigenetic changes(changed DNA Methylation).  These children who were in utero during the famine seem able to pass some of the acquired changes on to their progeny via epi-genetic changes to their DNA
Newspaper Story
Article in PNAS

Matthew imatfaal, Mon, 7th Jun 2010

"Planarian flatworms were thought to have genetic memory based on a certain experiment. One worm was taught to navigate a maze, then ground up and fed to a second worm. This second worm would then navigate the maze as well as the first with no practice. Later experiments proved that the second worm was following a scent trail; when placed in an identical but unused maze it showed no sign of the supposed genetic memory. Why? Because the second batch of worms in the original maze were simply following the scent/slime trails left by their predecessors. A similar story has it that the second worm "ran a maze" faster (in this case, learned to associate a bright light with a shock) simply because it was better fed." yor_on, Wed, 8th Sep 2010

Instinct as previously suggest, I would agree is inherited.
Doesn't every cell in our body have a memory?

There are records for patients who have had transplants who experience memories of the donor.

echochartruse, Thu, 23rd Sep 2010

How many reported times have people been known to experience the doners memories.
p.s that would have to be the scariest/wierdest/most saddening thing ever! tangoblue, Sat, 16th Oct 2010

i have some of my mothers childhood memories. I freaked her out when i told her about what I saw and how I was feeling. Remembering what seemed like I was there and it was my thoughts, I had lived. She died 9 years ago, and more memories keep coming up. They are like picture snapshots, with thoughts and smells but no sound so far. james, Tue, 6th Dec 2011

See the whole discussion | Make a comment

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society