Sunday, January 6, 2013

Can I share memories of ancestors?

Why do I have such a strong feeling of "belonging" in Italy?
In my reading about genealogy in general and my interviews with cousins, some recurring themes keep popping up. Many people report feeling a strong connection to their past, stating that they feel extremely “at home” when they visit their country of origin, even though they have never been there before. Some report a strong sense of déjà vu when they visit the villages of their ancestors.

I recently visited with cousin Donald Spadoni of Seattle, and he experienced this during his three trips to Italy. His feelings intensified the closer he came to his ancestors’ home ground.

“It was the damndest feeling,” he said. “If you’d have asked me if I’d been there before, I would have said yes. I felt like I’d lived there. I was like I’d walked into my home, where I belonged. I just had this feeling that I fit in.”

Actor and author Isaiah Washington, in his book “A Man from Another Land,” describes how he had a recurring dream since childhood of walking a certain path through a green jungle and ending up in an African village. He had it so often that he called it his “rerun.” As an adult, he underwent DNA testing which determined he shared 99.9 percent ancestry with the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone on his maternal side. Prompted by this discovery, he took a trip to Sierra Leone, and while there, he found himself walking along a path just like the one in his dreams.

This experience led him to believe that the scene he dreamed about had been passed on to him genetically through his mother’s DNA. He sought out the opinion of a prominent neurosurgeon, Dr. Keith Black, whose opinion confirmed Washington’s belief that genetic memories were possible.

This led me to an Internet search of the topic, where I found, as one might suspect, widely varying views. Few of the opinions, however, are based on scientific evidence—mainly because Washington’s belief is untestable. All evidence is basically anecdotal. Even those who strongly disagree that memories can be passed on genetically offered no real evidence other than generalities such as “it is not scientifically possible for DNA to transmit memories.”

Researchers have observed that elephants seem to
be able to find watering holes accessed by their ancestors
without ever having been there. Is this a genetic memory
or random chance, or can elephants perhaps smell water?
In all the discussions and research cited, no one denies that animals have instincts that could be classified as genetic memory. Anyone who has watched a few documentaries on the Nature channel can attest to the amazing instincts of even the lowest life forms. Humans, however, seem to have fewer and weaker instincts than less complex species. Grasp, suck and startle reflexes are commonly cited as examples of human instincts, as is an aversion to heights. However, this is a long way from accepting that I can recall actual images from the past lives of my ancestors.

Count me a skeptic on both sides of the argument. So little is known about how the brain and DNA actually work that I can’t discount the possibility of genetic memories, but I also know that proving something from anecdotal accounts alone is a slippery path. I doubt that any evidence gathered in my lifetime will settle this question, so I will keep an open mind. Granted, it is an interesting topic to study and ponder.

It is true that I feel comfortable and at home in Italy, and I have a definite fondness for the culture. I honestly don’t have a clue if this is because of environmental or inherited reasons, and in the end the reason is not really very important to me. In the meantime, I will likely keep visiting Italy and exploring its culture and history and my ancestry until the day I die—and for some reason enjoy every moment of it.


  1. I guess setting aside the "why" a feeling of connection is made and just enjoying the connection is a good path to take

  2. I recently started researching my ancestry. Very little information was past down about my family history before my grandparents. As I discovered more about where my ancestors traveled and originated from I had many "Aha" moments. I finally realized why I liked certain things, like styles of home design, places I wanted to visit overseas. For example, my parents are from the Caribbean. On my bucket list is a visit to Venice, like I cannot die until I go there. With my research, I discovered that one of my ancestors was from Venice. She married a man from Portugal and moved there. Their children immigrated from Portugal to South America and then further moved on to finally settle in the Caribbean. I believe there is something to it. We must carry some sense of their experiences in our DNA and this is what makes up our temperment. DD


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