An Unavoidable Inheritance: Can Trauma Pass from One Generation to the Next?

We must return and claim our past in order to move toward the future. It is in understanding who we were that will free us to embrace who we are now.
—The meaning of Sankofa


Tamra Olsen-Harris has her mother’s eyes, her father’s smile, her grandmother’s name, and her great-great-great-grandfather’s trauma print. Tamra is 12 and lives in a distressed urban area in southwest Michigan. Along with 10 other young people from her neighborhood, she volunteered to participate in a community-based field study during which her brainwave functioning would be tracked, assessed, and improved.

The end goal was to help increase academic achievement and life success for African-American children who faced a number of challenges — lack of financial resources, parents who were ill or without jobs, occasional homelessness and neighborhood violence.

According to the analysis of the children’s brainwave functioning, it was found that people can inherit brain patterns from distant generations. Although the children were varied in ages and background, each of them exhibited an important similarity in brainwave function: Their brain patterns indicated that they were sympathetic dominant–based on right-side temporal-lobe brain function. Sympathetic dominance is most likely caused by a trauma of infringement — a situation in which a person is violated or stripped of their freedoms or rights as a human being. Rape, beatings, psychological abuse, and slavery certainly qualify as traumas of infringement.

“What we found was that each of these young people exhibited hypertension and a body mass index that would be classified as obese or near-obese,” says primary investigator Lee Gerdes, CEO and founder of Brain State Technologies and developer of brainwave optimization, an advanced neurotechnology that detects and assesses brainwave patterns and provides noninvasive audible neuro-oscillatory feedback to balance and harmonize brain function, which led to the study.

In its sympathetic-dominance mode, participants’ brains were directing them to remain vigilant and retain fat. “Above all else, the brain is wired to survive,” says Gerdes. The fight-or-flight dominance does not mean that they are constantly in fight-or-flight mode but that they are prone to that state with little or no outside stimulus. This over-activation is also indicative of accompanying hypertension, poor sleep and lack of focus and concentration.

“A history of abuse may ‘tune’ the nervous system to be cautious and prepared for defensive fight-or-flight behaviors, even when real danger does not exist,” writes Stephen Porges, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in “The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.”


“As we worked to achieve balance and harmony in brainwave functioning, hypertension decreased and dietary habits started to improve,” Gerdes says. “Try as you might to exacerbate these issues with diet and exercise, if the brain is working against you, it’s an uphill battle.” Think of people who emanate from a similar geographic, cultural, or historical background whose ancestors experienced years of war, conflict, chaos, or repression. “Show me chaos,” says Gerdes, “and I will show you how it manifests in people, and how those people pass it along to others.”

For Peter Sterling, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, “Hypertension seems to be more strongly associated with various sources of social distress than race per se.” Sterling explains that he first began to think about this issue while canvassing door-to-door in a blighted Cleveland neighborhood. “I noticed that many people who answered my knock were partially paralyzed — faces sagging on one side, walking with a limp and a crutch.” He wondered why a stroke — rare in his own neighborhood — was so prevalent in this poor, racially segregated area. He soon discovered the work of biologist Joseph Eyer, who had assembled epidemiological evidence that stroke, heart disease and hypertension have a correlation to forms of social disruption — that “physiology is indeed sensitive to social relations.”

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