When it comes to human experiences, is ‘following the science’ always the right way to act?

For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.

Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.

My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.

But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war by Abram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.

During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language. 

The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III). 

For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.

Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health… 

I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.

I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talkFacing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?  

Related links:

The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come

Understanding and healing collective trauma – Thomas Hübl

Dr Gabor Maté: Transgenerational trauma, stressed environment and child’s diagnosis

Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

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