Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Epigenetic Research, Healing, and the Global Village

How living with intention can transform people, communities, and the world.

Key points

  • The choices we make in our lives, over time, can alter our the way our DNA gets expressed.
  • Changes to the epigenome, a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed, can be passed down through multiple generations.
  • Living with intention and awareness is key to personal, collective, and multi-generational healing.
Unsplash / Clay Banks
Source: Unsplash / Clay Banks

The field of epigenetics has exploded in recent years, and for good reason. The more we understand about human behavior, trauma, and its transmission throughout future generations, the more epigenetic research shows that we’ve got work to do.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) describes epigenetics as the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.1While we may have inherited certain DNA from our biological parents, the choices we make in our lives in response to these genetics can alter the way our body reads a DNA sequence. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence.

In a recent interview, Ben Callif—neuroscientist and author of the book Organumics: An Epigenetic Reframing of Conscious, Life and Evolution—discussed the three dimensions of epigenetics as: “on top of (physically—as in DNA proteins),” “in addition to,” (with examples of traits and inheritance) and “above and beyond” such as language, culture and focused intentionality, much of which is changeable through increased awareness and consciousness-raising.

The CDC states that “while genetic changes can alter which protein is made, epigenetic changes affect gene expression to turn genes “on” and “off.” Since your environment and behaviors, such as diet and exercise, can result in epigenetic changes, it is easy to see the connection between your genes and your behaviors and environment.”2 Trauma and adverse childhood experiences can have similar effects, with documented studies showing altered DNA patterns in lab rats exposed to traumatic experiences.

In an article for Science Magazine, Andrew Curry chronicled stories of descendants of post-war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and children from Pakistani orphanages, alongside studies of noted biologist Michael Skinner at Washington State University. Curry stated that the hypothesis that an individual's experience might alter the cells and behavior of their children and grandchildren has become widely accepted, and that in animals, exposure to stress, cold, or high-fat diets has been shown to trigger metabolic changes in later generations.3 Similarly, Skinner’s research suggests changes to the epigenome, a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed, can be passed down through multiple generations.4

Rather than using the term “social circles,” Callif used the term “sphere of influence” to describe how our choices, behaviors, and interactions affect one other and the world we live in. In other words, our choices don’t only impact ourselves.

Callif shares. “If I pick up a smoking or drinking habit, it’s more likely that those in my sphere of influence will also start smoking or drinking. But the opposite is also true with good habits. If I decide to volunteer my time to a worthy cause or give my energy to something worthwhile, that ‘living by example’ also influences those in my sphere of influence—not just directly, but indirectly as well.” It’s very much about living with awareness and intention.

Callif is on the Board of Directors for the HIR Wellness Institute in Milwaukee Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to establish a social justice-informed, culturally rooted intergenerational healing community to help improve mental health and wellness outcomes for Indigenous and underserved populations. The institute’s motto is: “Illness becomes wellness when ‘I’ becomes ‘we.’”5 With a strong emphasis on healing intergenerational trauma and empowering future leaders, the institute is an Indigenous, women-led organization that seeks to impact the future by reversing systemic and oppressive systems and consciousness-raising.

As an adoptive mom who has seen the behavioral fallout of significant orphanage trauma on our own family system, the concept of collective wellness and healing resonates deeply. I have seen firsthand how the trauma of one affects an entire family system—and how that system impacts its surrounding environment. I know that it is near impossible to heal alone. I need connection. I need a sense of safety. I need a village.

If our direct and indirect experiences can have consequences that resound to our children and our children's children, that's a strong case against everything that causes trauma—from substance abuse to family disruption to policies that reinforce systemic poverty and racism. Likewise, when we begin to create interdependent, village-like, safe communities, we all begin to heal.

And, the more we understand about ourselves and those who came before us, the more equipped we will be to make better choices for the generations after us.

What Does This Mean Moving Forward?

If I begin to realize that my choices and the way I live my life impacts those around me, the magnitude of this responsibility calls me to live in accordance with an inner mandate that brings forth compassion—for myself, my family, and my sphere of influence. My personal healing is not just personal! Inner work radiates outward. Healing benefits everyone.

When I am able to see my history through a critical, retrospective lens, I am able to understand where my forbearers may have gone wrong and make corrections in my own life that are more aligned with healthier values and lifestyle choices that are better for all. The world I inhabit involves traumas and deeply-rooted hurts that I may have not created, but that I inherited. It is still my duty to heal—and to pass better ways on to all future generations.

Our intentions are powerful. So is knowledge. The more we understand about ourselves, the traumas we’ve inherited, and the hurt we may harbor, the greater our responsibility to harness this awareness for change. We truly are a global village. We must do our part to learn and to heal and to pave the way for all to be well.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What is Epigenetics?

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What is Epigenetics?

[3] Curry, Andrew. Science Magazine: A Painful Legacy: Parents' emotional trauma may change their children's biology-Studies in mice show how. 2019.

[4] Science Magazine: A Painful Legacy: Parents emotional trauma may change their children's biology-studies in mice show how. 2019.

5 HIR Wellness Institute

Callif, Ben. Organumics: An Epigenetic Reframing of Consciousness, Life and Evolution. S. Woodhouse Books/Everything Goes Media. 2019

Podcast Interview: Ben Callif: Epigenetic Research and its Role in Healing (Full Catastrophe Parenting)

More from Psychology Today

More from Chris Prange-Morgan M.A., MSW

More from Psychology Today