Once Burnt, Twice Shy.

In research that was first reported about a year ago, scientists concluded that the ability of lab mice to inherit a conditioned fear response was due to a change to sperm DNA in the first generation of mice. This change was transmitted to their non-conditioned descendants, leading to brain structure alteration in the two subsequent generations, and a behavioral response (fear), which was demonstrated upon their first exposure to the same stimulus that the grandparent mice had experienced. An expert opinion was expressed that such results may be significant to the study of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and phobias.

What does this research mean for students of the First World War? We’re all aware of stories about soldiers who were executed for manifesting various forms of “cowardice” or desertion. These deaths made up but a small percentage of the war’s total fatalities, although for the condemned and their grieving families, their situation was 100 percent disastrous.

Could those unfortunates have been pre-conditioned, pre-conception, to react the way they did, by the wartime experiences of their fathers and/or grandfathers? Were any of those so affected survived by children or grandchildren? Have any of those descendants suffered in similar ways?


reidmayhew(Click on an image to read book review) 

As the books pictured above show, there is an interest in collecting and analyzing information about physical and mental trauma specific to the Great War, the first war which was fought on the basis of mass destruction. Of course, not every soldier was psychologically scarred, or even wounded in any other way, but in the opinion of one First World War veteran, “If anyone says he wasn’t afraid, he’s a damned liar.” And it was fear that that effected the DNA and brain changes that were linked to the conditioned response that the mice and their descendants manifested.

In many cultures, because men are generally bigger, stronger, and more overtly aggressive, they are also expected to be innately braver. But this research seems to indicate that “Father Nature” may be geared towards insuring survival of the fittest by genetically imprinting and transmitting the message, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” The scornful taunt, “Are you a man or a mouse?” loses its strength in light of what we now know about DNA, and what we’re learning about the genomes of mice and men.

Despite the epitaph that begins “Dulce et decorum est,” no war has ever been a piece of cake for its participants. Those of us whose fathers or grandfathers fought in any of the wars of the twentieth century may wonder how much of our own peacetime fight-or-flight response may be due to an unwitting (and surely unwilling) wartime neuro-psychological bequest.

But beyond some wag’s insensitive advice to “Choose your ancestors wisely,” what could possibly be done about it? There is a definite need for more research in this area. We need better ways to diagnose and treat anxiety, phobias and PTSD. To have an inkling of an etiology associated with an acquired genetic predisposition to fear, is a way forward.

The current research is also good news for novelists, because it supports the plausibility of various approaches that writers of psychological fiction can take, to portray behavior in their characters. Fiction can be a relatively non-threatening way for people to learn constructive things about behavior that is categorized as mental illness.

In the case of my writing, it strengthens the link between what happens to a character in my work-in-progress, The Passions of Patriots, and the behavior exhibited by his grandson in my first novel, Irish Firebrands. I’m a retired health care professional, so I have relevant education and experience in psychology, but as an “organic” or instinctive writer, this aspect of character development within and between my books was not planned, nor was it influenced by knowledge of any research into the phenomenon under discussion here.

Another expression of DNA, perhaps?

1 Comment

Filed under First World War, Great War, Uncategorized, World War I

One response to “Once Burnt, Twice Shy.

  1. Very thought provoking and informative! Thank you.


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