Do We Inherit Our Phobias from Our Ancestors?

When thinking about where our phobias come from, perhaps we can pinpoint a certain moment in time. Perhaps a fear of the sea comes from a bad childhood experience in a swimming pool for example or a fear of dogs from having been bitten once. But what about those fears that we can’t recall?

Trans-generational Response

Exposure to certain events in one generation may impact future generations. Known as epigenetic inheritance, a study  found that children born to women who experienced trauma during the Rwandan genocide were more likely to inherit traits linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But this isn’t the only example of inheriting behavioural reflexes from our ancestors. Research on mammals with similar bodily functions to us suggests that some fears may just run in the family.

In one study for example, rats exposed to a specific smell followed by an electric shock quickly adapted a fight or flight response to the smell as they anticipated an electric shock. Following generations of these rats then had the same response as their ancestors to the same smell- even when they had no personal experience in the experiment.



Collective Unconsciousness

Developed by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, collective unconsciousness theory suggests that we’re all born with a collection of knowledge and images preinstalled in our minds. From observation, he theorised that humans, like animals, are born with certain sets of behaviour that can only be activated by specific environmental triggers. The responses these triggers prompt are innate and haven’t been learned during our lifetimes.

An example of this in action is a study looking at children’s first exposure to a rabbit and a snake. All 100 children responded with some degree of fear when exposed to the snake, refusing to touch it, whereas only two children refused to interact with the rabbit. According to Jung’s theory, the children must have inherited a collective unconscious memory from their common ancestors that triggered fear when they encountered the animals.

In Brief

To conclude, some of our actions and behaviours may come from inherited memories from our ancestors rather than things we have experienced ourselves. This in mind, certain phobias may in fact be inherited defence mechanisms laid down by our genes following an ancestors’ experience rather than a lesson you simply can’t recall.



Ndifor Judethaddeus

I am a seasoned Cameroonian and a citizen of Africa with a mind inquisitive enough to want to explore the world inside out. Formally educated in the health sciences but with the right amount of curiosity to explore beyond that. I am a great lover of technology with a soft spot in my heart for nature.