The Homo Scientificus blog looks at the ways Science and Culture intersect in everyday life.
I recently came across a really compelling short film called Turned. Directed by Danish filmmaker Anders Walter, it’s a Bildungsroman that centers on the toxic relationship between a young man and his alcoholic father.
Kasper (played by Sylvester Byder) and his father, Mickael (played by Jacob Lohmann), share a bond that is built around race car driving. It is obviously something Kasper excels at and he may even have future in the sport. However, it becomes clear that the facing aspirations are his father’s and not his own. What once was probably a source of enjoyment has now become a chore.
Mickael is the domineering parent that can be found in just about every organized sports league all over the world. Whether he’s living vicariously through Kasper or merely demands his son succeed in the opportunity he and his wife provide is irrelevant. The result is the same, as is the psychological damage it causes. He pressures. He guilts. He suffocates.
Making matters worse, Mickael is an alcoholic prone to physically abusing his family. One of Kasper’s earliest memories involves seeing his parents arguing in a parked car. The altercation ended with Mickael smashing his wife’s head into the passenger seat window, shattering it in the process. The spider web of cracks radiating out from the point of impact clearly mirrors Kasper’s psyche. When the grown-up Kasper informs his father he no longer wants to race so that he can focus on his studies, his request is met with violence. Clearly, for mother and son, it is a common occurrence.
Kasper’s girlfriend, Veronika (played by Clara Rosager) figures significantly in his desire for more independence. She serves as a sounding board, a source for advice, and an inspiration for change. Yet, it’s unclear whether Kasper can ever truly escape the trauma that has plagued his life probably even before he was born.
The relationship between Kasper and Mickael is defined by trauma. The violence in Turned functions on many levels. It is physical and emotional and psychological. Not only that, it is also genetic.
Chances are, Mickael’s alcoholism isn’t the product of some weakness in his personality. Studies have observed the familial aspect of alcohol addiction for a very long time. While the environment certainly plays a role in perpetuating the behavior in families, there’s also an undeniable genetics element to it. Alcoholism can be passed from one generation to the next. This passage from a study, “Genetics and Alcoholism”, succinctly sums up the current consensus surrounding
Many independent lines of evidence point to genetic contributions to its etiology. Adoption studies show that alcoholism in adoptees correlates more strongly with their biological parents than their adoptive parents. Twin studies in the US and Europe suggest that approximately 45-65% of the liability is due to genetic factors. Animal studies also demonstrate genetic liability; mice and rats have been selectively bred for many traits associated with alcohol dependence, including alcohol preference, alcohol sensitivity, and withdrawal sensitivity.
While scientists have identified a number of genes associated with alcoholism, it’s important to stress that there isn’t any single gene for responsible for the phenotype. Advances in genetics have essentially refuted the one gene = one trait paradigm. On the contrary, a complex interaction of different genes result in the development of traits.
The second form of genetic trauma featured in Turned is just as insidious. Advances in the field of epigenetics have illuminated that in certain circumstances, acquired traits can be passed from parent to offspring. Recent studies have shown that the effects of significant trauma can be inherited via different pathways.
One study looked at maternal stress during pregnancy and its effects on offspring. The researchers found emotional disorders in 2-year old girls whose mothers experienced significant stress while carrying. In this case, hormonal changes altered fetal brain development.
Higher maternal cortisol during pregnancy was linked to alterations in the newborns' functional brain connectivity, affecting how different brain regions can communicate with each other," said Dr. Buss. The altered connectivity involved a brain region important for emotion processing, the amygdala. This pattern of brain connectivity predicted anxious and depressive-like symptoms two years later.
Another study done investigating the inheritability of trauma involved Holocaust survivors. Prof. Amit Shrira, of Bar-Ilan University’s Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, studied more than 187 dyads of parents. Some had survived the Holocaust and the others weren’t exposed to the Holocaust. Shrira then studied the adult offspring of both groups (374 individuals in total).
Shrira found that Holocaust survivors with signs of PTSD and their offspring reported more unhealthy behavior, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity, compared to those with no signs of PTSD or no exposure to the Holocaust and their offspring. Additionally, Holocaust survivors with signs of PTSD and their offspring reported more medical conditions and disability, which suggests a less successful aging process.
The tragedy of Kasper’s plight in Turned is that he will never escape the countless traumas that have plagued him since he was a child. No amount of separation from his father can overcome the genetic predispositions he inherited. They will always be lurking in the shadows. Fortunately, as the saying goes, genetics is not destiny.
WORDS: Marc Landas