THE 4 UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF HEALTH
3: The Imprint Principle
Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellog was 20 years old when he left home in Connecticut to lead the 16th Regiment in the American Civil War. Kellogg and his men were psychologically unprepared for what was to come. A month after leaving home, Kellogg and the men of the 16th fought in the bloody battle of Antietam, one of the most gruesome battles in American History.
He was captured during the battle and brought to the Andersonville Prison in southern Georgia. As guards escorted Kellog through the gates of Andersonville, he immediately knew something was wrong. Kellogg is one of the few men to witness the horrors of a Civil War prison camp and live to write about it.
“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror. Before we formed, that had once been stalwart men, now nothing but walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men exclaimed earnestly, ‘Can this be hell?’ It was a blessed transformation to those who went from such a miserable existence here on earth to a glorious one above.”
A day’s food rations for prisoners were a pint of cornmeal, two ounces of musty bacon, and a pinch of salt. Worse was the cleanliness and sanitation that caused outbreaks of scurvy and dysentery. After only two days, Kellog was covered in lice, with nowhere to bathe. Four hundred thousand men like Kellog were imprisoned in similar conditions throughout the great war.
In 2018, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in the National Academy of Sciences that found the horrendous conditions of Civil War prison camps affected not only the prisoners, but even their children. Specifically, they found that sons of Union Army soldiers who endured grueling conditions as prisoners of war were as much as 1.2 times as likely to die young than the sons of soldiers who were not prisoners. Oddly, these children had not experienced the horrors of the war directly. They were born after the war. This was a curious discovery.
The researchers were diligent and precise; they controlled for other factors that may have influenced the findings, like socioeconomic status and the quality of the parents’ marriages. They concluded the increased mortality rates of these children must be linked to their parent’s traumatic experiences in the prison camps. In other words, they concluded the trauma of the Civil War was being passed down between generations. This phenomenon has come to be known as “intergenerational trauma.”
The study of Civil War prisoners was one of the first in an expansive field of study on intergenerational trauma. The “Hunger Winter” studies in the Netherlands in 1944 showed that babies conceived during a particularly brutal winter famine, when people were eating 400 to 800 calories per day, were more likely to have heart disease as adults. In 2016, Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai hospital found that Holocaust survivors and their children had evidence of altered DNA on a region of a gene associated with stress, suggesting that the survivors’ trauma was passed on to their children.
Intergenerational trauma isn’t just a human phenomenon. In one study, researchers taught mice to fear the smell of cherries when researchers linked it with an electric shock. The mice’s children and grandchildren also showed signs of anxiety when exposed to the scent of cherry, even though they had never “learned” the painful association in their lifetime.
Researchers of intergenerational trauma have since proved that instances of trauma alter the very structure of our DNA. It happens through something called epigenetics, or the process by which genes are switched on and off. Intergenerational trauma and Epigenetics validate something that seems obvious from a broader vantage point; our genetic code is not fixed; that it responds to the environment around it. Darwin taught us our genetics evolve from lifetime to lifetime. Epigenetics teaches us that our genes evolve even within a single lifetime.
These are all extreme examples of a basic force that shapes the very nature of life; every event we experience gets imprinted and stored in our mind & body, creates how we experience ourselves, and directly experiences our genetic expression.
Extreme examples like the Civil War or the Holocaust show imprints with statistically significant research. But on a subtler level, imprints are happening to us all the time. Every time you smoke a cigarette or eat a store-bought pizza, it gets stored somewhere in your body/mind. It forms a new expression of your DNA, connects a new neurological pathway, and makes you more likely to experience it again in the future.
In Ayurveda, these stored impressions are called “samskaras,” which literally translates to mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints. Each samskara, or life event, has an experiential signature that gets passed to you when you experience it. Samskaras make up both generalized patterns and individual actions. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove (neural pathway) that is difficult to resist. Our samskaras make up the totality of our mental and physical conditioning.
Samskaras are happening every moment of every day, but most of them are too subtle to notice. There are countless examples of this principle we see every day. The weight lifter moving heavy masses of weights gains body mass. The accountant who spends his life behind a desk crunching numbers develops crunched posture and a rigid inner quality. The chronic partier/drug user becomes scatter-brained and nervous. From an Ayurvedic standpoint, we are nothing but the cumulation of our samskaras.
For a moment, imagine how you’d feel if you ate nothing but oranges for an entire month. You’d likely feel light, bright, and sweet in your body. This is the imprint principle at work. This same phenomenon is happening to us all the time. Everything we see/hear/taste/touch is imprinted inside us on a cellular levels, and makes up how we feel in our bodies.
But not all imprints are negative, far from it. As you build awareness of this life process, you can use it to your ultimate advantage. In an interesting twist, the Civil War study shows that the sons could be protected from their fathers’ trauma if their mothers had good nutrition while they were pregnant. Understanding that everything you do is imprinted in your conscious mind/body and replayed again in the future gives you further reinforcement to surround yourself with healthy, harmonious imprints. You can know that each time you walk in nature, eat a nourishing meal, or enjoy a heart-opening moment, it is imprinted on your mind/body. Your DNA is changing; a new neurological pathway is formed.
The Imprint Principle is what is so desperately lacking in the conventional medicine paradigm. It explains something you might already intuitively know; healing is a result of the cumulative effects of a variety of healthy behaviors. When we’re limited to only using lifestyle practices that have strict clinical validation, it shuts us off from the wide world of possibilities in alternative modalities like sound, touch, and scents.
The Imprint Principle also helps us stop overthinking; you can trust that by making small changes every day, the cumulative effects will inevitably lead you back to health. It’s as certain as cause and effect. Each time we make a healthy choice, we might not know exactly where it will be imprinted, but we know it will result in a step forward. It gives us special reinforcement for every good behavior, knowing each good decision we make will not only impact us but our future children.