Decades ago, when I moved to New York City for a summer, I arrived at my new apartment on a hot, muggy day. A bunch of beefy guys in sweaty T-shirts were sitting on the front steps. I was convinced I’d moved into a neighborhood of muggers and killers. Later, I discovered these men were my neighbors, came to know them, and found they couldn’t have been nicer. I had unknowingly superimposed fear-filled childhood memories on these innocent guys. I’ve come to realize I have always suffered around the same themes—lost love, hurt, abandonment, and fear.
Psychological themes run in families, passed down from parent to child. In the Amazon, they call this a generational curse. When left unacknowledged and unhealed, it can trigger heart disease or cancer. Autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks its own cells, often run in families with poor emotional boundaries―where individuals have trouble acknowledging what is yours and what is theirs.
These themes are grooved into our neural networks—information superhighways that quickly interpret what we perceive through the senses. They tell us red means danger, green means go, who is sexy, who is dull. They hold a dynamic map of our world and how our reality works. This map contains sights, sounds, scents, memories, and early childhood experiences.
Many of our maps of reality are formed in the womb, as the mother’s stress hormones pass through the placental barrier to the fetus. So, if your mother was not sure she could count on her partner to protect her and her baby, your reality will be one in which you can’t count on people to be there for you, or where the world will not support your endeavors. If, on the other hand, your mother was confident she could count on her beloved and her family and community, your map will reveal a world you can count on—and will infuse this reality into your relationships.
These neural networks become stronger as your day-to- day experience proves your map true, with more connections between neurons formed every time that pathway is used. Over the years, this path becomes the road most traveled and eventually the only route used. A brain scan will actually show neural networks in a particular area of the brain “lighting up” as you think certain thoughts.
The opposite is true as well: when a neural network falls into disuse, the void in that area of the brain will show up on a scan. So even if you have a spiritual awakening during a weekend meditation retreat, unless you make a conscious effort to reinforce that insight once you return to your everyday existence, the epiphany will fade away.
Our neural networks make us creatures of habit. We stop having innovative thoughts and original ideas very early on. In fact, most of our neural networks are set by an early age, when we stop imagining houses in the clouds. Add traumatic childhood experiences to the mix, and you have a recipe for less resilience and creativity, as well as the affirmation of negative beliefs about reality. We then wind up strengthening the neural superhighways in the limbic brain to confirm this.
The childhood fears, anger, suffering, and feelings of abandonment encoded in our neural networks cause us to repeat the underlying themes of these memories, even if we don’t recall the events themselves. And this is what it means to have a generational curse; you keep repeating family patterns which wind up showing themselves as illness in the body and mind.
The good news is we can rewire our neural networks for joy and more nourishing outcomes, but it requires a balance of science and Spirit which I explain in depth in my new book, Grow a New Body, now available online and in bookstores everywhere.