Can Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?


This video sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

As you can imagine, my writer brain lit up. Turns out, the research was even more fascinating than the video. A scientific study showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm or eggs and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations. This breakthrough is an important discovery in the fight to treat phobias and anxiety.

Do you fear spiders, heights, or small spaces for no apparent reason? This may explain why.

Neuroscientists trained mice to fear a cherry blossom scent prior to copulation. While breeding these mice, the team at the Emory University School of Medicine looked at what was happening inside the sperm. Incredibly, the sperm showed a section of DNA, responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent, was indeed more active.

The mice’s offspring, and their offspring — the grand-mice, if you will — were all extremely sensitive to cherry blossom and avoided the scent at all costs, despite never experiencing a problem with it in their lives. They also found changes in brain structure.

In the smell-aversion study, scientists believe either some of the odor ended up in the bloodstream, which affected sperm production, or the brain sent a signal to the sperm to alter the DNA.

The report states, “Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels.”

Enivronmental change can also critically affect the lifestyle, reproductive success, and lifespan of adult animals for generations. Exposure to high temperatures led to the expression of endogenously repressed copies of genes — sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The changes in chromatin occurred in the early embryo before the onset of transcription and were inherited through eggs and sperm. In mealworms, they traced the DNA changes through 14 generations.

Why mealworms? It’s quicker to test generation after generation on an animal with a short lifespan.

Another study showed that a mouse’s ability to remember can be affected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk. Chemokines — signaling proteins secreted by cells — carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory later in life.

Memories are passed down through generations via genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors. These switches, however, can be turned on and off, according to Science Daily. Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences must be passed to future generations through personal interactions. However, this research shows that it’s possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Creativity counts as a learned behavior, but I also believe it goes deeper than that. Think about how deeply you feel about your writing. For most writers I know, when we’re “in the zone” our soul does the writing. One could argue we’re merely vessels who type. Have you ever read a passage that you don’t remember writing? Our ability to create burrows into the core of who we are, and thus, leaves an indelible mark. How, then, can we not pass that part of ourselves to future generations?

How many of you have creative folks in your family tree, be it writers, artists, musicians, singers, or other forms of creativity?

To test my theory, I asked the same question to my fellow TKZ members. Please note: this revelation occurred to me yesterday, so I’ve only included the members who saw the email in time. Hopefully, the others will add their responses in the comments.

For those I did catch on a Sunday, check out what they said …

Elaine Viets said, “My late cousin Kurt was a talented wood carver, and my grandfather was known as a great story teller in the local saloons.”

I love wood-carved pieces. The smell, the texture, the swirl to the grain. It’s not an easy creative outlet to master.

Jordan Dane comes from a long line of creative people. Here’s her answer: “My paternal grandfather was a writer for a Hispanic newspaper. My dad was an architect and artist (painter), my older brother went into architecture too, specializing in hospital design. My dad is a real renaissance guy. He could sculpt, paint, draw and he has a passion for cooking. My older brother Ed and I share a love for singing. I sang in competitive ensemble groups. He played in a popular area band and has sung in barbershop quartets. My mom was the original singer in our family. She has a great voice.”

Joe Hartlaub has two talented children. Here’s what he said, “Annalisa Hartlaub, my youngest daughter, is a photographer. My oldest son Joe is also a highly regarded bass guitar player locally.”

He’s being modest. When I checked out Annalisa’s photographs on Facebook and Instagram they blew me away. A photography project she created at 15 years old also went viral.

When I prodded further, Joe added, “My maternal grandfather played guitar, but we never knew it until we came across a picture of him taken at a large Italian social club gathering where he was strumming away. He was in his twenties at the time. As far as the source of Annalisa’s talent goes…her mother is a terrific photographer. The conclusion is that Annalisa gets the form of the art from her mother and her creativeness from me.”

Laura Benedict stunned me with her answer. “Someone doing genealogy linked my maternal grandfather’s family to Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Talk about a creative genius!

Laura added, “I remember a few very small watercolors that I believe my maternal grandmother painted. Trees and houses. But while we were close, we never talked about art. My aunt also did some drawing.”

John Gilstrap also came from a long line of creative people. Here’s his answer…

“My paternal extended family has always been fairly artistic.  My grandfather, I am told–he died long before I was born–had a beautiful singing voice, and for a period of time worked whatever the Midwest version of the Vaudeville circuit was.  My father, a career Naval aviator, wrote the Navy’s textbook, The Principles of Helicopter Flight, and had two patents on helicopter cargo handling operations.  He passed away in 2006.

My brother, four years older than I, plays a number of instruments, but his primary proficiency is the piano.  His daughter is a very accomplished cellist who makes her living as the director of a high school orchestra that consistently kills at competitions.
Closer to home, my only musical talent is to be a passable tenor in the choir.  For years, I sang with a choral group that performed all over the DC area, including a number of gigs at The Kennedy Center.  As a high schooler, our son was a pretty good cellist, but he walked away from it in college and never really looked back.”


Although I wasn’t able to catch her in time, PJ Parrish is the sister team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols.

As for me, my maternal grandfather was a highly regarded artist (painter) in his time. My mother was a beautiful writer, even though I never knew it while she was alive. After she passed, I discovered notebooks full of her writing.

So, can creativity be passed through our DNA? Judging by this small pool of writers, I find it hard not to entertain the possibility.

I’m betting the same holds true if I expand the test subjects to include you, my beloved TKZers. How many of you have creative folks in your family tree?

On a picturesque fall morning in Grafton County, New Hampshire, a brutal murder rocks the small town of Alexandria. In the backyard of a weekend getaway cabin, a dead woman is posed in red-satin, with two full-bloomed roses in place of eyes.

In her hand, a mysterious envelope addressed to Sheriff Niko Quintano. Inside, Paradox vows to kill again if his riddle isn’t solved within 24 hours.

With so little time and not enough manpower, Niko asks his wife for help. But Crime Writer Sage Quintano is dealing with her own private nightmare. Not only did she find massive amounts of blood on the mountain where she and her family reside, but a phone call from the past threatens her future–the creepy mechanical voice of John Doe, the serial killer who murdered her twin sister.

Together, can Niko and Sage solve the riddle in time to save the next victim? Or will the killer win this deadly game of survival?

Pre-order for 99c and save! Releases July 25, 2018. Want an early peek? Read opening chapter HERE.


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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

24 thoughts on “Can Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

  1. Thanks for this post, Sue. This is exciting. But I have to admit my first thought went to serial killers, et al. And from there even to criminal culpability.

    Should the living ancestors share in responsibility for the actions of a descendent if the future science can prove the urge and proclivity was passed from one to the other? (Kind of a reverse of PK Dick’s “Minority Report.”) For that matter, will screening occur in the future, the result of which is the force sterilization of those who hold certain phobias or proclivities?

    Likewise on the other side of the page, is this how superheroes are born? Perhaps levels of ancestors fought back against various stimuli (feared but destroyed the perceived threat of the cherry blossoms) and all of that eventually culminated in a descendent with special powers?

    The possibilities offered by this film and post seem endless.

    • Don’t they, Harvey? As for serial killers, many of them come from abusive households, so often they’re a product of their environment. The few who had idilic childhoods and loving parents often had a defect in their frontal lobe. There are exceptions, of course. Maybe similar studies will hold the answer in the future. It’d be interesting to trace the ancestors of, say, H. H. Holmes to see if he was the only one in his family who had a penchant for violence. He took serial murder to the extreme.

  2. Sue, thank you for such an interesting and provocative post. I can well imagine there is some kind of shared memory bank among people, we are social creatures.

    • My pleasure, Margaret. I love to question, prod, to delve into unexplored areas. Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope you have a fabulous week!

  3. In my generation and the one above me, there is only two creatives–me and my cousin who is a broadway lover. Everyone has been shocked by our interestsmy mother, my grandparents, everyone. If I don’t know if that’s inherited or just the fact that none of them tried the arts as children. But I know that my family has been tailors for generations before we moved here, so I’m betting there were some creatives back then.

    • A tailor counts as a creative outlet. They “design” clothing. If we include your cousin and the generations of tailors, it’s no wonder you went into a creative field. Maybe you should show this post to your mother, and blame your DNA. Hahaha.

  4. My dad’s paternal grandfather was a cabinetmaker. My dad’s mom (her dad was a RR engineer) was a self-taught musician — piano. My dad’s brother was a wonderful cartoonist (he worked in advertising) and played piano by ear. My dad, who made his living as an airline pilot, added or redid rooms in every house we lived in. After he retired, he acted as general contractor on one of the houses and was on the work site every day pounding nails with the rest of the guys on a plan he designed.

    On my mom’s side: her dad was a classical musician (cello) and her mom won a writing contest while in high school. My mother was a writer, a seamstress (for us kids), and a fantastic knitter. My sister was creative in her cooking and sewing abilities. My brother is an engineer.

    About my mother’s sewing talent — when I was in high school, Mother made me a jumper with matching short jacket. The entire outfit was in navy, green, and white plaid. One of the kids in my art class commented on how perfect all the plaids lined up, both vertically and horizontally. That kid became fashion designer Michaele Vollbracht. He passed away this June.

    • Wow! Maybe your outfit helped inspire later designs, Laurie. You have creative people throughout your family. Love it.

      My mother and I both played piano (I almost forget about that). We played concerts together when I was really young. Wonderful memories. In college, she acted and tap-danced. In fact, she had the lead role in a play with Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster).

      • As much as I liked The Munsters (my brother was rabid for it), I almost think Herman did Fred a disservice. He was a very good actor but Herman is all anyone really remembers him doing. He was so good in My Cousin Vinny.

        • I was crazy about the Munsters. The dark humor might explain some of my writing choices today. Hahahaha. *kidding*

          Oh, I loved My Cousin Vinny! Fred Gwynne was superb as the judge. My mother told me he was quite the introvert and very shy. You’d never know it by his career choice.

  5. Fascinating and provocative, Sue! I’m surprised you could find your way back out of that rabbit hole long enough to write this post. I’d still be rooting around three miles underground.

    This might explain that eerie feeling about a place where you know what it looks like (or is going to look like) even though you’ve never been there before.

    Pre-ordered Scathed and can’t wait until it arrives!

    • Yay! Thanks, Debbie!

      Believe me, if I didn’t have a to-do list a mile long, I’d still be down that rabbit hole. When I shared the video on Facebook, someone else mentioned deja vu. It wouldn’t surprise me if a passed memory could account for that eerie, familiar feeling.

  6. I have teachers for generations back on my Dad’s side. He wasn’t a teacher, but he taught everything from archery, guns, to camping via Boy Scouts. My two surviving siblings and I have been teachers of varying sorts. I came home every day from first grade and taught my year-younger sister what I learned because it was so instinctual for me. My dad also wrote articles for the local paper. My mom’s side is full of artistic types, mainly craftsmen because that provided a living here in the Furniture Capital of the World. She became a talented China painter after she retired. So, me–teacher, novelist and nonfiction writer, teacher of writing. Yeah, I totally buy into this theory.

    • I do too, Marilynn. And your family tree speaks volumes about why you’re a novelist and teacher. Thanks for sharing. Hope you have an amazing day!

  7. One of my great-great grandfathers was a Kiowa calendar keeper–that is, he would record in a sort of rustic, unsophisticated style of simple painting on rawhide or buffalo hide, the events of the year. The year would be identified by major, commonly-known occurrences within the tribe.

    In a stretch-of-the-imagination, I suppose, that was the journalism and non-fiction writing of his day in his society. The creative and imagination part of the process would be his artistic interpretation of what horses and falling stars and Comanches and Osages and Utes would look like, with their different dress styles and ways of life.

    • I love all things Native, Jim! A Kiowa calendar keeper sounds fascinating, as does his interpretations. You’re going to send me down another rabbit hole to find out more about this. 🙂

  8. This is fascinating! My parents and their parents were all creatives, too–music, art, sewing, etc. One of my grandpas had a shop where he reupholstered car seats. Now that’s a smell you don’t forget in a hurry–cigarettes and fresh vinyl. My husband’s family were all creatives, too, and he’s a fantastic writer and communicator. Our kids all draw constantly, and I think they’d be musical if I could afford the lessons. :-p

  9. I knew there had to be a logical explanation for my fear of spiders! All jokes aside, I do believe creativity is passed from generation to generation. My maternal grandfather was a great story-teller. One of my Dad’s sisters wrote poetry. My brother is an artist and also writes some music. Great post, Sue!

    • Thanks, Joan! I’m deathly afraid of heights … for no apparent reason. Always have been as long as I can remember. Maybe one of my ancestors were hanged or thrown off a bridge. After researching this subject, I’m curious to find out now.

      Such a creativity family — love it!

  10. My mother was an amazing seamstress. One example of many—she made my father a Revolutionary War general’s uniform and a general’s aide uniform for me for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations. She was also highly in demand for her wedding cake designs. And she did all of this from a wheel chair as she suffered from post-polio syndrome.

    Her father was a self-taught mechanic who owned his own one-man shop. He often made his own tools or modified existing tools to do a specific job.

    My paternal grandfather spent 40 years as a pastor and was well respected as an orator. In an oddity for the time period (late 1800’s into the 1940’s), both of his parents were also preachers (with different parishes—not sure how that worked).

    • Wow, Douglas. What an impressive lady. I’d say you got your creativity from your mom, although her family line sounds equally creative. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I’m late to the party, but I loved your post, Sue. I’m sure there could be a genetic component to creativity and such. I also think that early exposure to the arts (or anything, for that matter) will help foster creativity. I suspect that there’s a mix of nature and nurture involved.

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