Redux: Does Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

With a deadline nipping at my heels, and losing two days to the holiday, I’m sharing a post I wrote in 2018. Still as fascinating today, IMO. Enjoy!

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.”

Environmental 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. UPDATE: In 2020, two years after I wrote this post, I found out she worked as an editor for many years.

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?

Wings of Mayhem by Sue Coletta

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When the cat burglar and the serial killer collide, HE looks forward to breaking her will, but SHE never gives up. Not ever. And especially not for him.

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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 and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Sue teaches a virtual course about serial killers for EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for her fellow Sisters In Crime. She's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on DiscoveryID (due to air in 2023). Learn more about Sue and her books at

27 thoughts on “Redux: Does Creativity Pass Through Generations via DNA?

  1. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Demille. I’m not sure exactly how, but I am related to Cecil B. Demille. This is a fascinating study. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Sue. Actually — and speaking only for myself — your post seems even better today than it did four years ago, and that’s a high bar.

    Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving and have a great week!

  3. Fascinating post, Sue. Thanks so much for reposting it here this morning.

    My grandmother on my mom’s side painted in oils, spectacular sea scapes mostly. Never professionally, but it was a passion of hers. Her husband, my grandfather, was very musical, sang in a barbershop quartet, and played the piano. His writings were largely sermons and nonfiction–he was a Methodist minister–and he had a keen intellect.

    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Have a great week.

  4. So interesting, Sue!

    I had a great aunt who was an artist. I have one of her pastels of magnolia blossoms in my home. My husband has a cousin (his father’s first cousin) who was a violinist with the San Francisco orchestra for about 20 years.

    Our son is known for his science and mathematics expertise, but he loves music. He performs with the Austin Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

  5. Thank you for serving this up again. I didn’t see the original. What occurs to me is that the research suggests an intriguing resolution to the nature/nurture debate. For a long time, environment–nurture–has held sway, giving emphasis to how privilege or deprivation shapes lives. Here, though, nature and nurture are intertwined through nurture’s effects on biological, natural inheritance. Thanks a lot.

  6. Great post, Sue!

    My mom was both an artist and a vocal musician. Alas, I did not inherit her talent with the canvas, but all four of her children could sing passably. My children all sing, two play guitar, and then there are the grandchildren . . .

    On my dad’s side, he leaks integrity. I like to say that is his talent. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to help another, and in 68.5 years of life, I have never heard a lie sneak past his lips, nor have I ever heard anyone else say so.

    Don’t know if integrity counts in this list, but I think I value it more each passing year.

    I don’t know about the story-telling in my DNA. Maybe from one of my great greats . . .

  7. I’m going to have to go with, ‘Yeah right’!

    In regard to the mealworm – they basically destroyed a particular bit of Junk DNA in the original and thereafter found it was not present in the offspring – DUH. And why would it be? If the parent no longer had it to pass on then they couldn’t pass it on.

    In regard to the mice – They made them frighten/weary of the smell of cherry blossoms – generations later and they are still frighten/weary. It is only human arrogance that assumes the mice are not passing information on through mice speak or action.

    And none of the above mentioned studies deals with the intangible of creativity.

    Humans have been around for thousands of years. What are the odds that if you traced anyone’s family tree you would not come up with at least one person who was an artist – writer, sculptor, singer, chef?

    My grandfather was the first to provide bus service to non-whites in New Jersey. So, if I were to become an Uber driver now could I say the desire to transport people is genetic?

    • The bit about human arrogance, I agree with, Michelle. Animals do indeed pass information through generations in the same way we do. It’s ignorant to think they don’t possess emotions, intelligence, and a soul. We’re on the same page in that area. If you disagree with the rest, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I would never propose otherwise.

      Wishing you an amazing week, Michelle. 🙂

  8. I come from a long line of Scots-Irish storytellers. My great grandfather was a preacher. His son, my grandfather, was a legendary salesman. He was a top 10 Encyclopedia Britannica salesman during the Depression. The legend was that he had “a story for every occasion.” He could sit down with any potential buyer and spin a yarn that would lead to a sale.

    My dad was a great trial lawyer, and loved to recite poetry. He encouraged his sons in this, so even today I can recite “Casey at the Bat” in a way that it will keep you on the edge of your seat.

  9. My dad had a way with words that seemed to have “sparked” a similar interest with me, and Mom says some of my writing is “just like your father’s…”

    My number 3 son is a tinkerer, much like both of my grandfathers – though that creative skill-set seems to have only done a glancing blow to Dad and me…

  10. I’m the first PhD physicist in my family AND the first novelist. My mother loved to paint, and learned in her later years; before that, she produced several cookbooks. My dad was an engineer who would have continued to a Masters except he was afraid, after WWII, that other graduating engineers back from the war would take up the available jobs – so he finished his undergrad degree and went to work right away. His Hungarian immigrant family produced two lawyers, him, and a dentist (the girls weren’t encouraged to go to college). Most everyone else (and there are LOTS of us) are normal, except we also count two of my sisters as President of the Junior League of Mexico (the extroverts, of course), and one of them got her PhD to have the credentials she needed to be on an even footing with the researchers into volunteerism she worked with, and is on her third or fourth book now, as main editor and contributor, in the field. A niece has become a well-known fashion designer featured in Vogue Mexico.

    Economic stability and educational expectations have allowed our children and now grand- and great grand-children to be college graduates – a measure of opportunity taken, if not of creativity – my great-grandparents immigrated to a farm in Michigan and never learned English!

    Opportunity opened up possibilities; not having to struggle for food and a basic education and job allowed the next generations the luxury of doing what they want, but I’m still the only committed writer of fiction in this sprawling family in two countries. Naturally, I consider this the pinnacle of success. 🙂

    Now I only have to persuade more of the eight BILLION people on this planet to read.

    DNA? So far husband and I – two hard scientists – also produced three of the same, but two of them write well, and the other has explored painting and music, as hobbies. I have no idea where they will end up. It’s a lot of fun to watch and speculate. Ask again in twenty years – some DNA takes a while to be expressed.

    • Writers or not, you’ve got a talented family, Alicia! It is fun to speculate, isn’t it. I often wonder what path my grandkids will take. Time will tell. 🙂

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