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Things I Now Know: Johannes Gräff

Johannes Gräff is an MQ Fellow. Based at EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland, he’s been investigating how traumatic memories, triggered by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are reduced on a cellular and molecular level. This knowledge could open the gates to test new, more refined interventions for PTSD.

As part of this new series, we spoke to Johannes about things in life he's learned, his influences and his inspirations...  

My parents were from a modest background. We didn’t have much, and there were no academics in the family. I’m really thankful to have been able to have a higher education and it's something I'm quite proud of. My dad was a huge support – he always thought I was capable of doing this and could see that having a higher education opens up a lot of doors. 

I’d love to sit at a dinner table with Charles Darwin. I think it’s amazing that the theory he came up with is still true – especially considering the means he had at his disposition. He had this adventurous spirit that allowed him to go to faraway places, which I find very inspiring.  

My topic of research is something I’ve been conscious of since I was a child. My dad did psychotherapy for a long time and I remember him drawing something for me – pictures of flags on a body. He explained these flags are symbolic of traumas we experience - and that psychotherapy aims to undo them. 20 years later, as an undergrad, I heard of something called epigenetic marks, symbolised by flags on the genes. The image my dad drew for me instantaneously came back. The work I do now on long-lasting traumatic memories places a lot of emphasis on identifying these marks.

Two thirds of all people experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Yet I certainly don’t know two thirds of people who talk about it. I think it's really important to realise that traumas are more common than we think – and that they can have an effect on your physical health too. Mental health is still being stigmatised – but we should actually be treating it like any other form of illness.

As researchers, it’s a challenge not to remain on your own level of oratory. We’re not very good at talking to other people. MQ is a rare effort to bring together both sides of the aisle – hardcore neuroscience at one end, and theoretical and empirical evidence at the other. I see change happening, but it’s still too rare. We need to foster more scientific exchange to bridge the gap, so we can all work together to better understand mental health and treat its associated problems.  

When my mum passed away it hit me pretty hard. It was four years ago, and it’s been one of the biggest obstacles in my life. Only a few people know this, but it influenced me to seek help and do a cycle of psychotherapy. Even in the field of mental health research, not a lot of people talk about their own experiences.  

A recent study marks one of the proudest moments in my career. We found that, to overcome traumatic memories from PTSD, you really have to confront your fears – not suppress them. This is something psychologists suspected, but it had never been shown on a molecular level. Our results support the notion that interventions like exposure therapy – where people ‘relive’ their fears – could be the most successful way to reduce the effects of a trauma.

I remember one of my University professors telling me that he studied physics in order to better understand biology. I thought that concept was really interesting. At the time, I’d only signed up to do biology and I called up the teaching office to see if I could do both that and psychology. Because it would have been two M.Sc. studies at the same time, I decided to stick with biology, but was always inclined to come back to psychology – and now I’ve ended up doing mental health research.  

As I’ve got older, I’ve seen how time is limited. It’s something I tell all my PhD students – I encourage them to take advantage of everything and to be open-minded. A philosophy I subscribe to is one by Mahatma Gandhi. He said to “Learn as if you were to live forever – live as if you were to die tomorrow”. I think that’s really powerful – the idea there's always something out there to be learned and to broaden your horizons.    

Last updated: 6 June 2019

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