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How does a profound emotional experience in one generation affect the next? Is it handed down? Both the scientific paper and the short story under scrutiny in this month’s Neuromantics consider the ripple effect of trauma, and its observable consequences not just for survivors, but for those who come after them.
Offspring of all the higher primates have an extended period of infancy in which they are dependent on their mothers. If the mother dies, the infants are less likely to survive. But survival rates are also impacted before the mother dies, according to Maternal Death and Offspring Fitness in Multiple Wild Primates, by Matthew N. Zipple et al. And the children who do make it to adulthood tend to have fewer chlldren themselves. Why is this? Gorillas and humans can re-allocate the maternal role and reconfigure family hierarchies, often successfully, but other primates have fewer safety-nets (and often a shrinking habitat): they seem to have witnessed something irrevocable. They see a parent struggle and they “know” their vulnerability.
Mixed up in the experience of traumatic grief is fear – that people can disappear, that you or someone else can be taken, that your circumstances can change. And if we see that kind of fear at work in our parents, it works in us, too. In “Loose Change”, by Andrea Levy, the narrator – the English child, like Levy, of Jamaican parents – borrows a trifling sum of money from a stranger, a young girl recently arrived in London from Uzbekistan. They have coffee together. The narrator resolves to be kind, to help, but her resolution is tested by a deeper struggle with its roots in racism and handed-down shame. Can she do more than listen? Can she break the cycle?

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