David Dobbs in The New York Times:
In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined trauma as “a recognizable stressor that would evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” — universally toxic, like a poison. But it turns out that most trauma victims — even survivors of combat, torture or concentration camps — rebound to live full, normal lives. That has given rise to a more nuanced view of trauma — less a poison than an infectious agent, a challenge that most people overcome but that may defeat those weakened by past traumas, genetics or other factors. Now, a significant body of work suggests that even this view is too narrow — that the environment just after the event, particularly other people’s responses, may be just as crucial as the event itself. The idea was demonstrated vividly in two presentations this fall at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Culture, Mind and Brain at the University of California, Los Angeles. Each described reframing a classic model of traumatic experience — one in lab rats, the other in child soldiers.
In the first case, Paul Plotsky, a neurobiologist at Emory University, described what happened when he tweaked one of the most widely used models of how maternal separation affects young rats. The model was created in the early 1990s by Dr. Plotsky himself to bring consistency to the way maternal separation is studied. Earlier experiments kept mother and pups apart anywhere from 1 to 24 hours; Dr. Plotsky reset those periods to 15 minutes (the amount of time rat mothers in the wild routinely leave their litters to get food) and 180 minutes (a traumatic separation, he says, because in the wild it would mean that “the mother became a meal or roadkill”). After a 15-minute separation, a mother would typically sniff and lick each pup, then gather and feed them, all the while conversing with them in gentle, ultrasonic warbles. After a 180-minute separation, however, most mothers would dash about emitting panicky squeaks, often stomping on the pups or ignoring them. The pups too would squeak loudly. And for the rest of their lives, they had outsize physiological and behavioral reactions to stress and challenge.