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Welcome to the Memory Issue of the Highlight

Survivors of early school shootings reflect, the growing popularity of the word “trauma,” scientists’ efforts to understand memory, and more.

Will Staehle for Vox

Years from now, when, presumably, Covid-19 becomes endemic, how will we remember this moment? As an odd blip in our long and eventful lives, or as a transformative period whose realities we won’t soon forget?

It feels impossible to know. Memory is slippery, a mystery even to those who’ve devoted themselves to studying it.

For this month’s issue of the Highlight, we were inspired by memory — its effect on our culture and our health, as well as the attempts to understand and harness it.

In our cover story, it haunts the survivors of a particularly tragic period of school shootings in the 1990s and 2000s. Marin Cogan spoke with several survivors who came of age in an era when schools, parents, and others were wholly unprepared to help them deal with the aftermath of mass shootings. The memories live with them today, even as some reach their 30s and 40s, triggering feelings with each new bout of school violence. Yet each has arrived at a complex understanding about what it means to survive.

Interrogations of our personal histories in the hopes of understanding our traumas have become commonplace in recent decades — so much so that Google searches for the term “trauma” have risen steadily over much of the past two decades, peaking in 2021. But the term now is everywhere, fodder for TV shows, TikToks, and memes. Now, writes Lexi Pandell, experts are concerned that the word is being overused and its meaning is rapidly being diluted.

Also in this issue, Vox’s Brian Resnick looked at scientists’ efforts to understand why we remember what we remember — an undertaking that’s not as straightforward as it may sound. “No experiment can capture the whole of our human experience with memory and explain every instance of it,” writes Resnick. If scientists could harness “memorability,” could they help design a more memorable world for students, for the memory-impaired, and for others?

Our bodies have their own way of remembering. Our brains, for example, forge connections between neurons early in our development, a process that can be visibly disrupted by illness or trauma. Similarly, our primary or baby teeth, as they grow, capture the conditions of their surroundings, like growth rings in a tree. Reporter Jackie Rocheleau explores an effort among a small group of scientists to discover what stories may lie in our teeth, and how they might help doctors better understand children’s health.

And finally, our issue concludes with a look at the way New Orleans remembers and celebrates those who’ve died. “Covid-19 has exacerbated our country’s inarticulateness around grief,” writes Nicole Young. “So many Americans have had to bear theirs alone.” What can our nation learn from the communal mourning of a New Orleans funeral second line?

Photo illustration of a stack of books with the words “the survivors” and the silhouettes of two people on the cut sides of the pages. Will Staehle for Vox

The school shooting generation grows up

After coming of age in a world wholly unprepared to deal with the aftermath of mass school shootings, an early wave of survivors is now in their 30s and 40s, grappling with the present.

By Marin Cogan

The word trauma appears in numerous cartoon fonts and is repeated over and over on a yellow background. Bráulio Amado for Vox

How trauma became the word of the decade

The very real psychiatric term has become so omnipresent in pop culture that some experts worry it’s losing its meaning.

By Lexi Pandell

A person is shown with photographs, sticky notes, calendars, an image of a birthday cake and musical notes coming from their head. They hold a finger up with a red ribbon tied around it. The background is a teal blue sky with clouds and birds. Michael Waraksa for Vox

Why do we remember what we remember?

The mundane photographs that are helping scientists probe the mysteries of memory.

By Brian Resnick

Getty Images; illustration by Amanda Northrop/Vox

The secret lives of baby teeth

Why some scientists are trying to discover more about our bodies’ “little living archives.”

By Jackie Rocheleau

Photos by Kathleen Flynn for Vox

What New Orleans can teach us about mourning

As we reckon with the mass deaths from Covid-19, the collective power — and joy — of the funeral second line reminds us that grief is a burden that can be shared.

By Nicole Young

Future Perfect

Our love of orcas is making them miserable


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


How to talk to a loved one about their health

View all stories in The Highlight