Do you still remember the first day of school when you started first grade? If you were fortunate enough (or in some cases, unfortunate enough) to run into your classmates from way back when, you might sit down and exchange stories about that first day in school. There is a good chance that you and your former classmates may differ in the narratives especially regarding some details but you are bound to also find many common memories. This phenomenon is an example of “collective memory”, a term used to describe the shared memories of a group which can be as small as a family or a class of students and as large as a nation. The collective memory of your first day in school refers to a time that you personally experienced but the collective memory of a group can also include vicarious memories consisting of narratives that present-day group members may not have lived through. For example, the collective memory of a family could contain harrowing details of suffering experienced by ancestors who were persecuted and had to abandon their homes. These stories are then passed down from generation to generation and become part of a family’s defining shared narrative. This especially holds true for larger groups such as nations. In Germany, the collective memory of the horrors of the holocaust and the Third Reich have a profound impact on how Germans perceive themselves and their identity even if they were born after 1945.
The German scholar Aleida Assmann is an expert on how collective and cultural memory influences society and recently wrote about the importance of collective memory in her essay “Transformation of the Modern Time Regime” (PDF):
All cultures depend upon an ability to bring their past into the present through acts of remembering and remembrancing in order to recover not only acquired experience and valuable knowledge, exemplary models and unsurpassable achievements, but also negative events and a sense of accountability. Without the past there can be no identity, no responsibility, no orientation. In its multiple applications cultural memory greatly enlarges the stock of the creative imagination of a society.
Assmann uses the German word Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance) to describe how the collective memory of a society is kept alive and what impact the act of remembrance has on our lives. The Erinnerungskultur widely differs among nations and even in a given nation or society, it may vary over time. It is quite possible that the memories of the British Empire may evoke nostalgia and romanticized images of a benevolent empire in older British citizens whereas younger Brits may be more likely to focus on the atrocities committed by British troops against colonial subjects or the devastating famines in India under British rule.
Much of the research on collective memory has been rooted in the humanities. Historians and sociologists have studied how historical events enter into the collective memory and how the Erinnerungskultur then preserves and publicly interacts with it. However, more recently, cognitive scientists and psychologists have begun exploring the cognitive mechanisms that govern the formation of collective memory. The cognitive sciences have made substantial advances in researching individual memory – such as how we remember, mis-remember or forget events – but much less is known how these processes apply to collective memory. The cognitive scientists William Hirst, Jeremey Yamashiro and Alin Coman recently reviewed the present psychological approaches to study how collective memories are formed and retained, and they divided up the research approaches into two broad categories: Top-down research and bottom-up research.
Top-down research identifies historical or cultural memories that persist in a society and tries to understand the underlying principles. Why do some historical events become part of the collective memory whereas others do not? Why do some societies update their collective memories based on new data whereas others do not? Hirst and his colleagues cite a study which researched how people updated their beliefs following retractions and corrections issued by the media following the 2003 Iraq war. The claims that the Iraqi forces executed coalition prisoners of war after they surrendered or the initial reports about the discovery of weapons of mass destruction were both retracted but Americans were less likely to remember the retraction whereas Germans were more likely to remember the retraction and the corrected version of the information.
Bottom-up research of collective memory, on the other hand, focuses on how individuals perceive events and then communicate these to their peers so that they become part of a shared memory canon. Researchers using this approach focus on the transmission of memory from local individuals to a larger group network and how the transmission or communication between individuals is affected by the environment. In a fascinating study of autobiographical memory, researchers studied how individuals from various nations dated autobiographical events. Turks who had experienced the 1999 earthquake frequently referenced it, similar to Bosnians who used the civil war to date personal events. However, Americans rarely referenced the September 11, 2001 attacks to date personal events. This research suggested that even though some events such as the September 11, 2001 attacks had great historical and political significance, they may not have had as profound a personal impact on the individual lives of Americans as did the civil war in Bosnia.
Hirst and his colleagues point out that cognitive research of collective memory is still in its infancy but the questions raised at the interface of psychology, neuroscience, history and sociology are so fascinating that this area will likely blossom in the decades to come. The many research questions that will emerge in the near future will not only integrate cutting-edge cognitive research but will likely also address the important phenomenon of the increased flow of information – both by migration of individuals as well as by digital connectedness. This research could have a profound impact on how we define ourselves and what we learn from our past to shape our future.
Hirst W et al. (2018). “Collective Memory from a Psychological Perspective” Trends in Cognitive Science, 22 (5): 438-451
Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.