Almost five years ago, when two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, we were told that our lives had changed forever--but, as it turns out, not so much.
"The cliché we were hearing all over the place was 'Everything is different now,'" said University of Alberta psychology professor Dr. Norman Brown. "But just because there's a shocking and dramatic news story doesn't mean everything is different. Instead what it means is that your opinions might shift a little, your values might shift a little, and then come back to where they started. People feel bad for a few days, maybe a few weeks, they may feel insecure, but on the other hand, almost everybody continues to go on with their own lives."
Brown's view is based on research he has conducted to figure out whether momentous events in history have an impact on how people sort and store their own memories. While everyone may know where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or the planes hit the World Trade Centre in New York, we don't reference those events to things that happen in our everyday lives, said Brown.
Brown conducted his research by asking neutral, non-event specific questions to trigger participants' personal memories. He cross-referenced his results among research participants living in Edmonton, Alberta; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and New York City, New York. It might seem like a no-brainer to assume that those people who lived in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, would have many references to that date in their personal archives. According to Brown, the assumption is wrong.
"You could pretty much get the same results in Manhattan that you get in Edmonton or Ann Arbor," said Brown. "Nine-eleven was the thing that was supposed to turn everybody on their heads, but according to our results it didn't."
Less than a one-per-cent of participants used the occurrence of a historical event to reference a personal memory, with the Olympics as likely to show up as 9/11.
To imprint itself on a population's collective memory, an event has to be so life-altering that it changes everything about one's day-to-day life, Brown said.
"There's a difference between a public event which affects you in terms of how you feel, or even how you think, and public events which affect you, in terms of what you do--what everybody does," he said, adding that the situation must also have a dramatic swing back to normalcy to act as contrast.
Brown's evidence of this is the response he received to his neutral questions from research participants in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between 1992 and 1995, the Bosnian War in and around Sarajevo resulted in large scale destruction and death.
"The estimates vary, but somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed--from a population of about 3 million people. It was atrocious, a real bloodbath," said Brown.
Twenty-seven per cent of respondents in Sarajevo mentioned that war as a reference to define a personal memory, and 80 per cent of them mentioned the war if the memory referenced--for example, their wedding--happened during the war.
"When public events change the fabric of your daily life and do it for an entire group of people, a population, that's when you see these tie in to personal memory. If your country is engaged in a war--where you live might change, who you socialize with might change, where you work might change, what you eat might change, educational opportunities might change--all the basic elements of what you do on a daily basis could change--and then some change back."
"I was trying to understand when it is that historical process starts to blend with autobiographical memories, because, generally speaking, the two are independent," said Brown. "So, we went to a place where history and autobiographical memory are necessarily going to be intertwined--where, to live, you're living in history."
Brown and his colleagues have presented this research at a number of conferences, the latest being the International Conference on Memory in Sydney, Australia, July 2006.
Dr. Brown can be reached at 780-492-4604 or email@example.com.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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