Memories of War - Martin A Conway


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How do we construct memories? Remembering engages many different areas of the brain and relates closely to emotion. But what impacts on our memories of war? How do age, gender and context affect how we recall different events? This session presented some initial findings on people's memories that have been collected on the Wellcome Collection website since the 'War and Medicine' exhibition has been open.

From the Remembering War Symposium at Wellcome Collection

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Memories of War - Martin A Conway

  1. 1. The Memory Database: Memories & War Martin A. Conway, Catriona Morrison, & Nolleen Conelly The Leeds Memory Group Institute of Psychological Sciences University of Leeds Email:
  2. 2. Memory & War <ul><li>The Memory Reports Database (MRD) is a collection currently of some 18,000 descriptions of memories of various types of experiences. </li></ul><ul><li>Each memory has some demographic data and various ratings of aspects of the memory. </li></ul><ul><li>Memories related to war are the latest addition to the MRD and have been collected as part of the Wellcome Medicine and War Exhibition. </li></ul>
  3. 3. <ul><li>Before turning to the war memories let’s take a quick look at what we have collected so far and, perhaps, later consider how war memories differ and/or are the same as other memories. </li></ul>
  4. 4. <ul><li>Currently in the MRD there are, approximately: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>6000 first memories </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>2000 self-defining memories </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>2000 ‘flashbulb’ memories </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>5000 memories related to The Beatles </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>3000 or so miscellaneous memories </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. <ul><li>First memories are the very first memory people can bring to mind, on strict criteria: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>It has to be a memory of something they themselves experienced </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>They have to be certain it is a memory </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>They have to experience it as a memory </li></ul></ul>
  6. 6. <ul><li>There are several interesting questions about first memories and about memories in general that we ask: </li></ul>
  7. 7. <ul><li>What age was the person when they experienced the event they have remembered (age at encoding)? </li></ul><ul><li>Do they sees themselves in the memory (observer) or not (field)? </li></ul><ul><li>How vivid are their memories? </li></ul><ul><li>How emotional was the experience? </li></ul><ul><li>How often have they thought/talked about the memory (rehearsal)? </li></ul><ul><li>Are their individual differences, e.g. by gender? </li></ul>
  8. 8. <ul><li>First memories have been dated, on average, to the age of about 3 years 3 months. </li></ul><ul><li>Obviously there is a lot of variation around this average and some people have younger and some older first memories. </li></ul><ul><li>What about the memories in the MRD? </li></ul>
  9. 9. Mean AaE of First Memories <ul><li>Overall: 3.15 years </li></ul><ul><li>Female = 2.98 yrs </li></ul><ul><li>Male = 3.32 yrs </li></ul>
  10. 10. Distribution of AaE First Memories
  11. 11. Memory Perspective <ul><li>There were: </li></ul><ul><li>51% Field Memories (3.04yrs) </li></ul><ul><li>49% Observer Memories (3.42yrs) </li></ul><ul><li>Female Male </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Field = 2.8 Field = 3.1 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Obs = 3.3 Obs = 3.5 </li></ul></ul>
  12. 12. Perspective by AaE
  13. 13. <ul><li>Impossible early memories! </li></ul><ul><li>Memories from the preverbal period, below the age of about 2 years, are considered not possible! </li></ul><ul><li>There are a whole set of candidate explanations here and we need further research to establish which is the correct one or which are the correct ones. </li></ul>
  14. 14. <ul><li>It's a sunny day, in the morning. I'm only little. My Mum is pregnant with my sister, so it must be the summer before she will be born in the October. That makes me just short of 2 years old. There's very little to it, but I remember my Dad is there, which is unusual as he'd generally be at work. He brings my Mum out into the garden, and puts out a sun lounger for her. There's discussion about phoning her friend, Edna, to cancel meeting her. I'm sitting on the lawn, and at some stage, an aeroplane flies overhead. It's only small, and quite low, presumably from the RAF base nearby. I can remember it's noise so vividly and to this day when I hear it, I think of that morning, twenty-something years ago, before my little sister was born. (Age 1 to 2). </li></ul>
  15. 15. <ul><li>Self-defining memories (SDMs) </li></ul><ul><li>These are memories for events that were emotional, featured important goal, goals that persisted for some time, the may be of unfinished business, they are vivid memories, and they are thought and talked about more than other memories. </li></ul>
  16. 16. Self Defining Memories (SDMS) <ul><li>There were 1758 SDMs </li></ul><ul><li>Mean age at encoding was 16.34 years (S.D. 12.1) </li></ul>
  17. 17. SDMs Reminiscence Bump
  18. 18. Memory Perspective by Gender Field Observer Female 44 56 Male 40 60
  19. 19. Self Defining Memories (SDMS) <ul><li>my aunt called me 'a pork pie with a frill round' Have been self conscious ever since. It was at my birthday party. I was hurt. </li></ul><ul><li>Walking down the corridor in between dormitories at school. Some music comes out of one of the dormitories (the dorm opposite mine), it is a loud guitar riff, it goes right through me and excites me more than any music I've heard before. I go into the dormitory and demand 'What's this??'. It is AC/DC's Back in Black playing on their stereo. I sit down on the nearest bed and listen to the whole song, and know that I want to be able to play it. For the rest of the school year practically all I listen to is AC/DC and that Summer start to learn how to play the guitar. (these days I am a gigging musician) </li></ul><ul><li>A simple biology class at high school - We were learning about reproduction (like us early teenage girls didn't already know everything about it!) and the teacher has a small plastic skeleton that he was passing around the class telling us to hold it like a baby.. I didn't notice, but all the other girls held it with the head to the left (against their hearts, he said) but I held it the other way. The teacher said all the girls except me had naturally taken the maternal position.. I obviously wasn't a natural mother. I've never had my own children and never wanted them. I sometimes wonder, was he right? Or did his comments make it happen? </li></ul>
  20. 20. ‘Flashbulb’ Memories (SDMS) <ul><li>These are memories for remembering where one was, what one was doing, and other specific details, when learning about an item of pubic news. </li></ul><ul><li>The news of the assassination of JFK being the classic example </li></ul>
  21. 21. Flashbulb Memories, FMs <ul><li>There were 1656 FMs </li></ul><ul><li>Mean age 19.8 years (S.D.12.9) </li></ul><ul><li>83% were observer memories and only 17% field memories </li></ul>
  22. 25. <ul><li>The death of Diana, Princess of Wales. I was at home with my young son, and got a phone-call from Tom, my son's dad. He rarely rang except to be awkward, but then he told me this. Being Irish he was no fan of royalty, and I took no interest in it either. But he was really shocked, hurt, stunned - and so was I. Speechless, and very upset. It felt as if this was a real fairy tale, with toothy wolves and jealous stepmothers. Even now, every time I drive along the underpass system near Paddington, I go extra slowly and carefully because I imagine it was in a place like this that she was killed. </li></ul>
  23. 26. <ul><li>I was driving back from an investigation into a company who had allegedly copied our patent, and had just started to ring the chairman on my findings and was in a serious mood, when he said,&quot;cannot talk to you now, somebody has just flown a plane into the world trade centre&quot; and he put the telephone down. I was stunned and turned on the radio. I drove straight home to be with my wife and turned on the TV. I was numb watching the events of earlier unfold and then saw the towers collapse, and all I kept saying during it all was &quot;the world will never be the same again&quot;. September 11th 2001 </li></ul>
  24. 27. <ul><li>The assassination of JFK in November 1963. I was in 6th form and a group of us had been to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (I can't remember what we saw!). The theatre is by Grey's Monument, a famous landmark in Newcastle, and at the time they were running a road safety campaign. There was a white light installed at the top of the monument and if someone was killed in a car accident the light changed to red for 24 hours. It had been white when we went in, but was red when we came out and we all commented on it. I have no recollection of going home, though it was a 30 minute bus ride, but remember my parents were out and when I turned on the TV it was a Panorama Special (I think..). The radio was playing mournful music. I know everyone remembers that day, but the two main tangible memories for me are: </li></ul><ul><li>1) I can still see the monument with the red light, and whenever people mention the event that is the image that floods into my head </li></ul><ul><li>2) I can still feel the intense fear and loneliness when I got home and realised something terrible had happened in the world and I had no idea how to contact my parents (they'd only gone round to some friends and I was fine once they got back!) </li></ul>
  25. 28. <ul><li>Memories of War </li></ul><ul><li>Age range of contributors. </li></ul>
  26. 29. <ul><li>Age now – most memories contributed by people in their 40s. </li></ul>
  27. 30. <ul><li>Age at the time of the remembered event – age at encoding </li></ul>
  28. 31. <ul><li>Age at the time of the remembered event – most memories date to childhood and ‘teens </li></ul>
  29. 32. <ul><li>Thus the impact of war-related events appears to be strongest on children and adolescents. </li></ul>
  30. 33. <ul><li>Which wars are remembered? </li></ul>
  31. 34. British War Memories WW2 33.3 Falklands 18.5 WWI 13.0 Vietnam 7.4 Iraq war (1st) 5.6 Afghanistan 5.6 northen Ireland 5.6 0ther 5.6
  32. 35. American War Memories WW2 27.3 Iraq war (2nd) 18.2
  33. 36. Gender Differences Male Female WW2 51.4 WW1 10.8 Iraq war (2nd) 8.1 Falklands 8.1 0ther 8.1 WW2 22.9 Falklands 14.6 Iraq war (1st) 10.4 Iraq war (2nd) 10.4 WW1 8.3
  34. 37. Characteristics of the memories WW2 Falklands WW1 Iraq War (2 nd ) Northern Ireland Other Age 63.14 46.88 55.17 33.80 37.75 52.25 Perspective 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 Vividness 4.50 3.50 3.67 4.80 4.00 4.75 Importance 3.86 3.38 3.83 4.40 3.50 4.25 Emotion 3.91 3.12 3.67 3.80 3.75 4.00 Eventage 14.77 17.50 20.83 29.20 11.00 12.75
  35. 38. <ul><li>Some Examples </li></ul>
  36. 39. <ul><li>one of the older lads I knew at our youth club had joined the army because he, like many others in the 80's was unemployed. then the Faulklands conflict began and he got called up; we were all so shocked and he came to the youth club the day he was leaving, in his uniform. he called one of the guys from the airfield and was crying. He said &quot;they've just put a gun in my hand....&quot; that memory has stayed with me so long; the way the army is sold as a way of gaining a career, back then with unemployment so high, it seemed to make sense, but no one thought it meant killing or being killed </li></ul>
  37. 40. <ul><li>I remember being acutely aware of the terrific bitterness expressed by my family when talking about the Germans, and their constant feeling of loss of the familiar life before the War. As a 3-year old, I already knew that nothing was the same, nothing was as good, even rare treats &quot;didn't taste the same &quot; as they had before the War. I was told frequently and angrily to expect nothing good. The good things about my country were gone forever. If I enjoyed somethig, e.g a rare treat provided by airmen at the nearby American base, the aunts, uncles and my mother seemed angry about that. It was all right for the Yanks. We had lost everything. There's an all pervading sense of this bitterness, loss and easy hostility in most of my early memories, and I think the family (a large one, glorified and sentimentalised life before 1939. It was a very negative start to life, because of the negative attitudes, which told me I must not expect anything good. I was astonished, years later, when an aunt who had been a wartime nurse, told me privately, and with tears in her eyes, how she and other cottage hospital staff were overcome with pity when they jubilantly approached a crashed German plane, only to find that the crew were all young boys, very thinly and meanly dressed in really bitter winter weather. Many cried, and I think this was the first time that they had seen &quot;The Jerries&quot; as real, and vulnerable people like themselves. I have never seen my aunt so moved. </li></ul>
  38. 41. <ul><li>At the beginning of the Gulf War, there was a media blitz of propaganda coupled with intense, video-game like graphics of precision missile strikes and Iraq skylines lit up as if with fireworks. It was very voyeuristic, the war being sold as prime time entertainment for a twice-removed audience. I was in University at the time, and I remember asking my flatmate what he thought of the war. He said, &quot;I think we should get rid of Saddam.&quot; When I asked why, he paused for a moment as if he'd never considered the question, then replied with simple conviction, &quot;Because he's evil.&quot; I remember being stunned to speechlessness at the unthinking inanity of that reply. It still depresses me to this day. </li></ul>
  39. 42. <ul><li>My father used to relate a tale from his days in the Royal Air Force. During the Vietnam War he was stationed in Hong Kong. One day an American air force cargo plane, en route to Vietnam, landed at the RAF base at Hong Kong and was in need of some maintenance work. My father was called upon to drive a crane which was needed to lift part of one of the engines on the American aircraft. My father basically needed to stay in the crane cab and make sure the part did not move while engineers carried out their work. My father recalled that, while he was waiting, a black American sergeant gave him a copy of a British newspaper to read. The paper was the Daily Mirror. It's headline was, to the effect, that the British government categorically denied providing any assistance to the American war effort in Vietnam. </li></ul><ul><li>  </li></ul>
  40. 43. <ul><li>The impact of war related stories and experiences (I have not included the more harrowing accounts here) is interesting. </li></ul><ul><li>Having looked at these war memories we went back to the childhood memories in the MRD. </li></ul><ul><li>A surprising number were war-related (mainly contributed by older adults in their 70s and dating back WWII). </li></ul>
  41. 44. <ul><li>At this point our tentative conclusion, or perhaps ‘working hypothesis’ would be better, is that war experiences and war ‘stories’ have a major, possibly disproportionate, impact on children, adolescents, and young adults (early 20s). </li></ul><ul><li>May be this is because these young self-systems and the memories that will populate them are still in the long process of development. </li></ul>
  42. 45. The End Thank You