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Historically significant public events sometimes organize autobiographical memory, acting as temporal landmarks and providing the thematic content which defines the lifetime periods they spawn (Brown and Lee, 2010; Brown, Lee, Krslak, et al., 2009). We begin this chapter by briefly reviewing a research program that has demonstrated the existence of these historically defined autobiographical periods and that has allowed us to identify the conditions that bring them about. In this section, we also present data from four samples of World War II-generation adults, data which prove that historically defined autobiographical periods endure over time. Next, we consider the theoretical implications of these findings. In particular, we introduce a new approach to autobiographical memory called the transition theory. This approach assumes that autobiographical memory is organized by transitional events and that these transitions can be self-initiated or externally imposed. On this view, historically defined autobiographical periods are formed by externally imposed transitions. We develop this point in the third and final section of this chapter.
The living-in-history project
War, terrorism, and natural disasters can have far-reaching effects on the lives of those involved (Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, et al., 1994; Levy and Sidel, 1997; McNally, 2003). Collective memory for extraordinary social events can also play a critical role in the construction and maintenance of group identities and in the persistence of intergroup hostility (Bar-Tal, 2007; Cairns and Roe, 2003; Halbwachs, 1992; Hirst, Cuc, and Wohl, this volume). Our project examined the mnemonic impact of public events at the individual level in order to understand when autobiographical memory and historical events can become intertwined. More specifically, the program of research was undertaken to determine whether public events affect the organization of autobiographical memory and to specify the conditions that result in the creation of historically defined autobiographical periods. We were interested in this issue because we suspected that people who had “lived in history” might understand the recent past in a different way than those who had not, and that this understanding might ground current and future beliefs about that past. For this reason, we wanted to identify public events that caused people to “live in history” and to distinguish these epoch-defining events from other significant public events.
History is an extension of memory.
The reality of these events does not consist in the fact that they occurred but that, first of all, they were remembered, and, second, that they are capable of finding a place in a chronologically ordered sequence.
Every day dozens of noteworthy events are reported in newspapers, on television, and in radio broadcasts. Depending on your reading, viewing, and listening habits, you may be exposed to several different descriptions of the same event over the course of a single day, or you may have to endure hearing the same version repeated a number of times. Further, these events may come up again in conversation and as the topics of magazine articles or film documentaries. The point is that exposure to current events is a common, almost unavoidable part of our daily experience and that information concerning these events, extracted from the media and from our interactions with others, is learned in the context of our own lives.
In this chapter we explore how the knowledge people have of recent history (public memories) is linked to their knowledge of their lives (personal or autobiographical memories). We expect a given public memory to be a blend of facts about the public circumstances in which the event occurred and facts about the personal matrix in which that information was acquired.
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