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To understand the purpose of memorials and memorialization, it is important to explore the psychology of collective memory first. The term itself – “collective memory” – was created by Maurice Halbwachs to describe a memory set shared and constructed by a group or society, apart from individual memory. “For Halbwachs…this meant that studying memory was not a matter of reflecting philosophically on inherent properties of the subjective mind; memory is a matter of how minds work together in society, how their operations are not simply mediated but are structured by social arrangements” (Olick & Robbins 109). The collective memory, then, is an amalgam of individual memories that bounce off one another, feed into one another, and eventually work together to establish a single, larger memory set.
Individual memories are like different sides of the same story; no person’s memory of a single event will be the same as another’s. “Even when man is artificially separated from society and viewed outside of his relations to the group, he nevertheless retains its imprint” (Halbwachs 812). Collective memory consists of the in-between, the crossover, where details overlap and facts surface. On a grander scale, a nation chooses to remember certain events in a specific light and thus memorials are created. Since history is often written by the winners, memorials tend to celebrate achievements or glorify past victories. Sometimes they will commemorate someone who has died, or a group of people, in a way that acknowledges their own personal achievements or the circumstances under which they passed away.
Memorials are meant to be a physical representation of the collective memory of a nation or country. The creators of the memorial must beg the question, How do we want this event to be remembered? “First, as historiography has broadened its focus from the official to the social and cultural, memory has become central ‘evidence’” (Olick & Robbins 110). While memory is something usually looked down upon as evidence in courts or during legal trials, it becomes central in historiography and memorials. Unfortunately, collective memory is very subjective and changes often. As Jewish historiographer Yosef H. Yerushalmi notes, “Certain memories live on ; the rest are winnowed out, repressed, or simply discarded by a process of natural selection which the historian, uninvited, disturbs and reverses” (Olick & Robbins 110). At a certain point it is difficult to differentiate history and memory altogether, and why try?
Collective memory is concerned with present society – it is temporary – and therefore history becomes skewed with each new year. Every new history textbook tells a different version of events according to what is relevant at the time. And so memorials represent an event the way it wants to be remembered according to collective memory at a certain point in time.
This is all to say that historiography and memory are extremely subjective, based on many circumstances and points of view.
The issue becomes even more complicated once generations become involved, especially younger ones, because “developmental psychologists view youth as a kind of ‘critical period’ for learning about the larger society, almost in the same sense that earlier years are critical for other developmental tasks, for example, the acquisition of language” (Schuman & Scott 361). Children’s memorials need to be easily accessible, straightforward, and playful, as anything else would be too harmful for children’s critical periods of learning.
Children have dynamic memories, they forget and learn quickly. They use strategies
such as looking for key features and generalizing to learn. Researchers found that “distributing
learning events across time, rather than massing them together, enhances memory.” This is
called the spacing effect. It works by allowing time for children to forget the instances of
categories that they were learning about. Contrary to popular belief this actually enhances their
ability to remember categories later on (Sandhofer & Kornel 163-67).
Children’s memory defers from older children and adults. This can be shown in the way
we use memory to determine whether we experienced an event or not. This is called negative
memory. Adults see experiences as memory: “If it happened, I would have remembered it.”
Children use different strategies than adults: “If I hurt myself, then I would have a bruise,” or “If
I went to the beach, I would have pictures.” A study done with neuroimaging shows that while
children and adults use the same region of the brain for remembering, the children’s region
of the brain is less specialized (Holder).
World renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman, talks about experience vs. memory.
He gives an example of a man who goes to a symphony. Near the end of the performance
there is a loud abrupt noise. The man describes this one noise as ruining the whole experience for him.
This, however, wasn’t necessarily true. Kahneman explains that while the man believed the experience was ruined, it was actually the memory that was tarnished. Up until the loud noise
the man was enjoying the symphony. He was having a good experience.
Another study that was done was a medical procedure. This procedure was known to be painful. One group underwent a procedure where there were a few peaks in pain and the end of the procedure ended with a peak. In the other group the pain was constant, yet near the end the pain was less than the peak of the other group. When each group was asked to rate the pain they received, the group that had less pain near the end rated lower, even though they received more counts of pain administered, it was how it ended that determined the memory of the experience.
People often confuse memories with experiences and vice versa. In his speech, Kahneman talks about how there are two selves, the remembering self and the experiencing self.
In the experiencing self, most is lost forever, because we don’t remember every little detail of
the day. There is actually very few we do remember, considering all that we experience. The
remembering self is the one that makes decisions. The experiencing self has no choice; once
an experience is had, it cannot be changed. An interesting idea brought up is, because the future cannot be experienced, the future is only anticipated memories (Kahneman).