Memories are essential to our personal identities, and to understanding life and our surroundings. The book, "Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation" (MIT Press), co-written by a multidisciplinary team of researchers at the UI, explores the process by which we organize and retain memories.
The authors' primary thesis is that similar processes shape personal and group memories. Groups of people share information and build collective memories that are "different than the sum of the isolated memories of the individuals," they wrote.
The authors suggest that collective retrograde amnesia - the mutual loss of memories of events (that occurred prior to a large-scale social trauma, for example) - also occurs.
For example, many Chinese lost their memories of certain traditions after the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early '70s. The communists had eliminated many religious leaders and other "opinion leaders" who were responsible for solidifying the people's long-term religious, historical and literary memories. Unlike their counterparts in areas of northern Thailand and Taiwan, many mainland Chinese lost their memories of subjects that were forbidden under the new regime.
The prominent figures in a society who actively shape collective memory - the primary "memory makers," according to the authors - are often targeted by regimes that aim to suppress previous ideas and promote their own. In the China example, the authors write, "the Chinese Communist Party tried to replace traditional Chinese culture (and collective memory) with Marxism and state approved memories."
People rely on intellectuals, academics and artists as well as politicians and government officials to make decisions for the group, and often it is these figures who give meaning and stability to memories of recent and older events, the authors wrote.
Every person plays a part in long-term memory formation; it just depends on how involved they want to be, said Thomas Anastasio, a professor of molecular and integrative biology at Illinois and a co-author of the book.
"There are people who make the news, and there are those who decide the meaning of the news and whether that should be part of collective memory," he said.
Co-authors also include history graduate student Kristen Ehrenberger, cognitive neuroscience graduate student Patrick Watson and anthropology graduate student Wenyi Zhang.