Memories for Life: War sparked enduring recollections

World War II ended 60 years ago, but memories of that conflagration show surprising staying power. Danes who lived through the Nazi occupation, which began in 1940, and the liberation in 1945 remember information associated with those two events with considerable accuracy, a new study finds.

Vivid recollections of one’s surroundings and other personal experiences at the time of momentous, surprising events have been dubbed flashbulb memories. Earlier studies indicated that the accuracy of this type of recall declines substantially for 3 years after such events take place. That led some researchers to posit that after a decade or more, such memories become totally untrustworthy.

However, a healthy proportion of flashbulb memories related to World War II have stayed intact for more than half a century in Danes, say Dorthe Berntsen and Dorthe K. Thomsen, psychologists at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

Their conclusion hinges on study participants remembering verifiable information related to the wartime events, such as the time of day that the radio announced liberation. Berntsen and Thomsen argue that the accuracy of verifiable information serves as a gauge of the veracity of personal recollections. Their technique conservatively estimates flashbulb-memory accuracy, the researchers contend, since people remember material better if they recount past events spontaneously rather than respond to questions about those events, as in the study.

Berntsen and Thomsen administered questionnaires to 145 Danes, ages 72 to 89. None had been diagnosed with a brain disease. Another 65 Danes born during or after World War II, ages 20 to 60, also completed questionnaires.

All the volunteers answered such questions as what the weather was like on occupation and liberation days and whether those days fell on workdays or the weekend.

Elderly participants also reported what they were doing when they heard news of the occupation and liberation, and their most negative and most positive personal memories from World War II.

Older Danes answered far more factual questions correctly than their younger counterparts did, the scientists report in the May Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. For instance, 100 war survivors, compared with only 3 of the younger participants, accurately described weather conditions on the day the Germans invaded Denmark.

Nearly all the older Danes cited personal memories related to the two war events. About 80 percent related either a most-negative or a most-positive wartime memory. Participants remember the liberation more clearly and with more details than they recall the invasion.

Individuals who reported having intense emotions at the time of occupation and liberation and who had regularly thought about those events after the war revealed the most detailed personal memories.

The 66 participants who reported ties to the Danish resistance movement displayed particularly accurate factual recall and remembered personal experiences with great clarity.

“Occupation and liberation during World War II dramatically affected everyone in Denmark,” comments psychologist David C. Rubin of Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Danes now at advanced ages appear to have pretty accurate flashbulb memories for those events.”

Liberation loomed large in the older Danes’ memories because it’s often publicly commemorated in Denmark, the investigators say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.