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As previously mentioned, collective memory is created through the process of communication, by using the individual memory of every member in a group. This is because, even if the same event is witnessed by a group, every member of that group may have a different recollection and memory of that event. Each person in a group will have their memory, which is everybody’s own experiences and memories. By successfully communicating with and listening to each other, individual memories can be ordered in chronological order or an order of importance or relevance, to form a collective memory, which will have a significant effect on a community. However, as with many things within the human body, our memories are not perfect. There are many flaws within individual memory, which, therefore, means that collective memory cannot be infallible. Firstly, it is physically impossible to store all of the sensory information that our bodies receive every moment of the day in our brains, as there is simply too much of it. Therefore, the brain stores small bits of information that are considered to be of the highest relevance, reconstructing the rest of the details around those smaller pieces when it is required (when you need to recall the memory). The human memory is split into two parts: the short-term, and the long-term memory. Within short-term memory, things are stored temporarily. The main limitations of short-term memory are limited capacity (only about 7 items can be stored at a time) and there is limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time). Secondly, long-term memory is the more permanent part of the human memory, where memories and information that we want to preserve for longer are kept. Memory can also be categorized into two types: explicit memory (which is the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences, and concepts) and implicit memory (which does not require conscious thought. It allows you to do things by rote). This memory is not always easy to verbalize, since it flows effortlessly in our actions. It is the explicit memory that is affected by memory loss, and other diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. These conditions can severely affect the ability to recall memories.

Within my case study, I believe there are many instances where the individual memory cannot entirely be trusted, due to certain limitations. Due to the old age of people who have experienced traumatic events, it is not possible to fully rely on their memories. The accounts of older people should be verified by comparing them with the accounts of other people, which were shared when they were younger. This is because the effects of memory-related conditions are especially relevant when referring to the Holocaust, as considering that the Holocaust ended in 1945, 77 years ago, many of the survivors can now be considerably elderly. In a hypothetical situation, where a 20-year-old person entered a concentration camp, and then survived, they would be 97 years old today. According to many medical sources, the probability of somebody developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, while being over the age of 85 is almost 50%. Furthermore, the probability of someone developing these conditions after the age of 90 doubles almost every 5 years. This shows that today, this person would most likely be affected by some sort of mental condition, which would mean that their ability to recall past experiences would be limited. This limitation of individual memory would make it difficult for this person to be considered as a reliable source, in a discussion about their experiences about the Holocaust, which would therefore make the collective memory (which is made up of many individual memories) not exactly accurate. Here, it would be important to compare the accounts of the now elderly Holocaust survivors, with those of when they were still young, to ensure that these recollections match up so that the most accurate version of the events can be provided.

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Moreover, Japanese researchers have found that ‘experiencing trauma, abuse or neglect in childhood may lead to health complications later on, including a higher risk of developing dementia’. Following the liberation of those in concentration camps towards the end of World War Two in 1945, many attempted to suppress the trauma they sustained during the Holocaust and push it to the backs of their minds, distancing themselves from the terror and the grief, to start their new lives. However, for many survivors, this attempt at ‘moving on’ and continuing their life as if nothing had ever happened had not been successful, and they gave way to emotional and psychological difficulties. This inability to cope with their situations and acknowledge the suffering they were in led to several symptoms, which psychiatrists began to identify and group under names such as: ‘survivor syndrome’, ‘concentration camp syndrome’, and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’. After experiencing such a trauma, it is not surprising that people sustained a lot of damage.

Apart from the obvious psychological pain that the Holocaust survivors would have experienced, all these conditions have a significant impact on a person’s memory. According to many studies and researchers, physical, emotional, and psychological trauma can all play a factor in memory loss. It is possible to experience permanent or temporary memory loss depending on the type of trauma, and the severity with which each individual has received it in. For many people, blocking out memories can be one of the main ways of coping with the trauma. Scientists believe that the process of suppressing memories is called ‘state-dependent learning’. When the brain creates memories in a certain mood or state, particularly one of stress or trauma, those memories become inaccessible once the person returns to their normal state of consciousness. Furthermore, memory loss is a natural survival skill and defense mechanism humans have developed to protect themselves from psychological damage from trauma. Due to all the trauma that the survivors of the Holocaust would have faced, some would not be able to recall their experiences, due to memory loss. Because of this, once again, their memories could be compromised, which would mean their collective memory is not entirely factually correct (however this raises the question of whether or not a collective memory has to be factually correct at all). This idea is supported by Judith Lewis Herman when she states that ‘when the truth is fully recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often, secrecy prevails and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom. Denial exists on a social as well as an individual level… We need to understand the past to reclaim the present and the future. An understanding of psychological trauma begins with a rediscovery of the past. On the other hand, trauma could also cause an individual to be able to recall an event with much better clarity, due to how severe the impact of that trauma had on the individual’s life. When faced with a traumatic event, some people will replay this memory or have flashbacks to it. Both of these effects could end up strengthening it in the individual’s mind, so it would become a vivid part of their memory, and then of the collective identity. Aside from whether or not an individual, later on, a collective, memory has to be factually correct, it is important to note regardless of its accurate state, it does play a major role in shaping a community’s identity.

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