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Psychology professor, students study memories of Japan disaster

In response to the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, Psychology Professor Christie Chung is conducting a study about peoples’ memories of the disaster.

Psychology students Ziyong Lin, Laura Samuelsson and Amelia True are assisting Dr. Chung with the research. The study asks participants questions about their feelings on the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan. Some questions included in the survey ask when the subject found out about the disasters, what their emotional reaction was and who they felt caused the events.

The Japan study concerns itself with the idea of the “flashbulb memory,” which, according to a research group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is comprised of “distinctly vivid, precise, concrete, long-lasting memories of a personal circumstance surrounding a person’s discovery of shocking events.” This is something that usually occurs with major disasters, but Dr. Chung is also seeing if there is a difference in the memories between man-made disasters, such as the San Bruno fire, and natural disasters such as the recent disaster in Japan.

Lin, a Mills junior, said that she mainly helped with translations to her native Chinese. In China, the study has been completed by over 130 participants — in part due to Lin’s recruitment efforts. The survey was also translated into Japanese, but Dr. Chung said that it has been difficult to contact people in Japan.

The team hypothesizes that the disaster might have a greater emotional effect on people closer to the earthquake — so that there would be a difference between the response collected from the U.S., China and Japan.

“We want to capture the initial memory and track it over time to see if the memory has changed,” said Dr. Chung. The survey is sent electronically to participants, and follow ups are conducted periodically over the next three to five years. She added that people are often convinced that their memories are accurate. “We are very confident we remember everything,” but that is often not the case.

The study reflects other studies Dr. Chung has done in conjunction with the Mills Cognition Lab. For example, she studied the effects of the San Bruno fire on people’s memories. The San Bruno study is still in progress.

Dr. Chung and Lin both said that they knew they wanted to do the study as soon as the disaster happened.

Since the research team is working on memory studies in relation to natural disasters, the effects are practically impossible to simulate in a lab. When this opportunity arose, they seized the chance to do another study like the one pertaining to the San Bruno fire.

In addition to capturing memories, Dr. Chung is also interested in how people feel about who is to blame for the event, and how different individuals are affected, for example by asking questions about the Japanese government, the nuclear plant workers, Japan’s nuclear safety committee, the country of Japan as a whole, society, nature and God.

In order to get more people to take the survey, the team is donating one dollar to the Red Cross Disaster relief fund for each survey participant. Dr. Chung has funded these donations out of pocket.
In addition, some students can get extra credit for their psychology classes for completing the survey. A page at the end of the survey directed only at Mills students asks who their psychology professor is so the researchers can pass along the information and add the points to the students’ class grade.

According to Dr. Chung, the number of people who participated cannot be published due to privacy issues, but they are hoping for as many participants as possible. Lin said that there has been a very positive response to the fact that money is being donated to disaster relief for each participant.

Dr. Chung said that the study can “benefit science” because “there are a lot of things we don’t know about memory.”

You can read more related posts on The Campanil’s special page about the disaster in Japan.