Living and Learning: Splitting Time Between Studying and Making Memories

The Fulbright Program provides grants for students, scholars, professionals, and teachers to travel and study around the world. Sponsored by the US government, the program is designed to “increase mutual understanding between people of the United States and the people of other countries.” Following are the first in a series of occasional articles written by APS Members who recently went abroad on Fulbright scholarships.

Jefferson A. Singer and wife Anne Bracker at Barnard Castle

JEFFERSON A. SINGER and wife Anne Bracker visit the Barnard Castle in the north of London.

If you are from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic region, you might remember August 14, 2003 for one of the most sweeping and disruptive power outages in the history of the United States. My wife, two daughters (ages 13 and 11), and I will always remember this date as the time we were stranded without electricity for nearly 30 hours at JFK Airport, waiting to start our Fulbright semester at Durham University in Durham, England. After sleeping on the floors of the checkout areas, eating meals of honey-roasted peanuts, and dancing to an Israel Youth Jazz Band (who happened to be stranded in the same terminal), we became confident that we could handle anything this adventure might throw our way. Luckily, despite our inauspicious beginning, our five months in England and Durham were filled with stimulating research, education, cultural exchange, and new friendships.

The major purpose of our time in Durham was to facilitate my research collaboration with Martin Conway, one of the world’s experts in the field of autobiographical memory. For the past 20 years, I have studied a special type of highly emotional, vivid, and thematic autobiographical memories called “self-defining memories,” and have examined these memories’ linkages to personality and psychotherapy. Conway, a cognitive psychologist and APS Fellow, has done some of the most influential theoretical and empirical work on the structure and organization of autobiographical memory. With his colleague, Christopher Pleydell-Pearce of the University of Bristol, he has also examined the sequence of activation in different areas of the brain during the search for, retrieval, and imaging of personal memories.

The Fulbright award allowed Martin and me to combine our work in cognitive psychology and personality in order to describe how autobiographical memory processes and aspects of the self-concept interact. Working closely with his doctoral student, Angela Tagini, we wrote an article for a forthcoming 2004 special issue on autobiographical memory of the journal, Social Cognition [Volume 22, issue 5, pp. 495-537]. As part of the article’s investigation of memory and self, we demonstrated how current work on memory could explicate the poet William Wordsworth’s writing on memory and imagination. My opportunity to live and work in the northeast of England was instrumental to a rekindling of my interest in Wordsworth’s writing and led to an inspirational visit to his Grasmere home in the Lake District.

In addition to this work, Martin, Pleydell-Pearce, and I initiated a research study of slow wave EEG activation during the retrieval and recall of self-defining memories. An EEG, or electroencephalogram, is a test to detect abnormalities in the electrical activity of the brain. We developed the stimuli, designed the protocol, and commenced data collection at Pleydell-Pearce’s EEG laboratory in Bristol. Data collection has continued over the winter and spring and we hope to have this study completed by the end of the year.

By freeing me from teaching and administrative responsibilities, the Fulbright semester also allowed me to make substantial progress on a new book, In Defense of the Person: Foundations of a Person-Based Psychology and Psychotherapy, in press with The Guilford Press. The peace and beauty of Durham, with its 1,000-year-old cathedral and a castle built in the 900s (now a residential college of the university), provided the perfect environment for quiet reflection and uninterrupted stretches of writing.

As I worked on my projects, my wife, Anne, who had taken a leave from her work as an industrial hygienist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, used her time to study history, audit a course on Shakespeare, and bicycle around the countryside. She also ended up joining a course on conducting oral histories with the retired coal miners of the region and was able to tape and transcribe an interview she conducted. My daughters both attended “comprehensive schools” (the rough equivalent of public schools here) and wore “Harry Potter” style uniforms to school each day, complete with ties and blazers. Despite their fears about being singled out negatively for being Americans, their new English “mates” treated them with warmth and great hospitality. They both played on “football” teams (American soccer) and attended Durham City rugby games, while also following England’s triumphant pursuit of the World Rugby Cup.

Our cultural and travel opportunities were rich beyond our hopes. We walked impressive sections of Hadrian’s Wall and viewed ruins of Roman forts and baths dating back to the 100s. We visited the Holy Islands where Saint Cuthbert walked and prayed in the 600s. We took in wild street theatre at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and waved to the performance artist, David Blaine (and he waved back) during his 44-day fast in a plexiglass bubble suspended above the London skyline. We saw all the typical tourist sights of London, but also travelled to little villages and remote castles and museums that are not on the usual visitor’s path. We sampled many pubs, became regulars for “Quiz Night” at our “local,” and learned the difference between “real ale” pulled from the basement casks and draft beer pumped from metal kegs. We took in wonderful historical dramas on BBC, followed the national soap operas, “East Enders” and “Coronation Street,” and watched Simon being cruel to contestants on “Pop Idol,” the original show on which “American Idol” is based.

Throughout all these experiences, the Fulbright organization provided helpful support and valuable cultural exchange experiences that allowed us to talk with government representatives, members of the media, and educational administrators about similarities and differences between the United Kingdom and the United States. We saw our own country through the eyes of communities outside our own border, and this view was not always a flattering or comfortable one. As a Jewish family in Europe, we both experienced first-hand and read about incidents that reminded us that anti-Semitism remains a very real and frightening problem in the world today. Still, the generosity and kindness we received from the members of the Durham community and throughout our travels in Great Britain far outweighed these more difficult aspects.

I want to encourage my colleagues in the field of psychology to pursue Fulbright opportunities. If we ever hope to understand human behavior, our understanding must expand to all peoples and cultures that make up our world. Every step we can take to extend ourselves beyond the boundaries of the United States is a step toward that more comprehensive understanding. There are Fulbright possibilities in virtually every region of the world for both teaching and research activities. With some planning and flexibility, our family was able to make this experience an unforgettable trip that enriched all of our lives. My advice is to start planning your Fulbright adventure now. Just watch out for hot summer days and power outages!

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