The Rich Bounty of International Collaboration

Self-defining memories are personal memories that are particularly vivid and emotionally powerful; they are linked to enduring themes or conflicts in an individual’s life.

By Jefferson A. Singer

I am sitting in a pub in the historic city of Durham in the Northeast of England, having a pint with Martin Conway, one of the world’s experts in autobiographical memory research, as he tells me about one of his most important memories. He describes an evening at a similar pub in London when he was a young man. That day he had taken a class on Freud at the Open University, and while telling his friend about the class, he had come to the realization that he wanted to be a psychologist. It is, he explains to me, one of his “self-defining memories.” Self-defining memories are personal memories that are particularly vivid and emotionally powerful; they are linked to enduring themes or conflicts in an individual’s life. Having coined this term and initiated the study of these memories in the early 1990s (Singer & Salovey, 1993), I took great pleasure to hear it adopted in causal conversation by an influential and esteemed memory researcher. As a personality and clinical psychologist, I have studied self-defining memories through both laboratory and clinical case studies (e.g., Blagov & Singer, 2004; Singer & Blagov, 2004), but the opportunity to engage in direct collaboration with a cognitive psychologist from another country has been particularly gratifying. This moment of connection that we shared in the pub is just one small example of the way that international travel can provide surprises and rewards that you cannot achieve in any other fashion.

Of course, Martin Conway and I did more than chat in pubs during my semester at Durham University in the fall of 2003. With the support of my Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Award and a sabbatical from Connecticut College, I was able to free my time to work with Martin on a theoretical synthesis of our complementary work on the relationship of autobiographical memory to the self (Conway, Singer, & Tagini, 2004). In addition, we planned future research collaborations and writing projects. By being physically located in his department, I got to know and work with his doctoral students, including Angela Tagini, who served as a co-author on our Social Cognition article. (I will return to Angela a little later on.) I was also able to visit the University of Bristol to observe and plan research on EEG studies of self-defining memories, as well as present my research to clinical psychologists at a Cognitive-Behavioural Treatment Centre in Newcastle. Since one section of our joint article looked at how our model of memory and self could explicate the poet William Wordsworth’s writing on memory and imagination, I made sure to make a pilgrimage to Wordsworth’s Grasmere home in the Lake District of England.

On top of all of these professional and intellectual benefits, the opportunity to bring an international element to my work also had significant rewards for my family. My wife and two daughters accompanied me to Durham and both daughters were enrolled in English schools (with true “Harry Potter” uniforms). My older daughter, who was in 8 th grade at the time, was so entranced by her sojourn overseas that she came back determined to find a career that would allow for international exchange and living abroad. She is currently a first-year student at Brown University with a concentration in international relations. My wife, Anne, whose field is occupational health, used her time in Durham to work with a local oral history project focused on capturing the stories of the retired coal miners. We spent our weekends travelling to castles, cathedrals, sections of Hadrian’s Wall, London, and Edinburgh.

Throughout all these experiences, the Fulbright organization provided invaluable support and 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. During this period, so close to 9/11, it was particularly meaningful to see our country from outside our own comfortable field of vision.

One of the most important lessons this international collaboration reinforced for me is that good exchanges are beginnings, not simply one-time visits. Since 2003, Martin Conway and I have been in close contact and continued to collaborate. We have shared presentations at conferences, participated in a joint survey that collected nearly 10,000 memories from BBC Radio4 listeners from all around the world, and co-authored another article (Singer & Conway, 2008). In March of 2008, I received an ESCR/SSRC Collaborative Visiting Fellowship that allowed me to return to England and continue working with Martin, now at the University of Leeds. Perhaps most fittingly, this visit enabled us to return to Martin’s interest in psychoanalysis, and we wrote a joint paper linking our work on memory and the self to the theoretical writings on memory of the influential psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald. During this second stay in England, I gave talks at Oxford and Leeds and conducted meetings at Cambridge and the University of Hull. I also initiated a collaboration with Alex Schaefer of the University of Leeds, who has expertise in psychophysiological responses to memories; he is currently providing consultation to one of my honors students who is conducting a thesis on heart rate and skin conductance responses to self-defining memories.

Finally, I promised that I would return to Angela Tagini. Angela, who is Italian, went home to Italy to continue her work in psychology, ending up at the University of Milan. While working there she supervised a doctoral student, Laura Bonalume and introduced her to Martin’s and my work. Laura subsequently developed a doctoral dissertation that included research on self-defining memories. As part of her research, she received a fellowship to travel to the United States and work with me for two months. She recently finished her visit, but our collaboration will continue. This fruitful new friendship highlights my take-home message. International collaboration opens doors and creates possibilities that you cannot anticipate. By getting out of your laboratory or clinic and exposing yourself to new cultures and colleagues, you are likely to follow new directions and make new relationships that you could not have predicted. It is well worth the journey. Ψ


Blagov, P., & Singer, J. A. (2004). Four dimensions of self-defining memories (Content, specificity, meaning, and affect) and their relationship to self-restraint, distress, and repressive defensiveness. Journal of Personality, 72, 481-511.

Conway, M. A., Singer, J. A., & Tagini, A. (2004). The self and autobiographical memory: Correspondence and coherence. Social Cognition, 22, 491-529.

Singer, J. A., & Blagov, P. (2004). Self-defining memories, narrative identity and psychotherapy: A conceptual model, empirical investigation and case report. In L. E. Angus & J. McLeod (Eds.), Handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory and research (pp. 229-246). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Singer, J. A., & Conway, M. A. (2008). Should we forget about forgetting? Memory Studies, 1 (No. 3) , 279-285.

Singer, J. A., & Salovey, P. (1993). The remembered self: Emotion and memory in personality. New York : The Free Press.