Flashbulb Memory: Definition and Examples

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Do you remember exactly where you were when you learned about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? Can you recall with great detail what you were doing when you discovered there had been a terrible shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida? These are called flashbulb memories—vivid memories of a significant, emotionally arousing event. Yet while these memories seem especially accurate to us, research has demonstrated that isn’t always the case.

Key Takeaways: Flashbulb Memories

  • Flashbulb memories are vivid, detailed memories of surprising, consequential, and emotionally arousing events like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • The term “flashbulb memory” was introduced in 1977 by Roger Brown and James Kulik, but the phenomenon was known to scholars well before then.
  • While flashbulb memories were initially believed to be accurate recollections of events, research has demonstrated that they decay over time just like regular memories. Instead, it’s our perception of such memories and our confidence in their accuracy that makes them different from other memories.

Origins

Well before the term “flashbulb memory” was introduced, scholars were aware of the phenomenon. As early as 1899, F.W. Colgrove, a psychologist, conducted a study in which participants were asked to describe their memories of discovering President Lincoln had been assassinated 33 years earlier. Colgrove found people’s recollections of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news were especially vivid.

It wasn’t until 1977 that Roger Brown and James Kulik introduced the term “flashbulb memories” to describe such vivid remembrances of surprising and significant events. The researchers found that people could clearly recall the context in which they heard about major events like President Kennedy’s assassination. The memories usually included where the individual was, what they were doing, who told them, and how they felt, in addition to one or more insignificant details.

Brown and Kulik referred to these memories as “flashbulb” memories because they seemed to be preserved in people's minds like a photograph at the moment a flashbulb goes off. However, the researchers also noted the memories weren't always perfectly preserved. Some details were often forgotten, such what they were wearing or the hairdo of the individual who told them the news. On the whole, though, people were able to recall flashbulb memories even years later with a clarity that was lacking from other kinds of memories.

Brown and Kulik accepted the accuracy of flashbulb memories and suggested that people must have a neural mechanism that enables them to remember flashbulb memories better than other memories. Yet, the researchers only asked participants to share their memories of the Kennedy assassination and other traumatic, newsworthy events at one point in time. As a result, they had no way to assess the accuracy of the memories reported by their participants.

Accuracy and Consistency

Cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser’s own inaccurate recollections of where he was when he learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led him to research the accuracy of flashbulb memories. In 1986, he and Nicole Harsch began research for a longitudinal study in which they asked undergraduate students to share how they’d learned about the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle. Three years later, they asked the participants to share their recollections of that day again. While the participants’ memories were just as vivid at both times, over 40% of participants’ memories were inconsistent between the two time periods. In fact, 25% related completely different memories. This research indicated that flashbulb memories may not be as accurate as many believed.

Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin took the opportunity presented by September 11, 2001 to test this idea further. The day after the attacks, they asked 54 students at Duke University to report their memory of learning about what happened. The researchers considered these recollections flashbulb memories. They also asked the students to report an everyday memory from the previous weekend. Then, they asked participants the same questions one week, 6 weeks, or 32 weeks later.

The researchers found that over time both the flashbulb and everyday memories declined at the same rate. The difference between the two kinds of memories rested in the difference in participants’ belief in their accuracy. While ratings for the vividness and belief in the accuracy of everyday memories declined over time, this wasn’t the case for flashbulb memories. This led Talarico and Rubin to conclude that flashbulb memories aren’t more accurate than normal memories. Instead, what makes flashbulb memories different from other memories, is people’s confidence in their accuracy.

Being There Versus Learning About an Event

In another study that took advantage of the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, Tali Sharot, Elizabeth Martorella, Mauricio Delgado, and Elizabeth Phelps explored the neural activity that accompanied the recollection of flashbulb memories versus everyday memories. Three years after the attacks, the researchers asked participants to recall their memories of the day of the attacks and their memories of an everyday event from around the same time. While all of the participants were in New York during 9/11, some were close to the World Trade Center and witnessed the devastation first hand, while others were a few miles away.

The researchers found that the two groups' descriptions of their memories of 9/11 varied. The group closer to the World Trade Center shared longer and more detailed descriptions of their experiences. They were also more confident about the accuracy of their memories. Meanwhile the group that was further away supplied recollections that were similar to those of their everyday memories.

The researchers scanned the participants’ brains as they recalled these events and found that when participants who were close by recalled the attacks, it activated their amygdala, a part of the brain that deals with emotional response. This wasn’t the case for participants who were further away or for any of the everyday memories. While the study didn't account for the accuracy of the participants’ memories, the findings demonstrated that first-hand personal experience may be necessary to engage the neural mechanisms that result in flashbulb memories. In other words, flashbulb memories could be the result of being there rather than hearing about an event later.

Sources

  • Anderson, John R. Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. 7th ed., Worth Publishers, 2010.
  • Brown, Roger, and James Kulik. “Flashbulb Memories.” Cognition, vol. 5, no. 1, 1977, pp. 73-99. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-X
  • Neisser, Ulric, and Nicole Harsch. “Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing the News About Challenger.” Emory Symposia in Cognition, 4. Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “Flashbulb” Memories, edited by Eugene Winograd and Ulric Neisser, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 9-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511664069.003
  • Sharot, Tali, Elizabeth A. Martorella, Mauricio R. Delgado, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. “How Personal Experience Modulates the Neural Circuitry of Memories of September 11.” PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the Unites States of America, vol. 104, no. 1, 2007, pp. 389-394. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0609230103
  • Talarico, Jennifer M., and David C. Rubin. “Confidence, Not Consistency, Characterizes Flashbulb Memories.” Psychological Science, vol. 14, no. 5, 2003, pp. 455-461. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.02453
  • Talarico, Jennifer. “Flashbulb Memories of Dramatic Events Aren’t As Accurate As Believed.” The Conversation, 9 September, 2016. https://theconversation.com/flashbulb-memories-of-dramatic-events-arent-as-accurate-as-believed-64838