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Flashbulb Memories


The events of September 11 renewed interest in the phenomenon of flashbulb memories.  In a classic paper, Brown and Kulik defined the flashbulb memory as an vividly detailed memory of the circumstances under which one first learned of a surprising, consequential, emotionally involving event. People of a particular age often have flashbulb memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or of Martin Luther King, or of Robert F. Kennedy. Other flashbulb memories that have been studied include the Challenger Disaster of 1986 and the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. And newspaper stories indicate that there are several studies in progress of flashbulb memories for the World Trade Center attacks.

Flashbulb memories were so named because it seems as if the mind has "taken a picture" of the circumstances in which the news was learned. Accordingly, most analyses have focused on the accuracy of flashbulb memories. For example, Ulric Neisser has written of his own flashbulb memory for learning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 . His memory is that he was listening to a baseball game at the time, but of course no baseball games were being played in December. Instead, it has been suggested that Neisser was actually listening to a football game (Neisser himself has another interpretation of the mistake).

Many studies have collected subjects' memories immediately after the event, and compared these "on-line" records to flashbulb memories reported after some interval has transpired. The general conclusion of these studies is that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, people's flashbulb memories are not necessarily accurate representations of the event in question. Moreover, whatever accuracy they may have may derive not from some exotic "Now Print" mechanism related to emotional arousal, but rather from the rather mundane effect of repeated rehearsals as people share their experiences of learning the news.

Accurate or not, flashbulb memories are still memories, and are interesting nonetheless. Flashbulb memories, whether of the assassination of President Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, the World Trade Center attacks, or such personal, private, idiosyncratic moments as one's first kiss, may serve an important function in the individual's personality. Moreover, the sharing of such memories may be an important social activity. Neisser himself has suggested that flashbulb memories are less snapshots of the past than benchmarks in one's personal history. As he has put it, "The flashbulb recalls an occasion when two narratives that we ordinarily keep separate -- the course of history and the course of our own life -- were momentarily put into alignment.... [W]e remember the details of a flashbulb occasion because those details are the links between our own histories and ‘History’.... They are the places where we line up our own lives with the course of history itself and say ‘I was there’.

Consistent with this suggestion, in a survey released on September 5, 2002, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 97% of Americans "can remember exactly where they were or what they were doing the moment they heard about the attacks" -- thus fulfilling the primary criterion of a flashbulb memory.  Perhaps just as important, 38% of those surveyed cited the 9/11 attacks as "the biggest life event of the past year".  Such events are typically idiosyncratic life changes such as births, deaths, marriages, or divorces, health problems, or events having to do with work or school.  The fact that so many people cited 9/11 as an event in their personal lives is consistent with Ulric Neisser's suggestion that flashbulb memories are benchmarks where personal and public histories intersect.

Link to a study of flashbulb memories for the Challenger Disaster.