Flashbulb Memories: Traumatic Events and the Details We Remember

By US National Park Service employee (nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This past weekend, many of us took some time to remember the events of September 11, 2001. Between all of the news specials, memorial openings, and documentaries, many of you probably also thought about your personal experience of the day. Where were you when you found out? What were you doing? Who was with you? Those memories seem etched in our brains, crystal clear, so powerful that we’ll never forget some of the minutest details of that morning.

Shocking and surprising events often lead to vivid autobiographical memories that are tied to our strong emotional reaction to news of the event. Memories of this nature are recognized as a special kind of psychological phenomenon called “flashbulb” memories, so named because of their almost photographic nature that deteriorates very little over time. The canonical features of a flashbulb memory are the types of information we remember that are more detailed than ordinary memories: Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you feel? How did those around you feel? What happened next? Some events that evoked flashbulb memories in many Americans were the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and of course the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. These events held great personal significance to many people and caused a great deal of shock and devastation, so it is not surprising that we should remember them so well.

It is surprising, however, that memory researchers have found that some flashbulb memories are in fact not accurate, even though we may feel extremely confident about our own memories. A study conducted at the University of California San Diego took advantage of an opportunity to evaluate flashbulb memories regarding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Three days after the verdict was announced, students in an undergraduate psychology course at UCSD completed a questionnaire that asked them to recount how they had heard about the verdict, as well as a rating of the strength of their emotional reaction and whether or not they agreed with the verdict. Half of those students completed the same questionnaire 15 months later, and the other half responded 32 months later.

The researchers evaluated the consistency of each participant’s memory by comparing their initial report with the follow-up report, and scored them according to the degree of distortion (none, minor, major, or can’t remember). They found that responses with no distortions were most common in the 15-month follow-up, but responses with major distortions were most common in the 32-month follow-up. Most interesting of all, approximately 80% of participants met the criteria for having a flashbulb memory at follow-up, but nearly 40% of those memories contained major distortions! That means that participants gave very detailed reports about where they were, what they were doing, who was with them, what they were feeling, etc., but the situation they described was completely different from their initial report. The most common distortion in participants’ memories was the source from which they had heard the news.

Another finding from this study was that the strength of the participant’s emotional reaction when they first heard the verdict was the only predictor of the accuracy of their memories at follow-up. In other words, the more personally affected a person felt, the more likely they were to have accurate memories at a long delay. This makes sense on an intuitive level – you remember things that are important to you – but a long history of memory research has shown that emotional arousal can affect much less important or traumatic memories. For example, it is well documented that participants show better memory for taboo words than ordinary words in a basic memory task.

So as we pause to remember the events of 10 years ago, it is interesting to ask ourselves how well we remember. We are all likely to have strong, vivid memories of the day, but the accuracy of the details depends on many things. Were you living in California or New York (or Boston, like me)? Did you know someone who died that day? Did you feel personally affected? How often have you gone over the events in your head? There’s no real way to evaluate ourselves unless we kept a detailed record on paper, but perhaps the accuracy of the memory is not really what matters. Perhaps it matters more important what we have learned and how we have moved forward. The fallibility of memory is inevitable, but the stories of bravery and perseverance live on.

Works Cited:

H. Schmolk, E. A. Buffalo, and L. R. Squire. (2000) Memory distortions develop over time: Recollections of the O. J. Simpson trial verdict after 15 and 32 months. Psychological Science, 11(39): 39-45.