What are flashbulb memories?
The theory of flashbulb memories was proposed by Roger Brown and James Kulik in 1977 after they investigated memories of the JFK assassination. They found that people had very vivid memories of when they received the news including exactly what they were doing, the weather, and the smells in the air.
They defined flashbulb memories as unusually vivid memories of a surprising and emotionally arousing event.
Their theory encouraged three main questions:
- What is the physiological basis of flashbulb memories?
- Is the vividness of the memory created by the event or is it due to rehearsal?
- How accurate are flashbulb memories?
The Physiological Basis
Sharot, et al. (2007), conducted a study three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The participants had all been geographically close to the World Trade Center, some very close in downtown Manhattan while others were a little farther away in Midtown. The participants were placed in an fMRI scanner and asked to recall memories from the attacks and from a control event. The results showed that 83% of the downtown Manhattan participants exhibited a selective activation of the amygdala (responsible for processing emotions) when retrieving the 9/11 memories. This activation was only observed in 40% of the Midtown participants. Therefore, the results of this experiment:
- Support Brown and Kulik’s theory that emotional arousal is key to flashbulb memories
- Suggest that flashbulb memories have a unique neural basis
- Found that close personal experiences are critical in engaging the neural mechanism that underlies flashbulb memories
Event versus Rehearsal
Researchers conducted a study on flashbulb memories of the Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California shortly after in happened and then again 18 months later (Neisser, et al., 1996). Some of the participants were Californian while others were on the opposite coast of the US in Atlanta. The Californians recollections of the earthquake was nearly perfect and the Atlantans who had family members in California during the earthquake’s memories were considerably more accurate than those who had no connections. However, no correlation was found between emotional arousal and recall. This then suggested that repeated narrative rehearsal, the fact that some participants discussed the event more than others, may have played a role. Therefore, the study suggests that the vividness of flashbulb memories is actually due to rehearsal rather than the event itself.
A 1988 study published in the journal Cognition conducted a similar research on flashbulb memories of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986 in which the shuttle exploded moments after take off, resulting in the deaths of seven on board (Bohannon, 1988). The participant interviews included questions about their emotional reactions and how many times they discussed the tragedy with other people. The results showed that both higher levels of emotional arousal and rehearsal correlated with greater vividness of recall.
Overall, these studies seem to demonstrate that both emotional arousal and rehearsal contribute to the vividness of flashbulb memories. Therefore, the theory of flashbulb memories was shifted to accommodate for the factor of rehearsal.
Neisser and Harsch (1992) examined participants’ memories of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster by giving them a questionnaire the day of the incident and then again 3 years later. The results showed very low consistency of responses. On average, the participants answered correctly only about 42% of the time. However, the participants were very confident in the correctness of their memory and were very surprised by and unable to explain their low scores.
Talarico and Rubin (2003) conducted a similar study on flashbulb memories of the 9/11 attacks. Participants recorded their memory of the tragedy the day after as well as a regular everyday memory. They were then tested again 1, 6, or 32 weeks later for both memories. They also rated their level of emotion response, the vividness of the memories, and their confidence in the accuracy. The findings showed that there was no difference in accuracy between the flashbulb and everyday memory; the accuracy declined over time for both. However, rating of vividness and belief in accuracy stayed consistently high for the flashbulb memories. This suggests that emotional response only corresponds with belief in accuracy but not actual accuracy of the memory. Therefore, Talarico and Rubin concluded that flashbulb memories are only special in their perceived accuracy because besides participants’ high levels of confidence in their remembrance, very little distinguishes flashbulb memories from normal memories.
Flashbulb memories are a fascinating but still unclear phenomenon. While research suggests that flashbulb memories 1) have a physiological basis, 2) include several factors such as event and rehearsal, 3) and only seem to be special in their perceived accuracy, there is still more to be investigated.
Moreover, there are several inherent limitations that must be considered with studies in this area. For instance, most research on flashbulb memories tends to focus on reactions to negative public events which is a difficult variable to manipulate; for this reason, most flashbulb memory studies yield correlational results. While correlational studies can find relationships between variables, such as emotional arousal and flashbulb memories, no assumptions can be made about the nature of the relationship. This also contributes to the lack of information on this topic.
An alternative approach would be to focus on personal traumatizing events and their effect on memory. However, such research would most likely be case studies which presents issues of low standardization.
Because of these conflicting issues and limitations, flashbulb memory is a difficult concept to pursue which is why much of the phenomenon still requires clarification.
Bohannon, J.N. (1988). Flashbulb memories for the space shuttle disaster: A tale of two theories. Cognition, 29(2): 179-196.
Brown, R. & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1): 73-99.
Neisser, U. & Harsh, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In Winograd, E., & Neidder, U. (Eds). Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of flashbulb memories. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Neisser, U., Winograd, E., Bergman, E.T., Schreiber, C.A., Palmer, S.E. & Weldon, M.S. (1996). Remembering the earthquake: Direct experience vs. hearing the news. Memory, 4(4): 337-357.
Sharot, T., Martorella, E.A., Delgado, M.R. & Phelps, E.A. (2007). How personal experience modulates the neural circuitry of memories of September 11. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(1): 389-394.
Talarico, J.M. & Rubin, D.C. (2003).Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological Science, 14(5): 455-461.