It isn’t surprising that many Bostonians have vivid memories of the 2013 Marathon bombing, or that many New Yorkers have very clear memories about where they were and what they were doing on 9/11.
But many individuals who were not onsite for these attacks, or not even in Boston on April 15 2013 or in New York on September 11 2001 also have vivid memories of how they learned about these events. Why would people who were not immediately or directly affected have such a long-lasting sense of knowing exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news?
These recollections are called flashbulb memories. In a flashbulb memory, we recall the experience of learning about an event, not the factual details of the event itself.
There might be an advantage to recalling the elements of important events that happen to us or to those close to us, but there appears to be little benefit to recalling our experience hearing this kind of news. So why does learning about a big event create such vivid memories? And just how accurate are flashbulb memories?
Strong emotions and personal connections
Not all historical events lead to flashbulb memories. An event must capture our individual attention and be identified as something significant before the memory is intensified. In order for us to exhibit this enhanced memory phenomenon, it seems critical that we feel a sense of personal or cultural connection to the event that results in a strong emotional reaction.
Cross-cultural studies of flashbulb memories show that although the types of events and the memories that result are quite similar from person to person, the specific events that lead to these memories vary dramatically.
For instance, the 1977 study that coined the term “flashbulb memories” showed that although both black and white Americans almost universally recalled flashbulb memories of John F Kennedy’s assassination, black Americans were more than twice as likely to have flashbulb memories for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr than were white Americans.
Some theorists have argued that part of the reason that our flashbulb memories are so long-lasting is because having such a vivid memory is “proof” of our membership in a particular social group. It would be a poor patriot who could not remember what he or she was doing on September 11 2001.
Flashbulb memories have vivid details
The first description of flashbulb-type memories in the psychological literature (by F W Colgrove in 1899) is actually of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the sample report includes abundant, specific detail:
Everybody looked so sad, and there was such terrible excitement that my father stopped his horse, and leaning from the carriage called: ‘What is it my friends? What has happened?’ ‘Haven’t you heard?’ was their reply–’Lincoln has been assassinated.’ The lines fell from my father’s limp hands, and with tears streaming from his eyes he sat as one bereft of motion.
Although we can remember many events from our lives for decades or longer, it’s the particular ease with which these extremely vivid memories come to mind after lengthy, sometimes lifelong delays, that also makes them remarkable.