Flashbulb Memories

I have grown up in Charlottesville Virginia my whole life and it is a place that many people would call peaceful and beautiful. It is a very historic place and I loved being raised there. Downtown Charlottesville was a favorite hangout spot for many college and high school kids because of the abundant places to eat and the awesome things to do. The image of Charlottesville and more specifically Downtown Charlottesville was tainted on August 12th 2017. My hometown was changed that day because of the “Unite the Right” rally related to the tearing down of the Robert E. Lee statue. This ended horrifically when 32-year-old Heather Hoyer died from a car ramming through protesters.  This was someone that lived in my neighborhood, someone that was well respected and also someone that died fighting for what they believed in. At the moment the car drove through the street I didn’t know who was killed and injured or even how many were killed or injured in that instant. All I knew was that my family and friends were downtown that day. This is my “Flashbulb Memory”.

I am sure that every single person reading this blog post can think of a “flashbulb memory”. Our textbook defines this as “a memory of extraordinary clarity, typically for some highly emotional event, that us retained despite the passage of many years”.  These events are connected and remembered because of the emotion tied to them. We talked about in class with memory that if you have a connection to the material and can relate it to something in your life it is more easily put into long term memory. For example, the track and field man that chunked numbers into times for races. This is why “flashbulb memories” seem so vivid, they have a huge emotion tie to us. Psychology Today states that “there may not be time in the moment to analyze exactly what happened”.  This is why they are remembered so long after.

A very common example of a flashbulb moment is 9/11. This was a tragic event that shaped the country. Since we are too young to remember 9/11 it is not considered a “flashbulb memory” for us. But for those that are old enough to remember, how many times have you heard the phrase “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened”. This is an event that happened over 16 years ago and something that even today people swear they can still vividly remember. People are very confident in their perception of the event and that they have all the details right. What if I told you that these vivid memories and details you remember are actually a lie and altered.

The experiment by The Journal of Experimental Psychology, proves to us that we don’t remember all the details as accurately as we think we do. The experiment was focused on the events of 9/11. The researchers gave people a survey recalling specific events of 9/11 right after the event, a year after and then ten years after. Those that took the survey were pretty certain they got all the details correct but based on their first responses there were many inconsistencies. People after ten years had about a 60 percent accuracy. This accuracy is still better than other events from ten years ago but there were details that people missed. Another interesting thing that researchers found was that those who were surveyed remembered only core details of the event, like number of planes. They had little to no recollection about peripheral facts, like where George Bush was during the attacks.

One reason for why these events may be altered from the real version is because of false memories. This is when you almost create whole new details that didn’t actually happen but they are believable to you. An example of this is with an experiment by Elizabeth Loftus. She made a man believe a story that he got lost in a shopping mall when he was kid. Not only did he believe it but he added details to the story. We can adopt these false facts because of how accurate they can sound to us. This relates to the 9/11 scenario because the facts that they got wrong may be from stories other people have told or also from things that been on the news since it was something shown nationwide and is talked about each year. These are facts about 9/11 that are relatable and believable.

So even though these “flashbulb memories” are so vivid, which makes you confident in them, they are inconsistent. So ten years down the road I may remember the name of the lady that was killed and what I was doing in that moment but other details surrounding the event will be lost. At the end of the day though it doesn’t matter what colored shirt I was wearing when the car went down the street, what matters is the emotion tied to the event. Even though these memories are not always accurate they at least help us remember something very important and connected to us. As stated in the textbook “memory errors can occur even in the midst of our strongest, most vivid recollection”.













3 thoughts on “Flashbulb Memories

  1. apelduna

    While I don’t believe I could recall specific details of my 9/11 experience, I feel like it’s potentially a more reliable memory for me because I was already doing something very different from what would have been my usual routine. On 9/11, I was in military police school participating in the emergency vehicle operator course. I recall being interrupted from our training that day and shuffled into a classroom. None of us had any idea what was going on and we thought we might be in some kind of trouble. They sat us down and told us what had happened, then turned on CNN (which was usually the only news channel that was available on base). I couldn’t tell you much about Fort Leonardwood and the rest of my MP training. I recall bits and pieces, like how I recall a dream hours after I wake. However, I can see that classroom. I can remember the rush of feelings …concern for my family that lived so close to the World Trade Center, overwhelming sadness for the lives lost, uncertainty about what the attack meant for our future as Marines, a driving sense of duty that we were going to graduate from school and do our best to help protect our country. As I said, I know there are many details that I don’t recall and I’m sure I could easily start filling in the blanks. But I also believe because the attacks were personal to me on so many levels, that memory was seared into my brain.

  2. jzaccagn

    Hi there!
    I read your blog post some time ago, but I have been doing some thinking about it. Most of my comments do not have much intellectual depth, but my comments certainly contain some emotional depth. I was about 14 when 9/11 happened, and yes, I remember where I was when I heard the news. I did not understand it at the time, but I cannot say I understand it much better now. On a personal scale, I think of it as a day of loss of my innocence and my introduction to the cruel randomness of reality. Even being removed from the situation, I was horrified. My heart still drops in my chest whenever I think about that day. To attempt to tie my thoughts to event intellectually, all of the strong memories I have are emotionally-based. The strongest memory I have is listening to the radio in band class while looking out the window. The sky was crystal, clear blue. One of the most horrifying events of human history happened underneath the most gorgeous, cloudless September sky.
    Something I wonder about flashbulb memories is this: are these memories seemingly, intensely “vivid” due to their ties of emotions linked to adrenaline? Are these memories vivid in the context that our mortality is being threatened? From an evolutionary-standpoint, are these memories intense so we will not forget them when another life/death situation appears? Most of my “flashbulb” memories are from traumatic events. I can count the positive,
    “flashbulb” memories I have on one hand. I am writing my comment without doing my homework on flashbulb memories, but my theory is that these memories are tied to the emotions of fear. What do you think?
    Finally, I want to say, I think you did a great job tying a personal event with the content of the textbook! I think you demonstrated critical thought! Good luck!
    Julie Zaccagnino

  3. ewhitese

    I too have my very own flashbulb memory from April 16,2008 . I was in my fourth grade class. At the beginning it started out as normal day but that quickly changed for me. We were sitting in class doing our work as usual, then the principle came over the intercom and informed us that we were on lock-down. The teacher began giving instructions for us to all go to the corner as she locked the door and covered the windows. For a while we just sat there trying to be silent. Eventually our teacher pulled out a book and began reading to us. At this time we had no idea how long we would be stuck in the classroom. It turns out we were their for almost four hours. This was the day that 32 people were killed in a mass shooting at Virginia Tech. My elementary school was three blocks from campus. I think that this event had such a lasting effect on me because I didn’t know what would happen. Would the shooter leave campus and come towards my school? Did someone I know at VT get killed? Fortunately for me neither of those things happened, however, that doesn’t mean that the loss of those lives didn’t hurt any less. We had family friends that lost co-workers and spouses that day and for the rest of my life April 16th will be an important day!

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