When asked where you were on the day of 9/11, are you able to give an accurate answer? I know when I think of that day I think I can remember it perfectly…I was in the classroom of my elementary school sitting at my desk when an announcement came on saying we were all getting picked up early by our parents, my mom then came and picked me up and we went to my dad’s work and that is when I saw the Twin Towers on the television. I think I remember exactly where I was on that day but researchers can prove otherwise.
Research suggest we do forget. We don’t forget the dead or the importance of the moment, we forget the details surrounding that day. The emotional and vivid memory people hold on to from that day is what is known as a flashbulb memory. Flashbulb memories were first studied by Roger Brown and James Kulik in 1977 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. In this study they interviewed 80 Americans and asked them to answer questions about 10 events (9 of them were assassinations and the last event was a personal event they selected that caused self-shock). They also were asked how much they rehearsed these events with other people and with themselves in their head. The results of this study showed that flashbulb memories are formed in situations that cause us to become surprised or highly emotional, they are maintained through rehearsal with others and privately, they differ from other memories because they last longer and are more vivid, and are made through a specialized neural mechanism which stores information permanently in a unique memory system.
The problem with flashbulb memories are that they wear away over time even though we still think they are crystal clear. I may not rehearse where I was at the time of 9/11 over and over again to people but I know that every year on 9/11 I watch the documentaries on television and rehearse to myself where I was that day. Some of my family also lives in New York which could have something to do with how vivid my memory of that day is because it has another important meaning to it.
Days after the 9/11 attacks, psychologists started interviewing and surveying people. The day right after the attack, September 12, researchers from Duke asked 54 Duke Undergraduates questions about where they were when they heard about the attacks. They also asked them to provide memories for a few everyday events. After one week, six weeks, or 32 weeks, the students came back to answer the same set of questions. Researchers saw that the number of consistent details about the event dropped from 12 details the day after it happened to 8 details 32 weeks after it happened. Yet people felt extremely confident in their recall.
This is what makes flashbulb memories so different from regular memories. We are so much more confident about our flashbulb memories. People even claimed to have seen live footage of the first plane hitting one of the towers even though that video was not broadcasted until days after the attack. Which makes me think my memory of seeing the towers on the television may not be accurate, maybe I have just remembered seeing the same picture on the TV for so many years I see it as though it happened that very day.
A big pattern in these memories is emotion. I was only in the first grade when this happened so when you think it about I really had no idea what was going on. But because it was such a huge and traumatic event in history, I think the reason why my memory has become so vivid is because I have become older and learned more about the details about that event and have become more emotionally involved in what happened that day. There is even proof that the amygdala, the area in the brain involved in emotion, is more active when retrieving memories than the posterior parahippocampus, the brain region involved with contextual details. Researchers have even mentioned when something is emotional, people tend to focus on just the emotional stimulus, failing to store broader details in memory. This is so hard to believe when it feels like we are literally replaying these important events and memories in our heads. They seem to exist, but do they actually?