I want to start with a personal story (sort of). My dad was in the first grade when he heard the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. The principal of his school alerted everyone to leave, including the teachers. He had to walk home by himself, not really knowing what was going on, but being aware of the strong emotional response he felt from those around him. When he got home, he said that he saw my grandmother crying in front of the television. He asked, “What’s wrong?” She responded, “Someone has killed the president” (he’s currently telling me this story as I type it).
That had to be a very impactful moment for my dad, and one that makes me glad I wasn’t around just yet!
This is definitely a flashbulb memory, and one that my dad has been able to recall again and again throughout his life in “perfect,” vivid detail. In fact, flashbulb memories became a concrete “thing” in 1977, shortly after the horrific assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Researchers found that people were able to recall what they were doing, what they felt, and who told them of the assassination (Hassan, Zainab).
So was anyone else aware of flashbulb memories before this time, or was it triggered by President Kennedy’s assassination? The answer: flashbulb memories have been a “thing” for a very, very long time. Amazingly, a psychologist by the name of F.W. Colegrove conducted a study in 1899 that tested participants’ memories upon hearing that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated 33 years earlier. Colegrove came to the conclusion that the recollections from people he was getting were especially engaging and vivid (Vinney, Cynthia).
What is truly remarkable about flashbulb memories is how they are different from our generic autobiographical memories. The main difference between these two types of memories is sort of simple: the main difference is our personal beliefs. It has been said that the rate of forgetting for both flashbulb memories and generic autobiographical memories is roughly the same. However, when asking someone to recall a flashbulb memory, they are overly confident about it compared to other memories (even if they have forgotten some of the facts) (Talarico, Jennifer). So, lately I’ve been quizzing my dad about the day President Kennedy died. I’ve been asking him things like “Dad, how sure are you that you were in school when President Kennedy was assassinated?” He always answers “I’m positive I was in school.” Considering his story has been confirmed by my grandparents, I have no choice but to believe him!
Lately, there have been movements within certain communities to retain particular flashbulb memories. This has recently been applied to the date of 9/11, with people posting pictures of the Twin Towers on social media and simply captioning it with the phrase “never forget.” According to some, these movements “serve to maintain memories not just collectively, but individually” (Talarico, Jennifer). Whatever the case may be, flashbulb memories are extremely interesting and important to our lives. The emotion that some flashbulb memories can hold is extremely raw, and the way we recall these events is equally remarkable.
Talarico, Jennifer. “Flashbulb Memories of Dramatic Events Arent as Accurate as Believed.” The Conversation, 11 Nov. 2019. https://theconversation.com/flashbulb-memories-of-dramatic-events-arent-as-accurate-as-believed-64838
Hassan, Zainab. “Flashbulb Memories: How Emotion Influences Cognition.” Psych Central, 27 Aug. 2019. https://psychcentral.com/lib/flashbulb-memories-how-emotion-influences-cognition/
Vinney, Cynthia. “Flashbulb Memory: Definition and Examples.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 31 July 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/flashbulb-memory-4706544