COVID-19 and Flashbulb Memories

Within the past month, the University of Mary Washington switched to an online learning system as a result of the COVID- 19 situation. Students were strongly encouraged to move off of campus, unless there was a special reason which prevented them from leaving. I’m sure many of us can easily remember when and where you were when you moved out of your housing, as well as things like what you were doing, who you were with, etc. Cancelling campus living and activities has hugely impacted the UMW community, and I’m sure most everyone is starting to get frustrated with practicing social distancing, as social relationships are an extremely important aspect of human life. I know for a fact that people are starting to get annoyed with all of the COVID-19 posts on social media. Everyone is well aware that this is something that will be remembered for the rest of our lives, so I’m not going to dwell on depressing things we already know.

Instead, I’m going to talk about psychology, and how all of this chaos could possibly be related to the cognitive side. First, let’s go twenty years into the future. It’s 2040, and the COVID -19 crisis seems like it was thousands of years ago. You happen to see a meme about in on Facebook, if that’s even still relevant, and laugh. You think back to when your job, campus, or other daily activities were suspended, and can still picture it, along with all of the commotion that followed. Or can you? Cognitive psychology says think again. Human memory, even autobiographical memory, is extremely untrustworthy. Flashbulb memories can be described as very vivid ones, usually about shared events ( They are detailed in your mind, and often times you are 100% confident about the way things happened. These memories are often emotionally connected, and one is able to recall the location, source of the memory, emotion, and aftermath of the event. Many times, flashbulb memories are proved to be inaccurate. Memory is reconstructive, meaning upon each retrieval, it is reformed, therefore making it susceptible to change.

Research was conducted by a group of psychologists in May of 2009, looking to investigate long term memory (flashbulb memories more specifically) through the study of individuals who were alive during the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The study focused on several memory concepts, including flashbulb memories, long-term retention of events, and the impact of emotional components in relation to memory. The rate of forgetting flashbulb memories was proven to decrease over time, with higher rates of forgetting seen within the first year following the event. The study found that memory for emotional events are very unreliable, and states, “…despite the salience of the emotional reaction to flashbulb events such as 9/11, the memories of these emotional reactions tend to be forgotten more quickly than other aspects of the flashbulb memory, even over the long-term.”

The research also brings up another interesting point in that media coverage can have a significant impact on the way events are remembered over time. I’m sure when we are looking back on this time in our lives where COVID-19 affected us all so greatly, social media will be the root cause for us to change the way we remember the outcomes and feelings experienced. From funny jokes and memes to educational posts, the COVID-19 subject has become the main topic of discussion on virtually every social media platform. The media is continually providing updates to the rates of those diagnosed and deceased, and this is causing many individuals to take more precautions than usual. With so much information being so easily accessible, people are starting to experience higher levels of anxiety. Social media seems to be fueling this anxiety, and it is important to remember to remain calm during this chaotic time.

As for right now, this is undeniably a very emotional time for all of us. We must engage in practices to keep us all safe, and a benefit of social media is the access to knowledge on how to maintain our health and prevent illness. Relating back to the study, although we are all in a highly emotional state, when we look back, it will be difficult to remember/experience the exact level of emotionality we currently feel. It is also fascinating to know that in the future we might not remember these events correctly, even though we can feel so confident in ourselves. At least we have social media to document our feelings and actions for us to look back on. Anyways, I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy!


The link for the study can be found below:

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 and Flashbulb Memories

  1. mhart2402

    I’ll likely remember this event because of how shockingly appalling the US response was to it, or just how the average American citizen has responded to it comparatively to other countries. I feel like, at least with me, the more negative impact an event had on my life the more likely I am to remember it because my brain just loves to wake me up in the middle of the night or keep me awake with exceedingly terrible memories of my past.

    “Hey, are you asleep,” my brain will ask. I’ll tell it I’m TRYING to sleep and then it’ll respond, “Remember that thing that happened X years ago? It’s time to remember that embarrassing event again. Sleep tight.” And then sleep never happens.

    My memory may not be perfect, but I sure can remember all the bad things that have happened in my life, either things that I did that were bad or regrettable or just awful things in general that have happened to me. I’ll probably harbor many of these negative thoughts until the day I die, and that… well that’s just swell. 🙂

    1. chooker

      I will definitely remember this event! This has drastically changed my life and how I am able to do my schoolwork. I have seen all the memes about someone bringing up the year 2020 and the cat is having flashbacks to war time. I am not saying that the outbreak of Corona Virus is like a war time, but it will bring those flashbulb memories that we have back. We will definitely remember this time later on, but as a whole and probably not in little pictures.

Comments are closed.