A Distinction: Flashbulb Memories or Reminiscence Bump?


A Distinction: Flashbulb Memories or Reminiscence Bump?

2020 Flashbulb/Reminiscence Bump

We’re all well aware of what’s been happening in the past several months. Things have transpired in such a way that, from January to March, the news of current events have been particularly jarring. Among the coping culture of younger generations comes the production of memes in popular social media. Among these, we have the above: in which, ten years in the future, “2020” is a trigger for memories of what’s happened so far this year. From WWIII concerns to the current pandemic, its fair to say that the year has so far left a strong impression on us all.

So, how does this happen? There’s two possible options that I’ll discuss in my blog post. The first is flashbulb memories, which are very vivid memories within our autobiographical memory (most typically episodic memory). These flashbulb memories are closely associated with flashbacks, which are again closely associated with trauma or moments of substantially strong enough emotions, which can include receiving major news. In the month of January, there was a WWIII scare, which led to a deluge of social media referencing and which may have affected people to a certain degree, perhaps strongly enough to warrant the creation of flashbulb memories. However, while I’ve described flashbulb memories as being incredibly detailed and vivid, there’s one caveat that we must keep in mind: even though flashbulb memories are far more long lasting, they tend to be less accurate than our everyday memories, no matter how much more more we tend to feel more confident as to their accuracy.

A process through which we relive these memories is through recall initiated by what is widely regarded as a trigger, though is more scientifically known as a retrieval cue. Retrieval cues are stimuli that are relevant and closely related to other information that activates connections (formed through associations) within our brains that lead to other memories. Cues can cascade and waterfall – as we cue and remember specific information and memories, they can in turn cue even more information and memories.

Another potential contender that we have to explain the meme is the cognitive psychological phenomena of the reminiscence bump. Here, we have a strong recall of our autobiographical memories happening in our teens and 20’s. In short, older adult’s strongest memories are are of events and experiences that occurred between the ages of 10-30. The reminiscence bump applies to both semantic and episodic memories. Herein, we have three potential explanations (or perhaps even a mixture of all three or other combinations) as I learned them in my Psychology of Aging class:

  • Self-image – period of assuming one’s own self-image and sense of identity.
  • Cognition – encoding is typically better during periods of rapid change.
  • Cultural life script – culturally-shaped experiences structure recall.

Within my Cognitive Psychology class, we discussed another two potential factors:

  • Improvement of memory due to greater attention paid to life and surroundings (which falls in line with the aforementioned cultural life script).
  • And increased retrieval practice, brought about our tendency to reminisce (ironic isn’t it?) on what are typically viewed as the peak years of our lives, the highlights that shape us.

Now, I’ve mentioned two aspects of memory that I haven’t explained so it would only be right to properly define them for the audience. Episodic memories are a form of autobiographical memory; they’re narratives of our lives, recollections of events relevant to us like my mom’s wedding on the beach when I was 8 or the first time I swam a 50 yd freestyle sprint in under 22 seconds (CAC’s last year). Semantic memories, on the other hand, are statements of fact and are not necessarily tied to our personal lives – don’t have to be autobiographical. What’s the capital of France? What’s the legal drinking age in the US (though that may, perhaps, be of some personal relevance to some)?

Bottom line, I believe that whichever phenomena through which people remember the so-far memorable year of 2020 is something that is subjective and not necessarily mutually-exclusive. For some it could be one or the other, and for others it could be both. If you’ve enjoyed my blog post and/or have any questions for me, please don’t hesitate to to leave me a comment!. Best wishes in everything!

7 thoughts on “A Distinction: Flashbulb Memories or Reminiscence Bump?

  1. chooker

    First of all, I LOVE this meme! It always makes me think that this will be our reality when we are older. I am sure I will have flashbulb memories. This time we are living in is going to be so vivid and it is going to change how everyone perceives the world. I know how much this has been a huge impact on my life, so this will be a very vivid memory in my life.

  2. hmckeen

    I enjoyed reading your post! I saw this meme several days ago and it made me laugh. We all need a break from the doom and gloom every now and then. I found your explanation of why it is we will remember the events of this year so vividly in 10+ years to be really interesting. I liked the potential explanations you brought in from a different class. The idea of the reminiscence bump in this context is really interesting to think about. We think of having a great memory in our teens and 20s as a good thing, but perhaps it has its drawbacks as well. I think also, with the nature of the crisis that is happening right now (having to stay home, no gatherings of people), that is causing so many seniors to be missing their last year of high school/college and in many cases not have a graduation ceremony, this event becomes even more personally relevant for those individuals. I would guess that there’s a good chance seniors will have even more vivid memories of this event in 10 years than those also in this age range but who are not graduating this year. Of course, many other more critical factors cause this crisis to have increased personal relevance as well such as being a healthcare worker on the front lines, losing a job, or struggling to put food on the table. I have been really fascinated by the psychological underpinnings of this whole ordeal, and I’m glad others are too! Great post!

  3. ejones9

    The meme you used is SO funny. Very insightful post! I like your choice of topic, and you did a great job of explaining concepts and connecting them to a current event. Good job!

  4. jwhearty

    I enjoyed the meme and also your analysis of what will cause us to remember 2020 years later. I had also thought about the flashbulb memory aspect of the event that we are currently living through and how we will remember what we were doing during 2020 more so than 2019 and previous years. I really like how you also discussed how the reminiscent bump could affect our memory of this time and why we will remember it more because of that phenomenon. overall very interesting post.

  5. carmennichols

    I absolutely loved that meme. It’s perfect for what we’re going through right now so it’s nice to shed some light on it. Prior to reading your blog, I did not know what a reminiscence bump was but now it’s interesting to see how it can apply to what we’re going through now. Even though this “event” or pandemic is being spaced out through months, it still can very well be a flashbulb memory in the future. It also can be a reminiscence bump because we’re all young yet old enough to remember these events and pay closer attention to them. I feel like when this is all over and we’re all in our forties, we’ll remember this time as both a flashbulb memory and a reminiscence bump. Thanks for sharing!

  6. mrodrig8

    I feel that I too must compliment the meme because it was that great. But, I do think the year 2020 will hold both of the concepts. The announcement that UMW was closed is a flashbulb memory in my opinion. Not sure if it’s because COVID-19 is an everyday subject for me but I can easily stay what I was doing and what time of day it was when I received the announcement. I can even remember what I was wearing and a couple of my friends have a vivid description of what they were doing with the announcement as well.

    1. rpauley

      I think you’re right that both could apply. Thinking back on it, I can very vividly remember where I was and who I was with when UMW canceled class, so that day feels like a flashbulbs memory. Later in life though, everyone our age will be able to remember the general experience of what’s happening right now. I love the meme, great post!

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