Flashbulb Memory: Where were you that day?


It's happened to me several times: I'll be deep in conversation with a group of friends and the discussion gradually shifts into personal stories about 9/11. Everybody takes a turn to talk about their experiences that day -- where they were, how they found out, what they were thinking at the time. I had heard of similar conversations concerning the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but because I'm too young to have been around that day, I didn't quite understand it until 9/11 happened.

People in the psychology field call this "flashbulb memory," and it refers to the phenomenon of how people retain exceptionally vivid memories about significant, emotional events. Because history is always told from memory and people's flashbulb memories dictate what we know about significant events of the past, historians are understandably interested in the phenomenon. A new study indicates that people tend to remember history-making moments more vividly than personally significant events.

The study should be taken with a grain of salt: it was commissioned to publicize a new history channel in the UK and it considered the results of 300 British adults recalling 32 historical and personal memories. You can read more about it at History News Network. There are a few other aspects of the study I find suspect, too. So, I'd be interested to know whether other scholarly studies come to similar conclusions.

This particular article didn't address what I find most fascinating about flashbulb memory, which is how inaccurate it can be. We all know memory isn't the most reliable brain function, but because our flashbulb memories are so incredibly vivid, we're usually confident they're dead-on. Nevertheless, according to this pyschology textbook, many researchers have found that flashbulb memories can be surprisingly inaccurate.

Sadly, it seems the more we find out about memory, the less we can trust the accounts of history.

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