Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about 9/11? Or how about when you heard that Michael Jackson had died? The chances are, you can describe your exact location, how you found out the news, and precisely what you were up to. This is a common phenomenon for news similar to the examples described above – shocking (and sometimes emotional) news which tends to stick in our memories. But is our memory really as reliable as we think?
What are flashbulb memories?
The term ‘flashbulb memory’ was coined by Brown & Kulik in 1977, when they analysed people’s memories of the assassination of JFK. They proposed that flashbulb memories were the result of an event having 1) a high level of surprise or significant consequences and 2) a strong emotional response.
They hypothesised that these memories had an evolutionary basis: by vividly and accurately remembering these surprising events we would be able to learn from them and therefore be less likely to endanger ourselves in the future.
A key feature of a flashbulb memory is that we vividly remember details of the context surrounding us when we hear the news of these surprising events. It should be noted that the authors did not use the word ‘flashbulb’ to imply that we remember everything about the time in which we heard the news, just the longevity of the subsequent memory.
Confidence or Consistency?
One of the significant features of a flashbulb memory is that people are very confident that their memory is accurate. For example, I’m sure when you considered the questions above the information about where you were when you heard the news came to mind very quickly, and I bet you feel pretty confident that your memory is correct.
However, following on from Brown & Kulik’s research, other scientists wanted to test how susceptible these flashbulb memories were to the errors of forgetting our normal episodic memories (memories of our daily life) are affected by. One study did this by comparing participant’s flashbulb memories of 9/11 to other episodic memories of the same time (Talarico & Rubin, 2003). Participants’ recall was tested 1 week, 6 weeks, and 32 weeks later. The researchers found that accuracy of both types of memory decayed at around the same rate, however participants only rated a fall in the accuracy and vividness of the episodic memory – their confidence in the accuracy of the flashbulb memory remained unchanged.
This therefore implies that flashbulb memories don’t differ from normal memories in our ability to accurately remember specific details of the event, just in our confidence that our memory is correct.
Are flashbulb memories special?
Whilst they may not differ from our other general memories in the amount they decay over time, some researchers (e.g. Curci & Conway, 2013) argue that flashbulb memories can still be considered special due to the way in which we assign significance to them and strongly believe them to be accurate, even after several years have passed. However, this is hotly debated, with other groups arguing that they should not be given this special status as they do not represent any differences in the process of encoding and retrieval when compared to other types of memory (Cubelli & Sala, 2008).
Whatever side of this debate you agree with, it’s clear that flashbulb memories offer a useful insight into the fallacies of the human memory system and how we process emotionally-charged events.
Brown, R. and Kulik, J., 1977. Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1), pp.73-99.
Cubelli, R. and Della Sala, S., 2008. Flashbulb memories: Special but not iconic.
Curci, A. and Conway, M.A., 2013. Playing the flashbulb memory game: A comment on Cubelli and Della Sala. Cortex, 49(1), pp.352-355.
Talarico, J.M. and Rubin, D.C., 2003. Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological science, 14(5), pp.455-461.