Flashbulb Memories: How Psychological Research Shows That Our Most Powerful Memories May Be Untrustworthy

By Greenberg, Daniel | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Flashbulb Memories: How Psychological Research Shows That Our Most Powerful Memories May Be Untrustworthy


Greenberg, Daniel, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


On arrival in New York we caught a cab and headed for the city. The cab had no radio on. As fate would have it, the cabby missed a turn somewhere and we were off the highway, somewhere in Astoria, Queens, I think. We were stopped for a red light when a woman came out of her house screaming and crying. I rolled down the cab window to ask what the matter was.... She told me that John Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas. We drove the rest of the way in silence.

--Richard Nixon's memory of the Kennedy assassination (1)

Although I was but four and a half years old when [the President] died, I distinctly remember the day when I found on our two white gateposts American flags companioned with black. I tumbled down on the harsh gravel walk in my eager rush into the house to inquire what they were "there for." To my amazement I found my father in tears, something that I had never seen before, having assumed, as all children do, that grown-up people never cried. The two flags, my father's tears, and his impressive statement that the greatest man in the world had died constituted my initiation ... [into] a world lying quite outside the two white gateposts.

--Jane Addams's memory of the Lincoln assassination (2)

MOST OF US CAN TELL STORIES LIKE THESE. Shocking events seem to etch themselves in our minds; we recall them with a clarity and emotional intensity that few other memories can match. We remember more than just the basic facts of the event; we know our personal stories as well--where we were, who told us, and what we were doing when we heard the news. Even trivial details seem to fix themselves in our memories: on the day of the Kennedy assassination, for example, Julia Child remembers that she and her husband were eating fish soup. Some people notice strange and compelling coincidences: Arthur Sulzberger was discussing presidential security when Kennedy's death was announced; Billy Graham had a sense of foreboding a week before; Bob Hope had just received a signed photograph of himself with Kennedy, which was sitting atop the television on which he heard the news. All of these features are unusual and intriguing, but the long life of these memories stands out above all else. Few of us can remember what we did on the day before a shocking event; as for the day itself, we feel that we can see it in our minds, that we can remember it as though it were yesterday, and we feel that that we cannot possibly forget it.

The vividness and apparent durability of these memories has fascinated psychologists for over a century. In 1899, a psychologist named F. W. Colegrove investigated people's 34-year old memories of the Lincoln assassination. He found that over two-thirds of the people he interviewed could remember what they had been doing when they heard the news, a result he considered a testament to "the abiding character of vivid experiences." (3) Decades later, when Roger Brown and James Kulik of Harvard University studed memories of shocking events of the 1960s and 1970s they proposed the term "flashbulb memory" to capture what they described as "the primary, 'live' quality [of the memories] that is ... very like a photograph." (4) As Brown and Kulik noted, the metaphor is not perfect, as some details are not preserved, but on the whole it aptly describes the strength and clarity of the memories as well as the rapidity with which they are originally stored.

We may have flashbulb memories for private events as well, such as a first kiss or the birth of a child, but the most compelling flashbulbs--the ones that we find ourselves relating over and over--tend to involve shocking historic events. Thus, people have reported flashbulb memories for many occasions, including the Lincoln assassination, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John E Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the Challenger explosion--and, most recently, the September 11th attacks. …

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