How Reliable are Flashbulb Memories?

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For most students who attend our Psychology class this semester, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that took place on September 11, 2001 - also referred to as "9-11" - was the most significant and harrowing national event that occurred in our lifetime. It seemed like the entire nation collectively held its breath as the second twin tower was struck on live television, and due to the accessibility of such traumatic imagery, almost every American was swept with emotion. Due to the emotional magnitude of this event, most Americans say they can vividly remember what they were doing and where they were when they heard the terrible news, and believe that the memory has not eroded at all despite the decade that has passed since the event transpired. I remember I had just arrived to my 4th grade classroom at Andover Elementary School when my teacher, Mrs. Berrini, briskly walked into the room and promptly turned on the television to the news, with tears welled up in her eyes as we witnessed the immediate aftermath of the devastating event. I'm sure many of you reading this can recollect at least that much information about what you were doing on that significant day.

But how does the accuracy of these emotional memories compare to what you were actually doing as the event occurred? Despite how vivid and photographic these memories still seem, these "flashbulb memories" - as coined in Chapter 7 of our psychology book - may not be as accurate as we think, and there's ample probability that our memories have changed dramatically! The video attached to this blog tells the story of Matthew Phallinsky who was incredibly close to the towers as they collapsed. A CT Scan (Computed Tomography, as explained in Chapter 3 of the book) was conducted on people similar to Matt - New Yorkers who witnessed the terrorist attacks firsthand - and compared brain activity to participants who were not in close proximity to the twin towers when they were struck. When participants remembered the terrorist attacks (these scans being 3 years after the event occurred), activity in the hippocampus - an important region for contextual memory as discussed in Chapter 3 - was evident. However, participants who were near the towers when they collapsed as well as participants who had a deep emotional collection to the event - an example being the loss of a close family member during the attack - also had activity in their amygdala, the brain structure that deals with excitement, arousal and fear, which is housed in the limbic system, the region dedicated to emotion. As such, the participants whose amygdala lit up during the CT Scans could more accurately recall the event and could give a more emotional and sensational description (that is, they could recollect sensory details more easily). The study concluded that the participants' proximity to the event seemed to affect how accurately they could recall what they were doing when the towers fell. This is why flashbulb memories seem to be more vivid than normal memories, because the emotional memory in the amygdala is reinforcing the contextual memory of the hippocampus.

Despite the vividness of these memories, research suggests that flashbulb memories deteriorate just like any other memory, but the emotional impact of the event seems to relate to how vivid and accurate these memories still are. As a 10 year old who was fortunate enough to not lose anything or anyone close to me from this event when it took place, perhaps my memory of it has faded, however much it seems that it remains as vivid as it was over a decade ago.

Article Source (which complements the video):
Law, Bridget Murray. "Seared in Our Memories". September 2011, Vol. 42, No. 8.


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Something that I also found interesting was that many times recollections of "flashbulb memories" can change over time. An example in the book was about the Challenger explosions. The subject was asked in January 1986 about what he/she was doing when it happened and then again in September 1988. In 1986 the subject said he/she was in religion class and after class went to their room and watched TV. However, in 1988 the subject said that he/she was in their dorm room with his/her roommate watching the TV. It was very upsetting so he/she went upstairs to call their parents. Although this event was certainly a flashbulb memory (very emotional and vivid) this example shows how flashbulb memories can change over time because they are much like other memories, just more intense.

To me, the most interesting part of this post is that "the emotional impact of the event seems to relate to how vivid and accurate these memories still are." I had never realized there is a correlation between how vivid a memory is and how accurately we are able to recall it. For instance, I remember in great detail where I was when I found out about the 9/11 attacks. Unlike how the textbook noted that some people had inaccurate flashbulb memories of first learning about the attacks while watching the news, I first learned of the attacks on my way to school; it remains to be a vivid memory, and one that I believe is still accurate.

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This page contains a single entry by holt0643 published on February 28, 2012 4:51 PM.

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