Flashbulb Memory

In the late 1970s, reports of flashbulb memory (Brown & Kulik, 1977) seemed to support the idea of adrenaline effects on memory. Flashbulb memories were supposed to be memories formed instantaneously and remembered forever, after shocking events. A classic example in the 1970s was, "Where were you when you heard about Kennedy being shot." For 1980s American students the question became, "Where were you when you heard about the space shuttle Challenger blowing up?" Most people could tell you exactly where they were when they heard about it. To the current generation of students, "Where were you when you heard about the twin towers being hit" would elicit similar, specific responses.

What is "flashbulb memory"?

This phenomenon has been known for many years. A psychologist (Colegrove) writing in 1899 described how middle-aged people remembered exactly what they were doing when they heard Abraham Lincoln was shot, 35 years earlier.

Neisser (1982) argued that these memories are often inaccurate or fabricated. He gave a personal example. For years he had a flashbulb memory of watching a baseball game the day before his 13th birthday. The game was interrupted by the announcement of the Pearl Harbor bombing, and he rushed upstairs to tell his mother. Neisser continues:

What point did Neisser make with his memory of the Pearl Harbor announcement?

This memory has been so clear for so long that I never confronted its inherent absurdity until last year: no one broadcasts baseball games in December! (It can't have been a football game either; professional football barely existed in 1941, and the college season ended by Thanksgiving.) Apparently flashbulbs can be just as wrong as other kinds of memories; they are not produced by a special quasi-photographic mechanism. (Neisser, 1982, p.45)

How does Neisser explain flashbulb memories?

Neisser proposed that flashbulb memories were really something like historical markers. When a significant historical event occurs, it becomes part of our life history. We think about it and its relationship to our lives. We know the world is changed from that moment onward. In the following years we often think of this landmark in our personal history. So the memories of such events linger, but that does not mean the memory is accurate.

Schmolck, Buffalo, and Squire (2000) studied flashbulb memories which American students had for the announcement of the verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial. They found that "the quality of the recollections after 32 months was strikingly different from the quality of recollections after 15 months" with many errors creeping into the memory accounts. Because they collected memory reports from students at two intervals, they were able to document changes in the memory reports of individuals. For example, one student produced this report 15 months after the verdict:

"I was at the Commuter Lounge at Reville [College] and saw it on T.V. As 10:00 approached, more and more people came into the room. We kept having to turn up the volume, but it was kind of cool. Everyone was talking."

At 32 months post-verdict, the same student produced this recollection:

"I first heard about it while I was watching TV. At home in my living room. My sister and father were with me. Doing nothing in particular, eating and watching how the news station was covering different groups of viewers..."

This provides more evidence (if any is needed) that retrospective self-reports are unrealiable. It also shows that memory continues to change and transform between 1 and 3 years after an experience.

What did Linton discover about memory for life events?

Marigold Linton (1982) argued that the distinctiveness of newsworthy events is what makes them memorable. Linton was the researcher described earlier in this chapter who wrote down two personal events every day for six years. She systematically tested her memory for these events. She found that the first time you do almost anything is memorable, compared to later occasions. For example, she retained a clear memory of submitting the "final draft" of a statistics textbook to her publishing company. But they asked for revisions. She was less successful in remembering the second time she submitted a "final draft." She had only a vague memory of the third and final submission of the book, which was then published.

If Linton is correct, flashbulb memories-to the extent they occur-are caused by unique, distinctive, first time events. This may not contradict the adrenaline theory, because such novel events probably provoke adrenaline release. But Linton's analysis suggests that encoding effects are important. A first-time event is distinctive and therefore easier to retrieve.


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