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Surprisingly, many Bostonians remember the day of the 2013 attack incredibly vividly, and New Yorkers also remember perfectly what they did on the day of the 9/11 attacks. A huge number of people who were not in Boston on April 15 or in New York in September 2001 also perfectly remember the circumstances under which they learned what happened. Scientists call this phenomenon "flashbulb memories" which allows a person to record the experience of interacting with an event rather than the actual details of what happened.
The Scientific Approach
Flashbulb memories occur when a person learns of a shocking or significant event, such as a catastrophic natural disaster. Research has shown that they are more vivid, accurate, and durable than other types of memories and can be recorded and stored in a different part of the brain. Many researchers agree that the formation of flashbulbs of memory will occur if the news causes surprise, causes an emotional response, or can affect one's own life (Talarico et al. 985). Hence, flashbulb memories demonstrate rather phenomenal capabilities of the human brain that involve rather unexpected and unexplained “flashy” invocations of memories that do not appear important.
The first description of flashbulb memories in the history of scientific psychological literature was made by Dr. F.V. Kolgrove in 1899, in a text on the public perception of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. People remember many events of their lives for decades, and yet these living fragments of the past appear before the human mind's eye especially easily. They can appear after a long delay, sometimes for a lifetime, which also makes them remarkable. Remembering what happened to us or our loved ones can be helpful. In flashbulbs, people can recall in great detail the moment they learned important news. For example, a person can remember where they were and with whom, what they were wearing, how exactly the news was passed to them, and how they felt when they received it (Perera). At the same time, the context of the events might remain obscure in human memory, which adds even more peculiarity to the phenomenon.
Many researchers believe that flashbulb memories are more accurate and durable than other types of memories, these memories are quite resistant to deterioration, and the exact reason for this trend remains open to debate. Some researchers believe that the accuracy of memories is due to the fact that, due to their shocking or emotional nature, they are thought-about with much more frequency than non-emotional memories. Others believe that memories are recorded and stored in a different location from the one used to record non-emotional memories and that the flashbulb memory is unique in its composition (Talarico et al. 987). Flashbulb memories largely prove that humans are emotional beings in the first, hence, they tend to remember things and events that bring some kind of emotional quality to the memory.
The work of the media partly contributes to the spread of the phenomenon: the constant repetition of the only video available can lead to the fact that later you think you saw everything live. The media can also encourage us to think about and discuss what happened, which increases our receptivity. When people are asked to write down what they remember, errors, gaps, and assumptions fall into the objective picture, just as in the case of autobiographical memories of the same age. The reason seems to be that these memories allow people to demonstrate to themselves and others the ideas that they consider to be truly important (Perera). This only further develops the idea that people tend to remember things that bring more significant importance to them and are, hence, more emotional.
Regardless of how flashbulb memories are processed, researchers generally agree that certain conditions must exist for them to form. In particular, to evoke such a memory, the news must be surprising, evoke an emotional response, or be perceived as a potential consequence for one's own life. In many cases, all three of these conditions can exist because people who live or have families living in close proximity to a shocking event, such as an earthquake, are much more likely to have flashbulb memories associated with that event.
Perera, Ayesh. "Flashbulb Memory". Simply Psychology, 2021, https://www.simplypsychology.org/flashbulb-memory.html.
Talarico, Jennifer M. et al. "The Role of Event Relevance and Congruence to Social Groups in Flashbulb Memory Formation". Memory, vol 27, no. 7, 2019, pp. 985-997. Informa UK Limited, https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2019.1616097. Accessed 26 June 2022.
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