Flashbulb Memory in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Flashbulb Memory?
  • 1:56 What Makes Them Different?
  • 4:02 Accuracy
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Flashbulb memories are burned into your brain when you learn of traumatic happenings, but are they really as accurate as they seem? In this lesson, you will learn what shapes a flashbulb memory and explore some examples from the real world.

What Is Flashbulb Memory?

For many Americans, September 11, 2001, is a date that holds particular significance. It is, of course, the day Islamic terrorists simultaneously crashed four planes in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Most adults can easily remember when this happened, but are they really remembering the attacks themselves or are they remembering hearing about the attacks? It should go without saying that people cannot realistically remember an experience they didn't actually witness, so what are they remembering?

In many cases, when a person says they remember something like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination happening, what they really mean is they remember learning about the event after it happened. In psychology, these are called flashbulb memories, which are memories of learning something so shocking or surprising that it creates a strong and seemingly very accurate memory of learning about the event--but not the event itself.

The name refers to the old process of taking a photo. When the photographer snapped the picture, the flashbulb would go off, thus indicating a moment in time that had been captured exactly as it appeared before him.

For example, on September 11, 2001, I could tell you exactly where I was, what I was doing, and from whom I first learned about the attacks in New York. In fact, I could give you a fairly descriptive timeline of my actions from morning until evening, which I'm able to recall with great clarity. What I don't particularly recall, however, is seeing any footage of the attacks or learning about any of specifics until the following days.

My inability to recall video footage of the terrorist attacks or any of the specifics is due to the fact that flashbulb memories are autobiographical memories. These types of memories are characterized as highly personal memories of how a fact or event is related to you. In autobiographical memories, the primary focus is on the individual, and everything else is secondary.

What Makes Them Different?

Each type of memory is formed, recalled, or reconstructed in its own way. The emotional arousal experienced during the time of the event is what makes flashbulb memories so strong. For example, when a person first learns about the death of a loved one, the sadness felt at that moment is so strong that the memory gets etched in a little deeper than other memories and are stored in the mind forever.

As vivid as they may seem, particularly around major traumatic events, the clarity of the memory is mostly specific to five things:

  1. Where you were: It is not uncommon for a person to say 'I remember where I was when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot' or 'I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot.' This is because place is one of the things that flashbulb memories etch in very deeply.
  2. Activity: Remember when I said that I can recall my timeline on 9/11 with unusual clarity? That's because what a person is doing when they first learn surprising or traumatic news is also burned in very strongly.
  3. Who told you: In flashbulb memories, the source of the information becomes a prominent piece of the memory. Whether it was a news anchor or a friend, that person will become as essential as the news itself.
  4. Affect: One of the more interesting pieces of a flashbulb memory is the individual's affect and the affect of the person providing the information. Affect is a person's expression and articulation of their emotions. For example, people who remember the first news reports of Kennedy's assassination might also remember a visibly upset Walter Cronkite delivering the news on CBS or how their parents expressed their emotions when delivering the news.
  5. Aftermath: This refers to what happened immediately after the person received the shocking news. Many grade-school children, for example, watched the launching and subsequent explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 and can vividly recall the mood and events that followed, such as an assembly or cancellation of class.

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