Table of Contents
- What Is Flashbulb Memory?
- Flashbulb Memory Example
- Vivid Memory Meaning
- Why are Flashbulb Memories Vivid?
- Accuracy of Flashbulb Memory
- Lesson Summary
Much like a flashbulb illuminates the details of a scene for a photograph, a flashbulb memory (or light bulb memory) illuminates and records vivid, intricate details of an event. During this kind of psychological event, the brain records more detail than it does during everyday episodic memories. This kind of memory occurs when an event surpasses a critical level of surprise, emotion, and impact, such as witnessing an unexpected national disaster.
From an evolutionary standpoint, being hyper-aware during times of danger makes an individual more likely to survive. The brain also records as many details as possible to make survival more likely in the event that the situation, or a similar one, occurs again; the survival of an individual could very well depend on the details they recall from a previous crisis. This is why flashbulb memories are highly vivid and detailed. Although most perceived danger in the 21st century is not life-threatening, the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, still reacts the same as it has for all of human evolution.
The heightened level of fear (emotional arousal) results in neurohormonal changes in the brain that causes encoding of those details in the hippocampus as a flashbulb memory. Details such as where you were, activities that were occurring at the moment, the source of the surprising information, the effect of the event/news on the person, and the aftermath are all recorded by the brain.
Because the memory is from a first-person perspective and has to do with events in the life of an individual, it is a type of autobiographical memory.
Flashbulb memories are most likely to form when there is a crisis of widespread cultural and emotional significance. Examples of flashbulb memories include the attacks on 9/11, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. People remember exactly where they were when they witnessed the footage or heard the news, as well as details like what they were doing, what people around them were doing, headlines scrolling on the television screen, strong smells that are present, feeling ill or panicked, etc.
Although flashbulb memories are more likely to form from a negative experience due to the heightened emotional state of the event, they can form as the result of positive experiences as well. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a positive event of great emotional significance for many people; or the election of the first African-American president in the USA, President Obama. The event reached the necessary level of emotional arousal to trigger the encoding of a flashbulb memory surrounding the experience.
Flashbulb memories are not formed only in response to widespread, national or global events. They can also form when an individual experiences an emotionally significant, personal, and surprising event in their own life. For example, a flashbulb memory could be created in regards to finding out about the unexpected passing of a loved one.
A vivid memory in psychology is one that is exceptionally clear and detailed. Most people cannot remember what they were doing at precisely 8:34 a.m. on June 3rd of last year, or even what they had for lunch two weeks ago. The human brain is essentially a fancy computer; if our brains stored every detail of every experience we ever have, we would run out of storage space and would be unable to function. Vivid memories allow details of impactful events, as opposed to day-to-day episodic events, to be recalled long after the fact.
The psychology of memories is complex, involving multiple parts of the brain to encode and retrieve memories. The brain constantly takes in sensory information, most of which is filtered out when it is deemed unimportant for survival. Five factors have been identified that make flashbulb memories highly vivid and, for lack of a better word, memorable. These five factors are:
As a result of the heightened emotional state of the person at the time of the flashbulb-worthy event, the brain records as much information as it can about the surrounding environment. This includes specific visual details of the room or location the person is in, as well as possibly including auditory or olfactory details about scents or sounds in the environment. These environmental details add to the vividness and specificity of the flashbulb memory.
As part of the information taken in by the brain at the time of the event, flashbulb memories include what the person was doing at that moment that they came to know about the event. Activity details could be such things as just having sat down to eat a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast or sitting in an elementary school classroom doing math problems. These details of what the person was doing at the moment add to the vividness and specificity of the flashbulb memory.
When receiving surprising or emotional news, details of the source of the information are also recorded by the brain. This may be, for example, a vivid memory of the news anchor who presented the breaking news or the doctor who presented the news of the death of a loved one. The inclusion of this information adds to the detailed, long-lasting nature of the flashbulb memory.
Not only is the source of the information codified into memory, but the emotion and delivery of the source further details a flashbulb memory. One may recall the look on the face of the source as the information was presented, the tone of their voice, or their sense of emotion (ex: shock, panic, or even a flat affect). The emotions of the individual receiving the news get encoded as part of the memory as well. For example, an individual may remember going numb, being in shock, feeling deep sadness, confusion, panic, or anger. The intense emotion is more likely to be codified into memory and further adds detail to the flashbulb memory.
Details of the aftermath of the event add further specificity and clarity to the memory. As a result of the heightened emotional arousal caused by the event, the brain codifies as many details as possible into the flashbulb memory. Our brains save memories to assist in self-preservation and survival; if the situation were to repeat itself, information about the aftermath may be just as helpful as information about the event itself. For example, remembering the aftermath may help us get to a safe location and increase our chance of survival, so having that information is important.
The degree of detail and the autobiographical nature of flashbulb memories gives the individual with the memory a high degree of confidence about the accuracy of their experience. However, confidence does not equate to accuracy. The memories of people are still subject to bias and inaccuracies at the time of recording, even when forming flashbulb memories. Inaccuracies coded into memory at the time of the event are not likely to be corrected, even if they are ever pointed out. The person will still remember the memory as they originally coded it, inaccuracies and all.
Memories naturally fade over time. The forgetting curve put forth by Ebbinghaus suggests that retention of standard episodic memories declines from 100% to about 40% within days of an event. Flashbulb memories are no exception to some degree of decline. However, their intense vivid (and often traumatic) nature does result in a longer retention period. The retention of details in a flashbulb memory declines months, rather than days, after the event, and typically levels out after around a year. Whatever is still remembered at that point will be long-lasting.
A post-9/11 study of approximately 200 people compared their memory of the events to accurate accounts and found that there were significant inaccuracies. The study also compared the initial survey of each participant (taken within 10 days of the attacks) to a repeat survey after one, five, and ten years. After a year, participants averaged only a 60% accuracy rate. Those numbers held steady for the remainder of the study, suggesting that the flashbulb memory does crystallize and remain after an initial decline in retention. This data supports the long-lasting nature of flashbulb memories and the leveling-off of memory recall after about a year, as described by the forgetting curve of Ebbinghaus.
In times of intense emotional distress or surprise, the fear center of our brain (the amygdala) signals the hippocampus to begin encoding as much information about the event as possible. From an evolutionary and psychological standpoint, it is important that as much information is saved as possible so we are prepared to react if the situation occurs again, and therefore more likely to survive. This results in the creation of a specific type of autobiographical memory called a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory contains a higher than normal amount of detail related to the experience of the person at the time of the event, making it very clear and vivid for the individual. Five factors are typically recorded into the flashbulb memory, including: where a person was, what activities they were doing, what the source of the information was, what the affect of the source was (as well as their own affect upon learning the news), and what happened during the aftermath of the event. Examples include the 9/11 attacks, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the assassination of JFK.
Although flashbulb memories are highly detailed and vivid, they are not necessarily more accurate than standard autobiographical episodic memories. Further, all memories fade over time, and flashbulb memories are no exception. However, while the forgetting curve shows how retention of most memories declines within a few days of an event, the retention of details from a flashbulb memory does last longer. Retention of flashbulb memories declines over the course of a few months after the event, rather than days. After approximately one year, the degree of detail remembered in the memory levels off and will remain fairly stable for the long-term.
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Flashbulb memories are created in response to a particularly emotional or surprising event. The fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is triggered by the experience and as a result, begins recording as much detail as possible. The details are recorded as a survival mechanism in case the situation should repeat itself. The memory is usually caused by a negative or traumatic experience, but can also be the result of a positive experience if the emotional arousal is strong enough to trigger the amygdala.
9/11 is an example of a flashbulb memory for many people because they remember in vivid detail such things as where they were, what they were doing, what they felt, etc. at the time of the attacks. The event was significant enough to trigger the emotional arousal needed for the formation of a flashbulb memory.- Other examples include the assassination of JFK and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
A flashbulb memory is an autobiographical memory of inordinately high levels of detail as the result of a particular surprising or emotional experience. These memories are much longer-lasting than day-to-day autobiographical memories due to their vivid nature, although they are not necessarily more accurate than standard episodic memories.
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