Flashbulb Memory Overview & Examples

Kandace Halat, David White
  • Author
    Kandace Halat

    Kandace Halat has taught all levels of high school Biology over the last 8 years. She has a B.S. in Biology Secondary Education from The College of New Jersey and an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Montclair State University. She also has certifications in STEM Education from NASA's Endeavor Program in conjunction with the Teachers College at Columbia University and Instructional Strategies from Augustana University.

  • Instructor
    David White
Understand what a flashbulb memory is by learning the flashbulb memory definition. Learn about the accuracy of flash memories and discover flash memory examples. Updated: 02/16/2022

Table of Contents


What Is Flashbulb Memory?

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 amygdala is the part of the brain involved in feeling emotions, especially fear

Anatomical sketch of the brain highlighting the amygdala

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.

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Flashbulb Memory Example

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.

The attacks on 9/11 are an example of a flashbulb memory

View of Statue of Liberty and smoking World Trade Center on 9/11

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.

Obama family walks out to large crowd at the DNC in 2008

Obama family at DNC in 2008

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.

Vivid Memory Meaning

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.

Why are Flashbulb Memories Vivid?

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:

  • where the person was at the time of the event
  • what activities the person was doing at the time of the event
  • what the source of the surprising or impactful news is
  • what the affect was of the source, as well as the individual's affect in response to the event (i.e. what emotions they felt hearing the news)
  • what happened in the aftermath of the event

Where You Were

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What causes flashbulb memories?

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.

Is 911 a flashbulb memory?

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.

What is a flashbulb memory in psychology?

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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