Flashbulb Memory Case Study

Flashbulb Memories

Another area of research concerning emotion and recall involves the phenomenon known as flashbulb memories. In 1899, Colgrove reported a study in which 179 participants were asked to describe their recollections of the moment when they heard of President Lincoln’s death, 33 years earlier. A striking finding was the extent to which these individuals remembered where they had been (context) when the news came. A typical response was, “I was setting out a rose bush by the door. My husband came in the yard and told me.” This participant was 79 years old.

Brown and Kulik (1977) pursued the issue further, positing that unexpected news carrying very strong emotion might produce an atypical form of memory. They tested their participants concerning recall of the moment they had heard of the assassinations of various prominent figures, and also moments of shock based on personal news. President Kennedy’s death, in particular, elicited memories of context (in all but one participant), and sometimes the recollection of trivial sensory details present at the time. A colleague of Brown’s, for instance, remembered that when he had heard the news he was walking up some steps at his college, and he could still recall the particular feeling of the steps under his feet 13 years later.

With regard to context, of course we often recall the context of where we heard some news, for a period of time. But normally this form of recollection does not last long: Larson (1992) found that, in his own case, context information for nonemotional news was at chance level after 2 months. Certainly it is not retained for the 30 years recorded in Colgrove’s data.

A large number of studies were conducted following the Brown and Kulik article, but these often involved the individual hearing of some public disaster or some good or bad news, having an emotional reaction, and either recalling or misrecalling the relevant context after a relatively short period of time, ranging from 6 months to 3 years, but not decades (Bohannon, 1988; Christiansen & Engelberg, 1999; Lee & Brown, 2003; Neisser & Harsch, 1992; Schmolck, Buffalo, & Squire, 2000; Wright, 1993). It was noted later by some researchers that these studies might not involve actual flashbulb memories. We hear of disasters on an almost daily basis, and an emotional response to news of this kind will not normally provide the same intense impact as that involved in the murder of a U.S. president. Also, the very long-term retention of context had not been measured. A further issue here is that in the case even of striking disasters, such as the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, some individuals may respond with flashbulb memories and others may not, such that the data would reflect a mixture of, possibly, two different kinds of recollection (Gaskell & Wright, 1997).

Brown and Kulik had explicitly noted that flashbulb memories were not photograph-like, in that many details of the context scene weren’t recalled later. They had coined the term flashbulb because of the peculiar property of the memory function catching some trivial sensory element, as if a flashbulb (focusing on some small aspect of the scene) had gone off. There was no implication, though, of retention being like a photograph. It has been widely claimed that flashbulb memories are highly detailed (which might imply a photograph-like process). But it is not clear that the data support this view. Kulik, for instance, remembered the context in which he had heard of Kennedy’s death (13 years after the event), of his teacher crying; however, he did not recall either her hairstyle or her dress. It is hard to see how this could be interpreted as a detailed recollection.

The idea that flashbulb memories include a great deal of information concerning context may have been generated because some completely trivial, sensory content is sometimes retained; the assumption might be that if stimuli as unimportant as the feeling of the steps under your feet, or the pattern of marks on a wall, are remembered, then surely more important imagery would also be remembered. But this is precisely what does not happen with flashbulb recollection.

A final claim made by Brown and Kulik was that flashbulb memories appear to have so great an impact that the content that is retained across time may be strictly accurate, (enabled by a kind of “Now print!” mechanism). Most researchers today believe that this claim has not been supported (Schmolck et al., 2000). A difficulty with interpretation here, though, is that the data showing inaccuracy in context recall may have involved memories that were not of the flashbulb type, as described above. When Bohannon and Symons (1992) examined their participants’ memories of the Challenger disaster, they found that individuals who reported high levels of distress showed significantly more accurate recall of context information than individuals who reported low levels of distress, after a period of 3 years (location at 93% for the high-distress group, and at 18% for low distress group). In addition, Er (2003) tested participants who had been present in the 1999 Marmara earthquake for their recall of the event, and found 100% correct recall of their location after a year, while those who had only heard about the quake showed significantly poorer recall. Still, it might be expected that victims of such a frightening event would retain information concerning it for at least a year, even if no flashbulb effect were present.

Under the view advocated in the present book, given that all memory content involves inference (even if the inference is normally accurate), and the belief that emotional memories are more subject to change than neutral memories, it still seems unlikely that flashbulb recollection would be strictly accurate, in all cases, across extended periods of time. The outcome might be something more like my student’s memory of a white, green, and orange floor, when the original floor had been only white and green.

An extremely important finding in the Bohannon and Symons (1992) study was that the high-distress individuals recalled the context information over time at a higher level than they recalled the semantic information (i.e. what they had actually heard concerning the Challenger disaster). This enhancement of peripheral over central information reverses the normal pattern of adult episodic recall.

Some researchers today hold that flashbulb memories are simply emotional memories, and as such do not differ from other emotional memories. But a case can be made that flashbulb phenomena in fact involve an unusual kind of affect-driven recall. In the experimental studies outlined above, in which emotional content seen in slides was compared with neutral content, participants in the emotional condition recalled the central, “important” information at a relatively high level, but recalled peripheral details poorly. Yet one of the striking properties of flashbulb memories involves the arguably permanent recollection, in some cases, of a few wholly trivial, peripheral details (the feeling of steps under your feet). The argument was made earlier that thematic memories might well include a wider range of happenstance information, associated with a strongly emotional event. But this posited effect also differs from the arbitrary but very strong recollection of just a few, random, sensory details—indeed as if a flashbulb had gone off, but involving a strangely narrow focus.

In short, it is possible that flashbulb memories constitute an unusual form of memory that requires a distinct kind of impact, and that changes the usual patterns seen in the case of both neutral and (most) emotional recollections. The change is that they can, perhaps in their more extreme forms, “stamp in” memory for general context, and also hold and retain random sensory details. Yet the data seem to indicate that recall of the central, important information is not enhanced (note the Bohannon and Symons article described above). This is particularly significant, in that the standard pattern, even in emotional memories, is that important information tends to be retained at a higher level than trivial information. In this, flashbulb memories appear particularly unusual.

"The downtown subjects also reported seeing, hearing, and smelling what had happened. Subjects who were, on average, around midtown Manhattan reported experiencing the events second hand, such as on television or the Internet.

It is clear from these recollections that proximity to the World Trade Centre changed the nature of the experience of these events, such that those subjects who were downtown on 9/11 had greater personal involvement with the consequences of the terrorist attacks.

As a result neural mechanisms that underlie the emotional modulation of memory were selectively active when these subjects recalled their experiences."

"Although this is the first study to identify a brain circuitry related to flashbulb memories, I was not surprised that the amygdala was involved," she told The Daily Telegraph. " What was completely unexpected for me was that only those subjects closer to the World Trade Centre showed enhanced amygdala activation (and reported more vivid memories) when retrieving events from 9/11 compared to events the summer of 2001 (like a summer vacation, or a move to New York).

The traditional view of flashbulb memories suggests that these memories have special qualities for a much broader range of individuals. Aside from the amygdala, there were also differences in other memory regions, such as the posterior parahippocampus, she said. The research team included NYU post-doctoral fellow Tali Sharot, the study’s lead author, and contributing authors Mauricio Delgado, now at Rutgers University, and NYU graduate student Elizabeth Martorella.

"Our findings on 9/11 memories indicate that personal involvement may be critical in producing memories with the characteristic qualities of flashbulb memories," said Sharot. "We think this is because the amygdala, which is known to play a role in enhancing the feeling of remembering for emotional material, is more engaged when these events are experienced first hand."

The study, conducted three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, included 24 participants who were in New York City on that day. Participants’ brain activity was observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they recalled autobiographical memories from 9/11, along with other distinct, autobiographical events from the summer of 2001. The latter served as baseline memories for evaluating the nature of 9/11 memories.

After the brain scanning session, subjects were asked to rate their memories for vividness, detail, confidence in accuracy, arousal, and valence. These ratings indicated the qualitative nature of the recollective experience. Participants were also asked to write down their personal memories.

Only half of the subjects reported greater vividness, confidence, and detail when recollecting events from 9/11. An examination of the experience of these participants on 9/11 revealed that they were closer to the World Trade Centre on that day. Participants closer to the World Trade Centre also included more specific details in their written memories, and were more likely to report first-hand experience with the terrorist attacks.

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