Author: Olivia Games
Editors: Ken Saito and Peggy Yang
Artist: Denise Suárez
Do you have a memory from ages ago that sticks in your mind, no matter how long it has been? You have a vivid picture of the scene in your brain: the location, the emotions, the exact time, the aroma, and the people you were with. These types of memories were characterized in 1977 by Roger Brown and James Kulik as flashbulb memories: lively memories centered on specific, shocking events that ingrain themselves like snapshots in the brain. For example, most people alive during the tragic events of 9/11 retain this “snapshot” memory of that exact day from 2001, and can likely give a detailed account of that day.
When considering how vivid and long-term flashbulb memories are, you would assume that these types of memories would never alter; after all, it is comforting if the personal, treasured nature of certain events ensures secure storage in your brain. However, numerous scientists have questioned the accuracy of flashbulb memories for a long time.
In Neisser and Harsch’s 1988 study, participants were asked one day after the Challenger space tragedy of 1986 to describe their circumstances. Two and a half years later, forty-four of the original participants were recontacted and asked to fill out the original questionnaire again, this time providing a rating of the accuracy of their memory. To compare accuracy, the researchers scored seven objective questions that did not have to do with emotion, but only factual information. Researchers granted a point to the participants if the new response matched the original. The average score was 2.95/7, with only three participants scoring a 7. Despite this inaccuracy, participants were highly confident of their memory. On a scale of one to five, one being just speculating and five being most confident, the mean score was 4.17/5.
This study suggests that flashbulb memories are unreliable. Neisser even began to question the existence of flashbulb memories. He argued that people remember these highly emotional events because they recall, or rehearse, the memory through storytelling repeatedly and that according to reconstructive memory theory, the memories become more distorted each time they are recalled. In other words, each time you remember something, the human brain “reconstructs” it, making it susceptible to change without us realizing it.
But are all memories equally susceptible? According to psychologist Elizabeth Phelps, what differentiates flashbulb memories from contextual memories is the role of the amygdala, a part of the brain which “trains your attention on emotionally arousing information to the exclusion of everything else around you” (Law). Despite this distinction, it appears that although emotion can help memory retention, details of flashbulb memories can still become inaccurate over time. Additionally, the shock or attachment of a flashbulb memory perhaps leads to further ignorance of faulty memories since we believe that the memory is so significant we cannot possibly be wrong. Thus, if we are more aware of how we think, this overconfidence could be prevented.
When it comes to memory, we hope that our most cherished experiences last in our memories. However, the evidence suggests that all kinds of memories are malleable, and we may have no idea of these distortions.
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