This is a guest post by Scott Shelton, Williams College Class of 2017.
I remember the day of September 11th, 2001 so clearly in mind. I remember going to my preschool and saying the pledge of allegiance like we all normally did. We played games with the occasional educational exercise thrown in, and then we had our morning snack a little bit after 10 o’clock. It was at that point that there was a dramatic shift in the normal schedule, which would of course be very upsetting to me, like it would be to most small children: my grandmother was there to pick me up and take me home before lunch…but she wasn’t supposed to be there for another five hours.
I couldn’t understand why. But then we arrived home and I remember seeing a video clip of smoke pouring out of a tower on the little mini-TV that we had in the kitchen. It was a lot of confusion, and deep down I knew that something very serious had happened. At the time, though, I was just happy to get the second half of the day off.
The memory that I just described is a 'flashbulb' memory, named after the clarity of a photograph accompanied by a 'flash.' In 1977, Brown and Kulik described this kind of episodic memory as being seared into an individual’s conscious, mainly as a result of learning about some startling or arousing piece of news. Flashbulb memories often have nothing to do with the actual startling or arousing event. As you can tell from my description above, I can’t recount to you from memory what happened in Lower Manhattan, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, or at the Pentagon, but I have a vivid recollection of what happened to me on that morning.
So what implications and applications might flashbulb memories have? If flashbulb memories are particularly profound because of the arousing nature of the events surrounding the memory, then this might have a significant application to eyewitness testimony. If an eyewitness has the events surrounding a crime in question seared into his or her memory in acute detail, then this would significantly increase the reliability and usefulness of such eyewitness evidence.
Hold on a second though. I was in preschool in 2001? When I was six years old? Yeah, that’s completely inaccurate. I actually was in first grade that year. Also, I did some fact checking, and my mother picked me up that day, not my grandmother. And that mini-TV in our kitchen? We got it around 2006.
So what went wrong with my memory of that morning? How could I feel (and trust me, I do) that my memory of that day is so clear and accurate? A cognitive explanation of this phenomenon might be that the nodes and association links between my September 11th, 2011 memory and some other memory (likely one from my days as a 1st-grader) became intertwined and eventually mixed up.
Memories cannot be entirely trusted. This only further supports psychologists’ skepticism of the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The particularly tricky aspect of all of this is that people are not knowingly or willfully deceiving people when they recount a flashbulb memory; nevertheless, they may very well be doing just that. The jury may still be out on the reliability of flashbulb memories (due to other findings and circumstances around flashbulb memories that might increase reliability and accuracy), but you should still progress cautiously when dealing with them.
Brown, R. and J. Kulik (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73-99.