Why and How We Remember Key Experiences From Our Childhood

What are “flashbulb memories”? What flashbulb memories do you have?

Posted Nov 22, 2020

I just realized that today is November 22—and it is a day that is etched in my memory. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. At the time, I was a third-grader in Miss Hession’s class at St. Mary’s School. We heard the news over the PA system, and immediately class ended and we went to the church to pray for the nation’s first Catholic President. This memory is as vivid as any that I have. Why?

This is what psychologists call “flashbulb memories” (BTW, one has to be pretty old to even remember flashbulbs). A flashbulb memory is a vivid recollection tied to a particularly traumatic or emotional event. People often believe that such memories are very accurate—much like looking at a photograph. However, more recent research, and research on memory generally, suggests that these seemingly-lasting, intact memories, like all memories, can be reconstructed and altered. More like a drawing or painting that we might create of a scene long after it happened, than a photograph. As accurate or inaccurate as these memories might be, we do retain them for a long time.

Another association that triggered an ancient memory occurred the other day. An electrical smell, caused by a kitchen appliance, immediately sent me back to a vivid memory of my first car, a 1966 Ford Mustang, and its newly-installed eight-track tape player (boy, am I dating myself). You may have experienced the same thing: a smell that takes you back in time to an early memory. Neuroscientists believe that the strong association between certain odors and early memories may be because the brain’s olfactory bulb, which is responsible for the sense of smell, is closely located and tied to the centers in the brain that govern memory and emotions. More than likely, when a smell triggers a distant memory, it is linked to some emotional situation—a particularly happy holiday, a traumatic event, (or the elation of a new music-playing device in your beloved automobile). More on this here.

In each of these instances, recall of specific and vivid memories is tied to emotions—either very positive experiences, or negative and traumatic experiences. If you have one of these “flashback” memories, odds are, it is linked to some strong emotional experience.

What are some of your flashbulb memories?

References

Winograd, E., & Neisser, U. (Eds.). (2006). Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of 'Flashbulb' Memories (Cambridge Press).