How to Shed Light on Your "Flashbulb" Memories

Memories of your past can become distorted—but there’s a way to keep it real.

Posted Sep 22, 2018

In the news stories about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s memories of her encounter with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, issues related to the fallibility of recall of the long-ago past have naturally come to the fore. When the event in question is of an emotional nature, these issues become even more pressing. Think of your own days in high school or college. What events stand out in your recall? Did you have a car accident or did someone you love become ill and die? Do you remember the day you learned that you got the job or school admission when, with shaking hands, you opened the congratulatory letter? These are a form “flashbulb memories,” in which you recall what you were doing when an important event occurred. The event may be one of historical significance, and if so, the memory is not for the event but for your own personal circumstances during the event. Whether flashbulb or not, significant events from your long-ago past may indeed fade over time, but these distinctive experiences may have their own way of persisting. Whether these emotion-laden memories are accurate or not, as in the case of Dr. Ford, becomes the next question.

As it turns out, there are ways to ensure that even the most exhilarating or upsetting of your past life events remain accurately represented in your conscious awareness. Stony Brook University’s Raeya Maswood and colleagues (2018) propose that these emotional autobiographical memories may indeed persist if they are ones you have shared with the people who were there at the time. As the authors note, “It is particularly common in our daily interactions that we share with others our emotional autobiographical memories, whether it is those of joy or grief” (p. 1). Memories built on such collaboration, they propose, should be far more accurate and enduring than those left to their own devices in your individual consciousness. Not only sharing an experience together, but talking to the other people there at the time, can build a memory that could be resistant to the toll time usually takes on the accuracy of recall. As the authors note, “to inform, seek support, or gain perspective, we share our emotional memories and emotional reactions in the community” (p. 4).

Taking advantage of what they call “an experiment in the wild” (p. 2), the Stony Brook researchers examined memory for a college exam, in which all participants were present. Students recalled the exam under either an individual or collaborative condition, and also indicated the extent to which their emotions were aroused or not, and if so, whether the emotions were positive or negative. According to Maswood et al., the collaborative conditions should stimulate “collective recall,” in which people who shared the same event in the past develop overlapping memories of that event “such that the shared information speaks to their cultural, political, or group identity” (p. 3). In other words, just as your individual identity shapes your recall of the past to transform it to your own self-image, people sharing their memories of a significant past event transform it in a way that reinforces their shared group image. If you and your friends were in favor of the same political candidate, for example, your memory of election night would be shaped by the joy you shared at the time, and your continued revisiting of what for you was an identity-affirming experience.

The exam recall method used by Maswood and her collaborators overcomes the problem of autobiographical memories from long ago, where no experimenters were present to find out exactly what happened. By controlling the conditions under which the event was recalled, the effect of collaboration and emotional valence of the event on memory could be compared to memories based on individual recollection.

The 192 students who participated in the experiment were divided into a collaborative condition (consisting of 32 groups of 3), and an individual condition (the remaining 96 students). The basic design involved comparing students who participated in a joint discussion about a recentexam with those who answered on their own, using a free-recall narrative design in which they wrote down everything they could remember about the exam itself and how they felt about it. In the collaborative condition, participants discussed the event among themselves and came up with a group narrative of what they remembered. All participants provided their own ratings of the feelings they experienced during the exam as well as ratings of their mood in the previous week, the amount of anxiety they feel about exams in general, and measures of their ability to withstand stress and ambiguity (typical emotions associated with exams).  

Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, if you’re not an exam-loving type of person, over half of the participants had positive memories of the exam event itself. This finding was not altogether surprising to the research team, though, because most people tend to have a positive bias in memory that allows unpleasant details to fade into the background. However, for those who did have negative feelings about the exam, those in the collaborative condition fared better than those in the individual recall condition between the time of completing the initial recall and the period of group discussion that followed. In other words, going back over the event with other students helped allay the negative emotions associated with the exam.

With regard to the quality of recall, the effects of collaboration also provided a boost to the individual narratives the students provided after talking to their fellow exam-takers. As the Stony Brook researchers concluded, “collaboration had an effect on later individual recall by making those memories more positive and externally focused” (p. 9). Rather than dwell on their own negative internal states, in other words, participants who had the chance to talk about the exam’s details with others developed a better understanding of the entire experience, as well as a better emotional outcome. Not only does collaboration help to ensure improvements in memory in an objective sense, but also helps regulate the emotional intensity with which potentially painful events are recalled. Imagine yourself in this situation. You had a bad experience with an important test, and by talking to other students, come to realize that you weren’t the only one who had this reaction. Moreover, you and your fellow “sufferers,” as it were, also form your own event-specific support group as you engage in this joint recollection. The shared reality you create becomes a backdrop against which you can assess your own reactions to the situation.

To return to the question of recalling a painful event from your own past, the Maswood et al. study suggests that if you didn’t talk to anyone about it who was there, your emotional anguish would be less likely to be alleviated, and you will remember more about what the experience was like for you, rather than the way it was construed by group who shared the experience with you.  On the other hand, by talking to others, you will help keep your memory of the entire event alive, and also feel better, especially if it was a negative experience.

To sum up, the vagaries of memory can play tricks with your mind no matter where or when an event took place. Flashbulb memories play a significant role in the story you tell about your life, and sharing these with the people who travel through life with you can help provide, if not fulfillment, then comfort

References

Maswood, R., Rasmussen, A. S., & Rajaram, S. (2018). Collaborative remembering of emotional autobiographical memories: Implications for emotion regulation and collective memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. https://doi-org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1037/xge0000468