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Why We Recall Where We Were When We Heard Shocking News

How we remember the things we never forget.

Image by David Z from Pixabay
Source: Image by David Z from Pixabay

Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, when we heard about the World Trade Center attack. An older generation no doubt remembers where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot on November 22, 1963, or John Lennon on December 8, 1980. And there are plenty of other examples, both positive and negative, from the first steps mankind took on the moon to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

But why do we remember not only significant events themselves, but where we were when we heard them? Research reveals some answers.

Flashbulb Memories

Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remember actually having to attach flashbulbs to our Instamatic cameras to help capture a snapshot in time. As a psychological construct, flashbulb memories have been described as a distinctive type of autobiographical memory associated with personally noteworthy and memorable public events. Flashbulb memory has been examined in connection with the way we remember certain events, why we remember the events we do, how long we remember them vividly, and whether such memories are always accurate.

William Hirst et al. (2015) studied flashbulb memories specifically in connection with the September 11, 2001 attack.[i] They define a flashbulb memory as “a memory for the circumstance in which one learned of a public event.” They note that it is characterized by its long-lasting effect—that people can describe it many years after the fact.

They use the term event memory to describe remembering a public event that leads to a flashbulb memory. So in the case of the 9-11 attack, they note that a flashbulb memory would be where you were when you heard about the attack, and event memories might include details such as that four planes were involved in the attack. They found that despite rapid forgetting of flashbulb and event memories within the first year, the amount of forgetting became level, remaining constant over a ten-year period.

The factors they examined which affect flashbulb memory consistency and event memory accuracy were: “(a) attention to media, (b) the amount of discussion, (c) residency, (d) personal loss and/or inconvenience, and (e) emotional intensity.” They found that after 10 years, among other things, media attention and related conversation predicted the accuracy of event memory. They also found that “inconsistent flashbulb memories were more likely to be repeated rather than corrected over the 10-year period,” but that inaccurate event memories were more often corrected. They note that these findings suggest that over time, even traumatic memories may be inconsistent, and such discrepancies may be persistent without the benefit of correction.

Hirst et al. note that flashbulb memories are not merely about the significant public event, or what we learned about it from other people. Rather, they point out that such memories are about what they describe as “the reception event in which one hears news about a public event.” Regarding the low frequency of flashbulb memories, they note that in the pioneering work of Brown and Kulik (1977), flashbulb memory was described as likely the exception rather the rule regarding such reception events.

Personal Flashbulbs

Apparently, flashbulb memories do not always refer to publicly significant events. Cynthia P. May et al. (2020) discuss how flashbulb memories may attach to personally significant events as well.[ii] Describing flashbulb memories as “vivid and salient memories for the moment one hears about a surprising, emotional, and significant event,” they applied this definition to 309 mothers who received the news of their child being diagnosed with Down syndrome. Using both the Flashbulb Memory Checklist and the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire, they concluded that most of the memories surrounding the news of the diagnosis memories fit the definition of flashbulb memories, even as long as 20 or more years after the event. Interestingly, May et al. also found that a critical component of flashbulb memory formation and persistence was support from the medical staff at the time of diagnosis.

Flash Forward

Understanding how and why we remember the events we do can help us make sense of why we experience the emotions we do upon remembering. And depending on the significance of the memorable event, we can decide whether the healthiest course of action is to leave the past in the rearview mirror and move on, or whether, as in the case of 9-11, there are some events that are worth remembering. #NeverForget


[i] Hirst, William, Elizabeth A. Phelps, Robert Meksin, Chandan J. Vaidya, Marcia K. Johnson, Karen J. Mitchell, Randy L. Buckner, et al. 2015. “A Ten-Year Follow-up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories for Flashbulb Events.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144 (3): 604–23. doi:10.1037/xge0000055.

[ii] May, Cynthia P., Anthony Dein, and Jaclyn Ford. 2020. “New Insights into the Formation and Duration of Flashbulb Memories: Evidence from Medical Diagnosis Memories.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, July. doi:10.1002/acp.3704.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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