Where were you on Sept. 11 when you first heard that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center?
Many of us may have vivid memories of that day, recalling where we were and what we were doing when we first learned of the attack, perhaps even remembering seemingly irrelevant details. Chances are, that memory isn’t as accurate as you think it is.
This is called a flashbulb memory. Researchers coined the term in the 1970s as a metaphor for capturing an entire scene in one moment, from the most important to the most mundane details, and then being able to hold on to that memory indefinitely as if you had a photographic record of it.
Flashbulb memories have intrigued memory researchers like me for a long time. We know that they are a type of autobiographical memory – memories of personally experienced events. Like other autobiographical memories, we think we remember them accurately. In reality, we often don’t.
While we know that flashbulb memories aren’t perfect records, for a long time no one knew if these memories were more accurate than ordinary autobiographical memories. Since flashbulb memories are often formed after sudden, dramatic events, it’s hard to create experiments to test this.
I was a graduate student at Duke University on Sept. 11, 2001. My adviser, David Rubin, and I instantly recognized the opportunity to conduct a study of flashbulb memories in response to the event.
On Sept. 12, we asked our undergraduates about their memories of how they learned about the terrorist attacks, as well as an ordinary autobiographical memory from the preceding weekend. In the months afterward, we were able to follow up with our undergrads to see if and how their memories changed.
You think you remember it exactly, but you don’t
While the term “flashbulb memory” was introduced in 1977, the phenomenon was known to researchers well before then. In fact, in 1899 psychologist F. W. Colegrove recorded vivid and detailed memories from people about when they learned of President Lincoln’s assassination.
For a long time, researchers argued that flashbulb memories really were a complete and accurate snapshot of events.