What is Flashbulb Memory?

This is a part of memory that keeps important occurrences majorly in auditory and visual memory. In other words, it’s an extremely vivid and detailed ‘snapshot’ of a moment in which a surprising, significant, and emotionally arousing piece of news was learned. Flashbulb memory often includes details like where the individual was or what he was doing at the time of the event.

In 1977, James Kulik and Roger Brown coined the phrase ‘flashbulb memory’ while studying individuals’ skills to remember surprising and significant events. Though the term ‘flashbulb memory’ means illumination, shock, conciseness, and detail, such memory is far from complete. Some fundamental characteristics of a flashbulb memory are

  •         informant (who shared or told the news),
  •         affect on the individual (how the person felt),
  •         impact on others (how others felt),
  •         repercussion (the event’s significance),
  •         ongoing activities (what others were doing), and
  •         location (where the individual was when the event occurred).

Examples of flashbulb memories are when an individual heard that Donald Trump had won the 2016 Presidential election or about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Since such memories are autobiographical memories, it could happen that the person vividly remembers what he was doing, where he was, and who first broke the news, but may not recall seeing any footage or learning the specifics until a few hours had passed. This is because flashbulb memories are characterized as extremely personal memories of how an event or a fact is related to the person. In autobiographical memories, the main focus is on the individual, while everything else is secondary.

There’s some debate over the accuracy of flashbulb memories. Some researchers found that the retrieval of such memories declines over time, just like it happens for daily memories. It indicates that perhaps flashbulb memories rank higher not essentially because of their accuracy but due to their perceived accuracy. However, some other research findings imply that flashbulb memories are more correct than everyday memories because personal involvement, consequentiality, proximity, and distinction can improve recall.

Studies have found the amygdala plays a significant role in encoding and retrieving the memories of important public events that trigger emotional arousal. Such arousal causes neurohormonal changes that affect the amygdala and possibly impact the nature of memories too. Thus, the amygdala’s role is crucial in creating and retrieving flashbulb memories.

Individual factors like age and culture can create differences in flashbulb memories. Younger adults are usually more likely to create flashbulb memories than older people. In them, the emotional attachment to an experience acts as the chief predictor of recall, while the older adults rely on rehearsal and are likely to forget the context of the experience. However, these older people will form detailed flashbulb memories, just like their younger counterparts, if the event had severely affected them. Usually, the factors impacting the vividness of flashbulb memories are believed to be independent of cultural variation. Still, some research results indicate that cultural factors can cause notable variation in the retrieval of such memories.

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