News and Tribune

November 22, 2013

STAWAR: Flashbulb memories

Local columnist

— Today marks the 50th anniversary of an event that was indelibly impressed on my generation — the assassination of the 35th President of the United States — John F. Kennedy.

It may not have been the most important historical event of the last half century, but it sure seemed like it was. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt I was actually witnessing history.

David Von Drehle, a writer for Time Magazine, points out that although Kennedy’s achievements are far less impressive than presidents such as Lincoln, Washington or FDR, he is often ranked in their company or even higher. Von Drehle says, “He alone is cherished less for what was, than for what might have been.”

The Kennedy assassination like other shared national traumas, such as Pearl Harbor, the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, created for most people a special sense of a place in time. If you ask folks, “Where were you when these things happened?” most of us can give you a detailed reminiscence.

Thirty-Four years after Lincoln’s assassination. F.W. Colegrove found that two-thirds of the people he interviewed could provide a detailed account of what they were doing when they heard the news that Lincoln was killed. Colegrove concluded that his results supported “the abiding character of vivid experiences.”

I remember sitting in junior high English class, shortly after lunch, trying to look invisible, to avoid being called upon to answer some grammar question, when the PA system sputtered to life and the principal’s voice informed us that the president had been shot in Dallas. A short time later, a trembling voice told us that the president was dead. I think they played “Hail to the Chief.” The girl, who sat directly in front of me, may have cried, but most of us just seemed shocked.

Two days later, it was quite cold and I was in our garage, making toy lead soldiers, listening to the news on the radio, when a bulletin came on saying that Jack Ruby had shot Oswald in Dallas. My father bought a copy of the “extra” edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper and wrapped it in plastic sheeting, telling me that someday it might be valuable.

All of these memories are especially strong and distinctive, but how accurate are they?

In the years after the Kennedy assassination, Harvard psychologist Roger Brown and James Kulik, from the University of California, coined the term “flashbulb memory” for those memories created in extraordinary circumstances. They believed such memories often have an usual quality “that make them like photographs.” They theorized that there might be some sort of a mechanism that is activated in such times that causes the mind to make an immediate mental picture of the event.

These memories are especially vivid and emotionally shaded, according to Duke psychologist Daniel Greenberg. He says, “Memories like these allow people to place themselves in a particular moment in history; thus, it comes as no surprise that people find themselves telling their story over and over again.”

William Hirst from the New School for Social Research says these memories contain an “unusual intersection of the personal and the public”. His research, however, revealed that 40% of the time, people distorted some feature of their September 11th attack memory.

The notion of the “flashbulb memory” was prominent in the years when memory was still thought to be a passive process. Depending upon the current technology, memory was believed to function like a camera, tape recorder or VCR, recording an accurate copy of the images and sounds which could be played back later. It was assumed that the same recording was played back each time we recalled something, although there were problems with retrieval at times.

More recent research, however, has revealed the dynamic quality of human memory. Studies have shown that people frequently add, delete or distort major aspects of even highly significant memories, based on suggestion, context and personal needs. Greenberg says, “For example, people who hear a list of sewing-related words will often falsely remember that the word ‘needle’ was on the list.

Also, “A simple one-word change to a question can increase the likelihood that people will falsely remember seeing broken glass in a picture, when in fact there was none”

Today, there is substantial evidence that that these special memories are also subject to change, and are not as entrenched as previously thought.

Duke University researchers Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin compared ordinary memories to the flashbulb memories participants had of 9/11. Subjects were asked about their memories one day, one week, about a month and about seven months after the attack. They were also asked about an ordinary event that happened at about the same time.

Participants were all very confident about their World Trade Center memories, which remained vivid throughout the study. The subjects reported that their ordinary memories were fading fast and they were less sure about them. Objectively, however, they could remember no more details about 9/11 than the ordinary events.

Distortions frequently turn up in flashbulb memory accounts and often they are related to the timing and sequence of events, as well as the intrusion of television images or iconic photos of the event. The repetitiveness of television coverage lead many people to believe they first learned of events from watching television.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw the planes crash into the World Trade Center or the smoke plumes of the ill-fated Challenger. These images may enhance our recall, but they especially increase our confidence in the accuracy of what we remember.

We often fail to realize that our visual images can also be modified or even totally fabricated. Also when we relate our memories our automatic story-telling conventions kick in as we try to fill in the gaps to make our stories logical, plausible and dramatic.

Elizabeth Phelps, a New York University neuropsychologist, found that people who were very close to the 9/11 attack site showed activation in a brain area associated with intense emotion when remembering the event. Those who were farther away showed activity in another brain area, associated with everyday memories.

Some neuroscientists conclude that the amount of true flashbulb memory depends on the amount of active involvement, threat or emotional arousal present.

The factors most related to the intensity of flashbulb memories are distinctiveness of the event, personal involvement, sources of information, younger age, proximity to the event and cultural norms regarding individuality. American and Britain have more flashbulb memories reported than other parts of the world.

As for me, I am sticking by my story of where I was Nov. 22, 1963, although now I sort of wonder if it was the coach, instead of the principal, who made the announcement and maybe they played “The Star Spangled Banner” instead of “Hail to the Chief.”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at