We all remember those special moments, don’t we? The birthday party with the huge cake, or our first day at school, or when we broke our arm playing in the snow. They seem as if they only happened yesterday, the memories are so vivid!
Many years ago, some classic research was conducted by Brown and Kulik (1977) into the phenomenon of what they called ‘flashbulb memories’: memories of where we were when we heard startling news that had a strong emotional impact on us. Their questionnaires and interviews suggested that indeed people did remember where they were and exactly what they were doing when they heard of President Kennedy’s death or the shooting of Martin Luther King. Do you remember what you were doing when you heard of Michael Jackson’s sudden death? Maybe your parents remember where they were when the sad news of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident was broadcast?
However, later research showed how our flashbulb memories may not be so accurate as we think: one fault of Brown and Kulik’s method was that they had no independent way of checking the accuracy of their participants’ memories of where they were and how they heard the news. Neisser and Harsch (1992) interviewed people one day after the 1986 Challenger Shuttle Disaster and again two-and-a-half years later. One day after the event, 21% of participants reported hearing about the disaster on TV. But years later, 45% reported hearing about it on TV. Their memories of how they knew about the Challenger explosion had changed over time. Moreover, in the second interview, some of them reported being at certain events when they heard, despite such events not taking place at the time. Neisser and Harsch concluded that although flashbulb memories are vivid and long-lasting, they are not reliable.
Test it for yourself – ask a person who was present when you both heard some shock news, and see how your memories coincide or how they are different. You may be surprised!