Flashbulb Memory

Research has shown that remembering is a reconstructive process, and that our memories are not as accurate as we may believe them to be.  But isn't it also true that at least some moments in life are remembered in great detail?  Aren't there some moments you will never forget, because they changed your life forever?  In this lesson, we'll be exploring the evidence for these kind of vivid, seemingly unforgettable memories.
Try it Out

Some moments quickly fade from memory, while others seem to be etched permanently in our minds.  For each of the following events, rate how well can remember them, using the scale below:

5  = I can remember the event in great detail
4 = I can remember many details of the event
3 = I can remember a few details of the event
2 = I can barely remember the event
1 = I can't remember the event at all

A.  The first day that you went to your current school

B. Your first kiss

C. Your most recent birthday

D. The first day of the second term (or semester) of school last year

E.  What you did on the first day of the previous month

F.  The first movie you saw in 2017

Now reflect on your memories.  Why do you think you remember some events with so much more detail than others?

Theory of Flashbulb Memory

For most of us, it seems that highly emotional events are remembered far better than ordinary, routine moments.  For instance, your first day at school is an emotionally intense event - you probably felt a potent mix of excitement and nervousness when you walked through the doors of your new school for the first time.  Strong emotion seems to reinforce memory of an event, which is why you probably remember your first day of school much better than the first day of your second semester last year, even though the latter event occurred more recently.  Can you remember your first kiss in great detail?  If you can, you aren't alone - research has found that most people count their first kiss as one of their most vivid memories, because of the intensity of the emotions involved.

Based on these observations, Brown & Kulik proposed the theory of flashbulb memory.  The theory predicts that:

  • Memories of highly emotional events will be exceptionally clear, detailed, and accurate

  • These events will be remembered as vividly as a photograph, hence the term "flashbulb" memory, as if a camera's flash captures the moment perfectly in memory

  • ​People will remember all the details surrounding the event, such as the time and place of the event, who they were with, and so forth

  • Brown & Kulik suggested that there may be a special neural mechanism for flashbulb memories - in other words, a flashbulb memory might involve a different brain process than an ordinary memory

The event which inspired flashbulb memory theory was the assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy in 1963.  JFK was a hugely popular, charismatic and handsome president, and news of his assassination shocked the country.  Years later, many people said they clearly and vividly remembered the moment when they first heard the news of JFK's assassination, as if it happened yesterday.  Watch the video of JFK's assassination (on the left), which was broadcast live in national TV.  Then, watch the video (on the right) in which people recall their memories of JFK's assassination.

Research: Brown & Kulik

Aim:  Investigate whether people have unusually vivid memories of highly emotional events


  • Participants in the study were 80 Americans, half of which were white, the other half African-American

  • Participants were asked to recall assassinations of famous people, like JFK.  They were also asked to recall memories of an emotionally intense personal event, such as the unexpected death of a family member


  • Nearly all participants had very vivid memories of JFK's assassination, including where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news

  • African-Americans also had vivid memories of the assassination of key civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr, who were important figures in the fight for racial equality

  • Most participants (73 out of 80) also had at least one exceptionally vivid memory of an emotionally intense personal event, the most common being the death of a parent


  • Emotionally intense events are remembered in great detail, clearly and accurately


  • This study supports the theory of flashbulb memory, demonstrating the link between emotion and memory.  African-Americans had a greater emotional responce to the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr, hence remembered it better

  • Although the participants seemed to remember these events clearly and vividly, the study could not verify whether the memories were accurate or not

  • Perhaps people tell the story of JFK's assasination so many times, hence the memory seems detailed, but perhaps the details change over time.  People may "fill in" missing details based on their best guess, as schema theory suggests
Criticisms of Flashbulb theory

Not all psychologists have been convinced by the theory of flashbulb memory - especially the claim that flashbulb memories are exceptionally accurate.  Neisser has suggested that the reason why people seem to remember certain events in great detail is simply because they rehearse the story by telling it over and over.  When an important event occurs - like the assassination of JFK - people often share their memories of the event with friends, family members, and so on.  Over time, these memories may become distorted or embellished, as the details change slightly with each telling.

To put flashbulb memories to the test, Neisser waited for another unexpected, shocking event to occur.  In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger took flight, watched eagerly by millions of Americans on television.  Tragically, just 73 seconds into flight, the space shuttle broke apart, killing all crew members on board.  This tragedy was witnessed on live TV by millions of people, and was a huge shock to the country.  Neisser decided to research if people would form flashbulb memories of the Challenger disaster - and, crucially, whether these memories would be stored accurately.
Research: Neissar & Harsch

Aim: Assess the accuracy of flashbulb memories


  • Within 24 hours of the Challenger disaster, participants (who were all American psychology students) filled in a survey with 7 questions regarding where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard the news of the disaster

  • 2.5 years later, participants filled in the same questionnaire again.  The researchers compared the two versions of the questionnaire to see if participants' memories would still be accurate, over two years later.  Participants were also asked how confident they were (on a scale of 1 to 5)  in their memory of the event


  • For most participants, there were significant discrepancies between the two questionnaires, indicating that memory of the event had become distorted.  Out of 7 questions, only an average of 2.95 were answered identically to the original survey

  • Despite the poor memory of the event, most participants felt confident that they could remember the Challenger disaster accurately, with an average confidence rating of 4.17


  • Although flashbulb memories may seem detailed and vivid, they may not always be accurate.  Even when a person claims to remember an event confidently and in great detail, there is still a good chance their memory is incorrect


  • The participants in the study were all American university students, so generalizability of the findings is low.  Perhaps people from other cultures or age groups might have better (or worse) memories

  • The study involved memory of a real-life event, so ecological validity is high

  • ​Although the Challenger disaster was certainly a shocking event, it did not have much personal relevance for the students. In other words, tbe Challenger disaster was unlikely to change the students' lives in any meaningful way.  Perhaps flashbulb memories of truly emotional, life-changing personal events - like the death of a parent - would be remembered more accurately
Flashbulb memory & the brain

The development of brain imaging technology (which you learned about in the Biological unit) has given Psychologists new tools to research flashbulb memory.  Using fMRI technology, researchers can study whether highly emotional memories activate different parts of the brain compared with less emotional memories.

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked a number of airplanes and deliberately crashed them with New York's World Trade Center, causing the deaths of over 3,000 people.  Three years later, Phelps and her team of researchers used fMRI technology to study the memories of the people who witnesses the attack firsthand.  
Video Activity

Watch the video below on Phelp's research, and make notes on the following:

  • ​Which two groups of people were compared?

  • ​What part of the brain was more active in people who had flashbulb memories of 9/11?
Research Study: Phelps 

Aim:  Investigate which brain regions play a role in flashbulb memory


  • ​24 participants who were in New York City at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks recalled their memories of the event (and other events of that summer) while having their brain scanned by an fMRI machine

  • The participants were also asked to rate how detailed and vivid their memories were of the 9/11 attacks and other events of that summer


  • Only participants who were very close to the attacks reported very detailed and vivid memories of 9/11.  The memory of those further away from the attacks was less detailed, as were other memories from that summer

  • Participants who were close to the 9/11 attacks showed increased activity in the amygdala when recalling the event.  The amygdala is known to be involved in emotion


  • Flashbulb memories are only likely to occur when witnessing a shocking event first-hand, not merely seeing it from the distance or on the news

  • The amygdala is involved in flashbulb memories, suggesting that strong emotions result in vivid, detailed memories


  • This study supports the theory of flashbulb memory, as intense emotions are linked to detailed, vivid memories.  Furthermore, the study supports Brown & Kulik's hypothesis that a special brain mechanism is involved in flashbulb memory

  • On the other hand, this study suggests that flashbulb memories are only created for personally relevant events which are experienced first hand

  • This was a small-scale study, only involving 24 participants, so should be replicated with great numbers of participants and for different events

  • The study did not verify the accuracy of participants' memories of 9/11

Putting it all together: Evaluating flashbulb memory

Flashbulb memory theory is a good example of how theories can evolve as more research is carried out.  The basic idea of flashbulb memory theory is well-supported by research, however some important modifications to the original theory are necessary in light of the data.

  • Research has confirmed that emotion certainly affects memory.  The more emotional an event, the more detailed and vividly it will be remembered

  • Research by Phelps has also demonstrated that the amygdala plays a role in flashbulb memories, confirming the hypothesis that a special brain mechanism is responsible for these memories

  • ​However, an important modification to the original theory is required. Only personally relevant events, especially those witnessed first-hand, are likely to result in flashbulb memories.  The assassination of JFK and the Challenger disaster are not good examples of true flashbulb memory, as these were not witnessed first-hand by most people

  • Research by Neissar and Harsch has found that memories for shocking events are not always accurate, even when people are highly confident in their memories.  Thus, the term "flashbulb" memory is perhaps not appropriate, since memory can never be as accurate as a camera's flash


  • I can explain Brown & Kulik's theory of flashbulb memory

  • I can summarize the Aim, Procedure, Findings, and Conclusion of Brown & Kulik's research on flashbulb memories of JFK and civil rights leaders, and I can evaluate the study

  • I can discuss reasons why flashbulb memory may not necessarily be accurate, making reference to the Aim, Procedure, Findings, and Conclusion of Neissar & Harsch's research on memories of the challenger disaster. I can also evaluate the study.

  • I can discuss the role of biology in flashbulb memories, making reference to the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Phelp's research on flashbulb memories of 9/11. I can also evaluate the study.

  • I can discuss strengths and limitations of the theory of flashbulb memory
Quiz Yourself!

1.  Which of the following was not demonstrated in Brown & Kulik's study on flashbulb memories?

(a) Most participants had vivid, detailed memories of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of JFK's assassination

(b) African-American participants had vivid memories of the assassination of civil rights leaders

(c) Most participants had flashbulb memories of a highly emotional personal event

(d) Flashbulb memories were recalled far more accurately than other forms of memory

2.  What criticism did Neissar & Harsch have regarding flashbulb memory?

(a) Flashbulb memories are not more detailed than ordinary memories

(b) There is no evidence for a special neural mechanism in flashbulb memory

(c) Even vivid, detailed memories may not necessarily be accurate

(d) All memories inevitably fade over time

3.  Fill in the blanks.  "Two and a half years after the event, students had a _____degree of confidence in their memories of the Challenger disaster, and yet many details of their memory turned out to be ______"

(a) high / incorrect

(b) low / incorrect

(c) high / correct

(d) high / correct

4.  Fill in the blanks.  "Participants close to the attack showed activation in their ______ while recalling memories of 9/11, while participants further away showed activation in their _____"

(a) hippocampus / amygdala

(b) amygdala / hippocampus

(c) hippocampus and amygdala / hippocampus

(d) hippocampus / hippocampus and amygdala

5. Why is the term "flashbulb" memory misleading?

(a) Only memories of personally relevant events are recalled accurately

(b) Memory is reconstructive, and is never captured like a photograph

(c) Flashbulb memories only occur for emotionally powerful events

(d) There is no reliable way to measure the accuracy of flashbulb memories