Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, a tragedy that took 7 lives and is a landmark moment for many people. Yahoo! asked readers to send in their memories of that day, and many were detailed and emotional. Perhaps adding to that sadness, many are likely to be wrong.
The Challenger disaster is an excellent example of an event that creates what is called a flashbulb memory; the article describes it as a
“… moment that’s burned into a generation’s mind: The white exhaust plume trailing behind the rapidly ascending Challenger; a fireball, then a huge cloud splitting into a “Y” formation as the shuttle broke apart and fell back to earth.”
Other flashbulb memory moments, depending on your age and interests, would be hearing of JFK’s assassination, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, or the attack on the World Trade Center. Flashbulb memories are thought to be created by any event that is surprising (or emotional) and meaningful. Such an event will be rehearsed much more than other memories as people talk about it with each other and think about it themselves. The memories will feel detailed and vivid. However, these memories are not nearly so different as their owners think.
In a study conducted the week of the disaster, subjects wrote down where they were, what they were doing, and how they found out about the Challenger explosion. They then answered the same questions 9 months later. A quarter of the subjects provided at least one inconsistent answer; for example, they thought they saw the explosion on TV when in fact someone had called and told them. Surprisingly, they were nearly as confident in these incorrect memories as they were in their correct memories.
Unfortunately, these inaccuracies are a side-effect of how our memory is supposed to work. Memories are made to fade with time and be forgotten. They need to be malleable so we can update old memories with new information. The downside is that sometimes people mix two memories together and create a false memory. If we were able to remember everything that ever happened to us, we would become overwhelmed with information and paradoxically unable to link events together; every moment would feel isolated and distinct from every other moment. No one enjoys suffering through these memory problems, but they’re better than the alternative. Flashbulb memories are not safe from these effects.
Flashbulb memories have the advantage of being remembered and rehearsed more than other more typical events, and are typically more emotional and important. These features make them stronger than other memories and make us more confident that they really happened just the way we remember. But in the end, they’re memories just like all the others. Our memory of the Challenger disaster isn’t any less special; we’ll always remember it better than lunch last Tuesday. We just need to realize that those special memories aren’t perfect.
Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories Cognition, 5 (1), 73-99 DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-X
McCloskey, M., Wible, C., & Cohen, N. (1988). Is there a special flashbulb-memory mechanism? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117 (2), 171-181 DOI: 10.1037//0096-3418.104.22.168