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All in a Flash

What were you doing on the 10th August 2001? Where were you – what were you doing and who were you with? Can you remember? Unless it was a big day for you like your birthday or wedding day, the chances are you probably can’t recollect it. OK, what about on the 11th August then? Still nothing? So, what about a month later. What about the 11th September 2001? Yes, I bet you can tell me all about your day now can’t you?

Today, the eyes, minds and voices of many within the world will return to the atrocious events of ten years ago – the terrorist attacks in the US. Many people will discuss in private or in public, in homes, on phones, on radio and TV stations, through Tweets and blogs such as this one, their detailed experiences of September 11th 2001. But do you ever stop to think how remarkable that is, or to wonder how we are able to do it?

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘Flashbulb memory’. It is when a memory remains so vivid that we can recall the most incredible details about it…years after the event.

With Flashbulb memory you can usually recall several things including where you were when you heard about the event, who you were with, what you were doing, what you did next and how you felt.

Flashbulb memories are generally thought of as being collective – depending on your age examples may include hearing about the shooting of JFK, the Challenger disaster, the death of Princess Diana, or more recently of Michael Jackson. But, they may also be individual memories – recalling when someone proposed to you, when your first child was born or when you were told that a loved one had a terminal condition.

So, how is it that some memories become Flashbulb ones – what is it about them that makes them different? You may have noticed that the most common element is extreme emotion – usually including shock. But from here on, there are two different theories on why the memories become so strong.

One view is that due to the nature of what happens the emotions are so great that it is as if a photograph has been taken of that moment – hence the reference to Flashbulbs. But the second view acknowledges that these are special moments in our lives and that they are not treated like the rest of our memories. As human beings, we discuss these significant events, describing and sharing our individual experiences. But, unusually, we do this time and time again, repeating, reliving and reinforcing it each time. It becomes like a story that we are used to telling, a well-rehearsed part of our lives. Is it any wonder then that we remember them so vividly?

Whichever theory is right, one thing is for sure. Flashbulb memories are powerful, they remain with us, become part of us and are incredibly hard to forget …… even if we wanted to.

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