Flashbulb Memories are especially vivid memories created by highly-charged emotional events. Flashbulb Memories tend to encapsulate the surrounding context of the situation and not just the event itself. Flashbulb memories are so termed because they are were hypothesised to be like a photograph taken with a flash: burn immediately into the film or mind. In fact flashbulb memories are the closest that humans get to photographic or eidetic memory.
Brown and Kulik (1977) discovered flashbulb memories, they gave participants a questionnaire about the deaths of Kennedy, Malcolm ‘X’, Martin Luther King, and the day of Princess Diana’s death. As such, one of the most frequently cited examples of flashbulb memories is the assignation of President Kennedy in 1963. For the people who were alive when this event happened, many of them have flashbulb memories of the event, especially those who were in Dallas on that day. The people who have flashbulb memories of this event report that they can clearly remember everything about the event, including where they were, what they were thinking, the weather, the smells in the air, everything. They often report that their memories are present like the event just happened. The entire context is not usually recalled with normal memories. For example, most people have a first memory, such as a first bike, but they seldom recall the context occasioned with that memory. They may remember their first bike, but they don’t recall what they had for breakfast that morning.
Why do flashbulb memories occur
Brown and Kulic (1977) offered a hypothesis, which argues that there is a special biological mechanism called ‘Now Print!’. Brown and Kulic (1977) suggest the special-mechanism is activated when events have high levels of emotion and surprise. According to Brown and Kulic, the most important factor in the formation of flash bulb memories is surprise and consequentiality. If these factors are not present, then flash bulb memories are not formed. Furthermore, Brown and Kulic hypothesised that there is a critical level of these two factors at which flashbulb memories start being created. However, there has been a great deal of discussion over flashbulb memories, from their existence to the ‘special-mechanism.’ According to McCloskey et al., (1988) the special-mechanism hypothesis is not needed and they instead suggest that we should view flash bulb memories in the as being products of normal autobiographical memory mechanisms. Finkenauer et al., (1988) expanded upon the work of Brown and Kulic (1977) and proposed the ‘emotional-integrative model’ of flash bulb memories. This approach argues that novelty plays a part in the creation of flash bulb memories and that the personal importance (consequentiality) of an event also plays a part in the creation of flash bulb memories. Finkenauer et al., (1988) suggest the novelty of the event creates the level of surprise and thus determines the intensity of emotional arousal. Further, they suggest that there is a two-fold importance to the emotional arousal surrounding the event: firstly, it creates the flash bulb memory. Secondly and more importantly, it triggers rehearsal, which will increase the recall of the event and surrounding context.
Brown, R.; Kulik, J. (1977). “Flashbulb Memories”. Cognition 5 (1): 73–99. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-X.