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Flashbulb memories are highly detailed, exceptionally vivid 'snapshots' of the moment and circumstances in which surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.[1] Flashbulb memories have six characteristic features: place, ongoing activity, informant, own affect, other affect, and aftermath.[1] Flashbulb memories are believed to be highly resistant to forgetting. Arguably, the principal determinants of a flashbulb memory are a high level of surprise, a high level of consequentiality, or perhaps emotional arousal. Flashbulb memory is an appropriate name for the phenomenon in that it suggests surprise, an indiscriminate illumination, and brevity. The name is inappropriate, however, in that an actual photograph, taken by flashbulb, is indiscriminate and preserves everything within its scope. Flashbulb memories, in actuality, are only somewhat indiscriminate and are far from complete [1].

Flashbulb memories are one type of autobiographical memory. Despite the growing number of flashbulb memory studies, the issue of whether flashbulb memories are inherently more accurate than other types of autobiographical memories is debatable [2]. Some researchers believe that there is reason to distinguish flashbulb memories from other types of autobiographical memory, as long as there are elements of personal importance, consequentiality, emotion, and surprise [1][3][4]. Others believe that ordinary memories can also be accurate and long lasting if they are highly distinctive, personally significant [5][6], or repeatedly rehearsed [7].


Historical overview

The term flashbulb memory was coined by Brown and Kulik in 1977. They formed the special-mechanism hypothesis, which argues for the existence of a special biological memory mechanism that, when triggered by an event exceeding criterial levels of surprise and consequentiality, creates a permanent record of the contents of awareness for the period immediately surrounding the shocking experience [1]. The hypothesis of a special flashbulb-memory mechanism holds that flashbulb memories have special characteristics that are different from those produced by “ordinary” memory mechanisms. It is believed that the representations created by the special mechanism are detailed, accurate, vivid, and resistant to forgetting [1]. Most of these initial properties of flashbulb memories have been debated since Brown and Kulik first coined the term.


The special-mechanism hypothesis has been the subject of considerable discussion in recent years, with some authors endorsing the hypothesis and others noting potential problems.

Data concerning people's recollections of the circumstances in which they learned about the Reagan assassination attempt provide support for the special-mechanism hypothesis [8] There is also neurological evidence in support of a special- mechanism for flashbulb memories. Emotionally neutral autobiographical events, such as a party, were compared with two emotionally arousing events: Princess Diana's death, and Mother Teresa's death. Long-term memory for the contextual details of an emotionally neutral autobiographical event was significantly related to medial temporal lobe function and correlated with frontal lobe function, whereas there was no hint of an effect of either medial temporal lobe or frontal lobe function on memory for the two flashbulb events. These results indicate that there might be a special neurobiological mechanism associated with emotionally arousing flashbulb memories.[9]

Arguably, the flashbulb-memory phenomenon does not motivate the formation of a special flashbulb memory mechanism. Studies have shown that flashbulb memories can result from nonsurprising events[7], such as the first moon landing[10], and also from nonconsequential events. Also, while Brown and Kulik defined flashbulb memories as memories of first learning about a shocking event, they expand their discussion to include personal events in which the memory is of the event itself. Simply asking participants to retrieve vivid, autobiographical memories has been shown to produce memories that contain the six features of flashbulb memories[11]. Therefore, it has been proposed that such memories be viewed as products of ordinary memory mechanisms [5]. It has also been suggested that flashbulb memories are not especially resistant to forgetting[7][12][13].

A number of studies suggest that flashbulb memories are not especially accurate, but that they are experienced with great vividness and confidence[12][13]. Therefore, it is argued that it may be more precise to define flashbulb memories as extremely vivid autobiographical memories. Although they are often memories of learning about a shocking public event, they do not have to be of such events, and not all memories of learning about shocking public events produce flashbulb memories.[14]



The Photographic Model

Brown and Kulik proposed the term flashbulb memory, along with the first model of the process involved in developing what they called flashbulb accounts. They supported their model with an experiment in which they asked each participant to recall and report the circumstances in which the individual first heard about certain historical events. Brown and Kulik coded the participants’ answers and used their results to support their proposed model, the Photographic Model. They suggested that in order for a flashbulb account to occur in the presence of a stimulus event, there must be, to some degree, a high level of surprise, consequentiality, and emotional arousal. Specifically, at the time in which an individual first hears of an event, the degree of unexpectedness and surprise, which varies from one individual to another, is the first step in the registration of the event. The next step involved in registration of flashbulb accounts is the degree of consequentiality, which in turn, triggers a certain level of emotional arousal. Brown and Kulik described consequentiality as the things one would imagine may have gone differently if the event hadn’t occurred, or what consequences the event had on an individual’s life.[1]. High levels of surprise, consequentiality, and emotional arousal will create a flashbulb account that varies in detail across individuals. Furthermore, Brown and Kulik believed that high levels of these variables would also result in frequent rehearsal, being either covert (“always on the mind”) or overt (ex. talked about in conversations with others). Rehearsal, which acts as a mediating process in the development of a flashbulb account, creates stronger associations and more elaborate accounts. Therefore, the flashbulb memory becomes more accessible and vividly remembered for a long period of time.[1]

Comprehensive Model

Some researchers recognized that previous studies of flashbulb memories are limited by the reliance on small sample groups of few nationalities, thus limiting the comparison of memory consistency across different variables. With that, researchers developed a study that uses a similar methodological approach as Brown and Kulik’s research on the development of flashbulb accounts; however, they account for the mentioned limitations of previous research by using larger sample groups of people of many nationalities. According to their results, they developed a new model for the process involved in forming flashbulb memories called the Comprehensive Model. This model uses the labels affect, knowledge and interest, and importance, instead of Brown and Kulik’s variables of surprise and consequentiality. Rehearsal still serves as a mediating process. One major difference between the two models is that the Photographic Model follows more of a step-by-step process in the development of flashbulb accounts, whereas the Comprehensive Model demonstrates an interconnected relationship between the variables. Specifically, knowledge and interest in the event affects the level of personal importance for the individual, which also affects the individual’s level of emotional arousal (affect). Furthermore, knowledge and interest pertaining to the event, as well as the level of importance, contribute to the frequency of rehearsal. Therefore, high levels of knowledge and interest contribute to high levels of personal importance and affect, as well as high frequency of rehearsal. Finally, affect and rehearsal play major roles in creating associations, thus enabling the individual to remember vivid attributes of the event, such as the people, place, and description of the situation.[15]

Emotional- integrative Model

An Emotional-Integrative Model of flashbulb memories was also proposed, which integrated the two previously discussed models the Photographic Model and the Comprehensive Model. Similar to the Photographic Model ,the Emotional-Integrative Model states that the first step toward the registration of a flashbulb memory is an individual’s degree of surprise associated with the event. This level of surprise triggers an emotional feeling state, which is also a result of the combination of the level of importance (consequentiality) of the event to the individual, and the individual’s affective attitude. The emotional feeling state of the individual directly contributes to the creation of a flashbulb memory. To strengthen the association, thus enabling the individual to vividly remember the event, emotional feeling state and affective attitude contribute to overt rehearsal (mediator) of the event to strengthen the memory of the original event which, in turn, determines the formation of a flashbulb memory. In the present study, the emotional-integrative model was best fit in describing the process of the formation of flashbulb memories [16].

Importance Driven Emotional Reactions Model

This model emphasizes that personal consequences determine intensity of emotional reactions. These consequences are, therefore, critical operators in the formation and maintenance of flashbulb memories. This model was based on whether traumatic events were experienced or not during the Marmara earthquake. According to the findings of this study, the memories of the people who experienced the earthquake were preserved as a whole, and unchanged over time. Results of the re- test showed that the long-term memories of the victim group are more complete, more durable and more consistent than those of the comparison group. Therefore, based on this study, a new model was formed that highlights that consequences play a very large role in the formation of flashbulb memories.[17]


It has been debated whether flashbulb memories are really accurate enough to be considered their own category of memory. One of the issues is that flashbulb memories may deteriorate over time, just like everyday memories. Also, it has been questioned whether flashbulb memories are significantly different from everyday memories, overall. The majority of research on flashbulb memories, however, has found them to be very accurate. Such research focuses on identifying reasons why flashbulb memories are more accurate than everyday memories. It has been documented that importance of an event, the consequences involved, how distinct it is, personal involvement in the event, and proximity increase the accuracy of recall of flashbulb memories.

Stability over time

It has been argued that flashbulb memories are not very stable over time. A study conducted on the recollection of flashbulb memories for the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster sampled two independent groups of subjects on a date close to the disaster, and another eight months later. Very few subjects had flashbulb memories for the disaster after eight months. Considering only the participants who could recall the source of the news, ongoing activity, and place, researchers reported that less than 35% had detailed memories.[18]. Another study examining participants' memories for the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion found that although participants were highly confident about their memories for the event, their memories were not very accurate three years after the event had occurred.[7] Neither of these studies measured the importance levels of the Challenger disaster to participants, rather, they were assumed. Therefore, the accuracy of flashbulb memories could have been affected by the lack of significance of the event to participants, rather than simply the passage of time. A third study conducted on the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster did take the importance levels of the event to participants into consideration, and found that flashbulb memories were accurate after a period of nine months. Nine months after the disaster, 89% of the subjects could accurately recall location, activity, source of the news, and their reaction upon first learning of the explosion.[5]

Relation to autobiographical memory

Some studies indicate that flashbulb memories are not more accurate than other types of memories. It has been reported that memories of high school graduation or early emotional experiences can be just as vivid and clear as flashbulb memories. Undergraduates recorded their three most vivid autobiographical memories, and answered questions about them. Nearly all of the memories produced were rated to be of high personal importance, but low national importance. Even though their memories were not rated to be of high national importance, or were not cued by national events, they were rated as having the same level of consequentiality and surprise. This indicates that flashbulb memories may just be a subset of vivid memories, thus they may underlie a more general phenomenon.[11]

The majority of research has demonstrated that flashbulb memories are more accurate than everyday memories. Memories for the 9/11 World Trade Center attack was contrasted with everyday memories, finding that after one year, there was a high positive correlation between the initial and subsequent recollection of the 9/11 attack. This indicates very good retention, compared to a lower positive correlation for everyday memories.[19]

Flashbulb memory has always been classified as a type of autobiographical memory, which is memory for one's everyday life events. Emotionally neutral autobiographical events, such as a party or a barbecue, were contrasted with emotionally arousing events that were classified as flashbulb memories. Memory for the neutral autobiographical events was not as accurate as the emotionally arousing events of Princess Diana's death and Mother Teresea's death. Therefore, flashbulb memories were more accurately recalled than everyday autobiographical events.[9] In some cases, consistency of flashbulb memories and everyday memories do not differ, as they both decline over time. Ratings of vividness, recollection and belief in the accuracy of memory, however, have been documented to decline only in everyday memories and not flashbulb memories.[13]

Importance of an event

Brown and Kulik emphasized that importance is a critical variable in flashbulb memory formation. In a study conducted by Brown and Kulik, news events were chosen so that some of them would be important to some of their subjects, but not to others. They found that when an event was important for one group, it was associated with a comparatively high incidence of flashbulb memories. The same event, however, when judged lower on importance by another group, was found to be associated with a lower incidence of flashbulb memory.[1] It has also been found that the retelling or rehearsal of personally important events increases the accuracy of flashbulb memories. Personally important events tend to be rehearsed more often than non-significant events. A study conducted on flashbulb memories of the Loma Prieta earthquake found that people who discussed and compared their personal stories with others repeatedly had better recall of the event compared to Atlanta subjects who had little reason to talk about how they had heard the news. Therefore, the rehearsal of personally important events can be important in developing accurate flashbulb memories.[12] There has been other evidence that shows that personal importance of an event is a strong predictor of flashbulb memories. A study done on the flashbulb memory of the resignation of the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, found that the majority of UK subjects had flashbulb memories nearly one year after her resignation. Their memory reports were characterized by spontaneous, accurate, and full recall of event details. In contrast, a low number of non- UK subjects had flashbulb memories one year after her resignation. Memory reports in this group were characterized by forgetting and reconstructive errors. The flashbulb memories for Margaret Thatcher's resignation were, therefore, primarily associated with the level of importance attached to the event.


It was proposed that the intensity of initial emotional reaction, rather than perceived consequentiality, is a primary determinant of flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan were studied, and it was found that participants had accurate flashbulb memories seven months after the shooting. Respondents reported flashbulb memories, despite low consequentiality ratings. This study only evaluated the consequence of learning about a flashbulb event, and not how the consequences of being involved with the event affects accuracy. Therefore, some people were unsure of the extent of injury, and most could only guess about the eventual outcomes.[8] Two models of flashbulb memory state that the consequences of an event determines the intensity of emotional reactions. The Importance Driven Emotional Reactions Model indicates that personal consequences determine intensity of emotional reactions. The consequence of an event is a critical variable in the formation and maintenance of a flashbulb memory. These propositions were based on flashbulb memories of the Marmara earthquake.[17] The other model of flashbulb memory, called the Emotional-Integrative model, proposes that both personal importance and consequentiality determine the intensity of one's emotional state.[16] Overall, the majority of research found on flashbulb memories demonstrates that consequences of an event play a key role in the accuracy of flashbulb memories.

Distinctiveness of an event

Some experiences are unique and distinctive, while others are familiar, commonplace, or are similar to much that has gone on before. Distinctiveness of an event has been considered to be a main contributor to the accuracy of flashbulb memories. The accounts of flashbulb memory that have been documented as remarkably accurate have been unique and distinctive from everyday memories. It has been found that uniqueness of an event can be the best overall predictor of how well it will be recalled later on. In a study conducted on randomly sampled personal events, subjects were asked to carry beepers that went off randomly. Whenever the beeper sounded, participants recorded where they were, what they were doing, and what they were thinking. Weeks or months later, the participants' memories were tested. The researchers found that recall of action depends strongly on uniqueness.[20] It has also been documented that if someone has a distinctive experience during a meaningful event, then accuracy for recall will increase. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, higher accuracy for the recall of the earthquake was documented in participants who had distinctive experiences during the earthquake, often including a substantial disruption in their activity.[12] .

Personal involvement and proximity

It has been documented that people that are involved in a flashbulb event have more accurate recollections compared to people that were not involved in the event. Recollections of those who experienced the Marmara earthquake in Turkey had more accurate recollections of the event than people who had no direct experience. In this study, the majority of participants in the victim group recalled more specific details about the earthquake compared to the group that was not directly affected by the earthquake, and rather received their information about it from the news.[17] Another study compared Californians' memories of an earthquake that happened in California to the memories of the same earthquake formed by people who were living in Atlanta. The results indicated that the people that were personally involved with the earthquake had better recall of the event. Californians' recall of the event were much higher than Atlantans', with the exception of those who had relatives in the affected area, such that they reported being more personally involved.[12]

A study conducted on the September 11th terrorist attacks demonstrates that proximity plays a part in the accuracy of recall of flashbulb memories. Three years after the terrorist attacks, participants were asked to retrieve memories of 9/11, as well as memories of personally selected control events from 2001. At the time of the attacks, some participants were in the downtown Manhattan region, closer to the World Trade Center, while others were in Midtown, a few miles away. The participants who were closer to downtown recalled more emotionally significant detailed memories than the Midtown participants. When looking solely at the Manhattan participants, the retrieval of memories for 9/11 were accompanied by an enhancement in recollective experience relative to the retrieval of other memorable life events in only a subset of participants who were, on average, two miles from the World Trade Center (around Washington Square) and not in participants who were, on average, 4.5 miles from the World Trade Center (around the Empire State Building). Although focusing only on participants that were in Manhattan on 9/11, the recollections of those closer to the World Trade Center were more vivid than those who were farther away. The downtown participants reported seeing, hearing, and even smelling what had happened.[21] Personal involvement in, or proximity to, a national event could explain greater accuracy in memories because there could be more significant consequences for the people involved, such as the death of a loved one, which can create more emotional activation in the brain. This emotional activation in the brain has been shown to be involved in the recall of flashbulb memories.

Neurological bases


Laboratory studies have related specific neural systems to the influence of emotion on memory. Cross-species investigations have shown that emotional arousal causes neurohormonal changes, which engage the amygdala. The amygdala modulates the encoding, storage, and retrieval of episodic memory.[22][23][24][25][26] These memories are later retrieved with an enhanced recollective experience [26][27], similar to the recollection of flashbulb memories. The amygdala, therefore, may be important in the encoding and retrieval of memories for emotional public events. Since the role of the amygdala in memory is associated with increased arousal induced by the emotional event [28], factors that influence arousal should also influence the nature of these memories. The constancy of flashbulb memories over time varies based on the individual factors related to the arousal response, such as emotional engagement [8][29] and personal involvement with the shocking event.[12]. The strength of amygdala activation at retrieval has been shown to correlate with an enhanced recollective experience for emotional scenes, even when accuracy is not enhanced.[26].

Amygdala highlighted in red

There has been considerable debate as to whether unique mechanisms are involved in the formation of flashbulb memories, or whether ordinary memory processes are sufficient to account for memories of shocking public events. Sharot et al. found that for individuals who were close to the World Trade Center, the retrieval of 9/11 memories engaged neural systems that are uniquely tied to the influence of emotion on memory. The engagement of these emotional memory circuits is consistent with the unique limbic mechanism that Brown and Kulik[1] suggested. These are the same neural mechanisms, however, engaged during the retrieval of emotional stimuli in the laboratory.[26] The consistency in the pattern of neural responses during the retrieval of emotional scenes presented in the laboratory and flashbulb memories suggests that even though different mechanisms may be involved in flashbulb memories, these mechanisms are not unique to the surprising and consequential nature of the initiating events.

Evidence indicates the importance of the amygdala in the retrieval of 9/11 events, but only among individuals who personally experienced these events.[26] The amygdala’s influence on episodic memory is explicitly tied to physiological arousal.[28] Although simply hearing about shocking public events may result in arousal, the strength of this response likely varies depending on the individual’s personal experience with the events.

Common flashbulb memories

During extremely arousing and often emotional times, vivid and accurate flashbulb memories are formed. Some common experiences noted are: the deaths of Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and Kurt Cobain the assassinations of Malcolm X, Rajiv Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and John Lennon, the disaster involving the Challenger space shuttle, and the tragic occurrences on September 11, 2001[30] Oftentimes, individuals can recall photograph-like memories, and are able to remember exactly what they were doing, for example, or where they were.[21].

Assassination of John F. Kennedy

The second youngest and thirty-fifth President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the crime, but never made it to trial, as he was murdered two days after the event. Daniel L. Schacter, a Psychology professor at Harvard University, wrote a book in 1996 titled Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past about the many types of memory, including flashbulb memories. He includes his own experience of flashbulb memory, as it pertains to the recollection of the John F. Kennedy assassination. He could not recall what happened prior to, or immediately following the news, yet reports an image fixed in his mind, in photographic form, of the exact moment in time that he heard of the assassination. When this was written, Schacter acknowledged the thirty-year life of his vivid memory that had not been defeated by time. The memory had yet to erode or degrade.[31].

September 11, 2001

The most recent event relating to the study of flashbulb memories was the tragedy that occurred in the United States on September 11th, 2001, when two airliners crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing all the people on board and many working in the buildings. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. More than six thousand people were injured or killed as a result of this tragic event. Among the many individuals who have memories of this occurrence is Matthew Swulinski, who reported his incredibly vivid account with great intensity. He accurately recalls the exact events as they took place, and forever holds snapshots of the buildings falling to the ground and clouds of dust and smoke surrounding him.[32] One study on the September 11th tragedy, as related to the neural basis of memory and the emotional mechanisms that influence them, suggests that geographic location can also be involved in the strength of flashbulb memories.[26]

Assassination of John Lennon

The December 8, 1980 assassination of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman in New York City was another emotionally arousing event in history, which provokes flashbulb memories for many people. One woman reports her vivid memory of the death announcement, clearly recapturing the moment and accurately describing it down to the reaction of the broadcaster, and her awareness of his change in demeanor while delivering the message. Her flashbulb memory also included her surroundings, and every aspect of her morning routine while getting ready for school[33] Many people were touched by this tragedy, and there are numerous accounts of flashbulb memories regarding the death of John Lennon that include, yet are not limited to, the conversation they had, their state during realization, their surroundings during the hours surrounding the news, the vivid recollection of tears shed, the weather outside, the music on the radio, the feeling of sadness and shock, and the warm encounters with loved ones to cope with the feelings[34]

Death of Princess Diana

On 31 August 1997, Diana perished in a car crash in the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris along with her then boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed and the acting security manager of the Hôtel Ritz Paris, Henri Paul, who was their chauffeur. An estimated 2.5 billion people watched the princess's funeral.

Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

On January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds into flight, the space shuttle named Challenger broke apart and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. Seven crew members were killed in the accident, contributing to the significance of the disaster at that point in time. Flashbulb memories have been implicated in the emotionally arousing event. Mark Whittington, a writer from Texas, clearly recalled hearing the news of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and explains his flashbulb memory as "shocking." He recalls being in his vehicle on the way back to his office from a lunch break and, while driving, almost drove off the road before pulling over to continue listening to the tragic news story on the radio. He also recalls the following hours in his day, and the trouble he had concentrating on his work.[35] A study conducted on memories relating to the Challenger incident revealed that the more emotionally aroused one was to the event, and the greater personal linkage that was experienced, the stronger and more significant the vividness and accuracy of the memory became.[36]


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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



flashbulb memory

  1. A memory for a significant and extremely emotional moment or event.


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