Flashbulb memories are those memories formed when a person learns of a shocking or significant event, such as the assassination of a world leader or the occurrence of a devastating natural disaster. Research has suggested that flashbulb memories are more vivid, accurate, and long-lasting than other types of memories, and that they may even be recorded and stored by a different part of the brain. Many researchers agree that the formation of a flashbulb memory will occur only if the news learned is highly surprising, arouses an emotional response, or may have a consequence on one’s own life.
In flashbulb memories, individuals are able to remember with a high level of detail the moment they learned significant news. A person may recall, for instance, where they were and with whom, what they were wearing, how, precisely, the news was conveyed to them, and how they felt upon receiving it. In the US, for instance, many of those alive and cognizant at the time of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy continue to retain a precise memory of the moment they learned of the event several decades on.
Many researchers believe that flashbulb memories are more accurate and long-lasting than other types of memories. While protracted studies have shown that these memories are fairly resistant to deterioration over time, the exact reason for this preservation tendency remains open to debate. Some researchers feel that the continuing accuracy of flashbulb memories is due to the fact that, because of their shocking or emotional nature, they tend to be discussed or thought about with a much higher frequency than non-emotional memories. Others hold that flashbulb memories are recorded and stored by a brain process different from that used to record non-emotional memories, and that a flashbulb memory is thus unique in its makeup.
Whether or not flashbulb memories are processed by a different brain action than other kinds of memories, researchers generally agree that certain conditions must exist for them to be formed. Specifically, to result in a flashbulb memory, the news learned must be highly surprising, arouse an emotional response, or be perceived to have a potential consequence on one’s own life. In many cases, all three of these conditions may exist. This hypothesis has been tested by studies which show that individuals who live or have family living in close proximity to a shocking event, such as an earthquake, are far more likely to possess flashbulb memories related to the event than those removed from the scene of the event.