Sunday, April 7, 2013

Consolidation-like effects in flashbulb memories: evidence from Sept. 11 2001

The Psychologists have reached a hypothesis about how flashbulb memories are stored: after a weeks time, the memory becomes consistent. Later details are incorporated into the already infused memory and alter it slightly, and thereafter it stabilizes with the new biases included.  Their conclusion is that the memory that occurred as a “flashbulb” in one single instant is actually an accumulation of reported memories within the week (or more) of the event. In summary, memories are not as accurate as they may appear to us.

September 11th shook the entire nation and evoked a reaction comparable to the assassination of Kennedy, in the respect that each and every one of us remembers that day, and that moment. People described their memories of that instant including knowing all of the news right away, the aftermath, and the overall impact on the nation. Initially, Brown and Kulik had the first proposal of a flashbulb memory, that it was created immediately and perfectly saved and filed away.

What they did was record different subject’s flashbulb memories of Sept. 11. Within 48 hours, 1 week later, 1 month later, 3 months, and then finally one year later: A total of five times. They made three different assessments:
1.     Self-reported: able to easily report memory with no evaluation of truth.
2.     Memory accuracy: Memory compared with later reports with earlier recollections (within 48 hours)
3.     Memory consistency: Memory compared with later reports with earlier recollections (not within 48 hours)

The results showed that people were still relatively confident as they assessed their memories, and while the memories stayed more or less consistent, their accuracy decreased significantly after one year. This well documented information proved that memories are not encoded in the instant they are made.

This article concludes that Brown and Kulik’s proposal of memories being pertinently stored the moment they are formed is inaccurate with very convincing and copious data. With the installation of graphs, there is visual data of this proof to further their hypothesis. It’s incredible that memory really does distort over time – the accuracy graph between three months and a year recollection were radically different, demonstrating a steady decline from the 3-month point onward. This proves the mind is not as organized as we once concluded, which wasn’t even all to long ago. Our mind is so complex, it’s difficult to really fully understand exactly how it works: especially memory. Through conducting surveys of an incredibly memorable event, such as September 11th, it is easy to see that even those memories are distorted over time. It doesn’t matter the importance or impact of the memory – there will always be some inaccuracies. It would make sense that after a year, people would really begin to stop remembering, because it is on their mind less and less.

Often when I think of memory recollection, I think of (a) early childhood memories and (b) dreams, particularly from childhood. Obviously, as time interludes, things from the past become even more in the past, so it’s understandable that recollection could fade. But not just fade, to change. One particular connection that comes to mind is my earliest memory: I was sitting in my stroller going for a walk with my parents around dusk. I looked to the left at a tall electrical post, and a lightning bolt zipped behind it. I don’t know if it was because the lightning bolt, but that’s what locked it into my memory. I don’t recall anything after that until I was about three.

I spoke with my mom about this memory, and she asked me what color the stroller was. I told her it was navy blue with tiny white dots. She told me they only had that stroller when I was between one and two, which means that’s how old I had to have been at the time.

The only issue I have with this series of data regarding reconstruction of memory is addressed in my connection from above. I feel like this data only applies to events that had withstanding consequences or later resulting bias (ex. a bad breakup or tragedies). However, does this really apply to a flashbulb memory of an emotionless instant, such as a lightning bolt cruising behind an electrical post? Granted, there’s no easy way to recall if the memory is accurate or not, unless a parent or peer was with you at the scene.

So, the alternate Hypothesis I propose would be that the flashbulb memory glitch is a legitimate trait of our memory recollection, but more so with data only applies to events that had withstanding consequences or later resulting bias.
Back to the September 11th survey subjects: it’s possible that people went in some days in an emotional wreck (presumably the results from 48 hours), or people who actually knew someone who worked in the buildings.  Someone who’s grandfather worked in the North Tower would have a different view on the situation than a citizen from Ohio who has never even been to NYC before.

Also, Psychology is always being updated, so someday soon even, this data could be proven redundant even though the survey was conducted in the past decade. Just sayin’.

If you’d like to read the article, here is a link to it. 

Written by Charles A. Weaver III and Kevin S. Krug of Baylor University.


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