Memory and the Challenger

On the 29th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I thought I’d talk about how that tragedy helped brain scientists better understand how memory works, and how it can be deceptive.

If you’re old enough, you likely remember exactly where you were, exactly what you were doing, and exactly how you heard the news of the Challenger, even decades later. If you’re old enough, you probably feel the same way about JFK’s assassination. And if you recently slipped into a wrinkle in time and/or are Plutarch, you might never forget Caesar being et tu Brute’d in broad daylight.

Brown and Kulik (1977) coined the term flashbulb memories to describe these recollections. Our memories of shocking, emotionally evocative events—like the Challenger—feel more vivid, more detailed, and more veridical than “mundane” memories. Memories for these events feel like a flashbulb went off and indelibly stamped that exact moment into your brain box. Hundreds of studies, since that first description, have demonstrated that important, shocking events produce those vivid flashbulb memories (scientists usually focus on nationally important events, like assassinations, but flashbulb memories can be personal, too) .

One problem with Brown & Kulik’s study was that while they could ask people about how vivid their memories felt, they couldn’t check whether they were accurate (because how could they know where this person was when JFK was killed). It is the peculiar lot in life of a flashbulb memory researcher to wait for a suitable—which is to say tragic and traumatic—event to unfold, then spring into action. The Challenger explosion, as shocking and horrifying as it was, almost assuredly would produce flashbulb memories, and therefore give researchers a chance to study how those memories formed.

The day after the explosion, Neisser and Harsch (1992) gave out a questionnaire to dozens of people. In it, the researchers asked respondents to recall as many details as they could about where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the disaster. Three years later they called people back and asked them to answer the same questions.

The surprising finding was that people actually had “phantom” flashbulbs. They vividly and confidently recalled the event—as we expect from a flashbulb memory—but their three-years-later responses often didn’t match their next-day responses. For example, they might correctly remember that they were eating lunch at the time, but inaccurately recall who they were with or where they were. The critical and revealing part of this finding is that they misrembered those details even when the memories were recalled vividly and with great confidence. The vividness of flashbulbs masked their inaccuracy.

Other studies (e.g., Talarico & Rubin, 2003) continue to reinforce this conclusion: flashbulb memories are unique in the vividness and confidence they inspire, but not their accuracy and consistency. Emotional events imbue our memories with confidence, but not accuracy. No matter how vivid they seem and how confident you are, many of those autobiographical details you remember about the Challenger or similar events are just plain wrong.

• • •

Emotional memory is a massive and fascinating topic, and this is just the smallest tip of the iceberg. I’m planning to come back to the topic with shorter posts like this to discuss the many and varied ways that emotion and memory interact, including what details we remember and which we forget, how positive and negative memories differ, whether emotional memories are really unique, how eye movements and attention matter, and the neurobiological explanation(s) for how emotional memories get “stamped in” differently than mundane memories.


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