The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

What is a Flashbulb Memory

A flashbulb memory is a detailed and vivid memory that is stored on one occasion and retained for a lifetime. Usually, such memories are associated with important historical or autobiographical events.

For example: many people in the US who were adults in the 1960s have flashbulb memories for the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and can recall in elaborate detail when and how they heard the news. (Younger Americans sometimes have flashbulb memories for the explosion of the spaceship Challenger.)

By contrast, few people have detailed memories of events which happened the day before or after each assassination.

Forms of Flashbulb Memory

People also may form flashbulb memories of important personal events, such as hearing about the death of a family member or witnessing an unusual trauma such as a disaster. In each case, what makes the memory "special" is the emotional arousal at the moment that the event was registered. Subsequent remembering, discussion -- and even seeing TV footage -- can all also help to sharpen the memory.

Flashbulb memories are not necessarily accurate in every respect, but they demonstrate that the emotional content of an event can greatly enhance the strength of the memory formed. Flashbulb memories are thought to require the participation of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional memory, and possibly other brain systems which regulate mood and alertness.

Further reading: D. Schacter (1996). Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past. New York: Basic Books.

by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain