The Flashbulb Memory Hypothesis
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In the 1970s two researchers, Roger Brown and James Kulik (1977), became interested in reports of surprisingly detailed and vivid memories for learning the news of certain prominent public events. The clarity and persistence of these memories were so striking that Brown and Kulik named them flashbulb memories (FMs). Informal evidence of the ubiquity of FMs emerged in an article from the popular magazine Esquire (1973), in which a number of celebrities recounted their memories of learning the news of the assassination of the American President John F. Kennedy that had occurred some 10 years prior to the Esquire interviews. What aroused Brown and Kulik's interest was not the fact that the celebrities were able to recall that JFK had indeed been assassinated, but rather that they also recalled, often in minute detail, their personal circumstances when learning ofthe assassination (see Yarmey & Bull, 1978, for a detailed study ofJFK FMs). They remembered what they were doing, who they were with, where they were, and each account also contained a number ofidiosyncratic details of the type that are usually rapidly and completely forgotten. In order to gain some perspective on the remarkable durability and specificity of FMs, consider the following memory accounts reported (and partly corroborated) in a recent Independent Television (lTV) programme on British television commemorating the 30th anniversary of JFK's assassination (Where were you?, I~ 22 November 1993):
Terry Lancaster, Foreign Editor (1963), Daily Express:
Gerry Anderson, Film Producer:
And for an account which is strikingly detailed, possibly because of the intersection of the news with the rememberer's ongoing interests at the time:
These memories retained over a 30-year period and the memories reported in the Esquire article are unusual on three counts. First, they preserve knowledge of personal circumstances when learning of a public occurrence. Second, they are highly detailed and feature knowledge of minutiae not present in most autobiographical memories associated with news events (Larsen, 1992). Third, the memories endure in apparently unchanged form for many years. In order to account for these unusual memories, Brown and Kulik (1977) conducted their own investigation into FMs and developed a model of the function and formation of FMs-the flashbulb memory hypothesis (FMH). The purpose of this initial chapter is simply to describe Brown and Kulik's (1977) original findings and to outline the FMH. Later chapters examine criticisms of the FMH, appraise subsequent studies, examine FMs arising from personal experiences rather than public events, and review current neurological findings relating to FM formation. The closing chapter assesses how the FMH has fared in the face of fairly persistent criticism and how it might be developed to encompass the broader range of current findings.