A flashbulb memory is extremely vivid and detailed, seemingly stored in long-term memory like a photograph, hence the term “flashbulb.”
What is a Flashbulb Memory?
Brown and Kulik (1977) coined the term flashbulb memory and provided an initial framework for its main characteristics.
In their paper, simply titled Flashbulb Memories, Brown and Kulik (1977) define the concept:
“memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event” (p. 73).
A key distinction between a flashbulb memory and regular memory is that the FBM focuses on the details surrounding the event being remembered, such as its time and location (Hirst & Phelps, 2016).
Individuals often have high confidence in the accuracy of their flashbulb memories and can remember the context of discovering the event very vividly. Nonetheless, studies indicate that being confident doesn’t always mean the memory is accurate (Talarico & Rubin, 2008; Day & Ross, 2014).
Similar But Different: Collective Memories
Flashbulb Memory Examples
Although research has found support for and against many of the initial conditions postulated as necessary by Brown and Kulik (1977), the examples below will surely result in an FBM.
- September 11th 2001: The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are among the most often cited examples of FBMs in the United States. It was a shocking event that received a tremendous amount of news coverage in every country around the globe.
- Death of Princess Diana: In the early morning hours of August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died of injuries sustained in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, France. News coverage around the world was extensive and lasted for weeks, undoubtedly creating an enduring FBM in the minds of billions of people.
- Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: April 4th, 1968 has gone down in U. S. history as one of the most shocking events in the country’s existence. When he was shot on that day in Memphis, Tennessee, it seemed as though the Civil Rights Movement might also pass. Most Americans that were alive on that day can tell you exactly when and where they heard the tragic news.
- The Passing of a Beloved Grandparent: Not all FBMs are created as a result of a public event that affects an entire society. The passing of a beloved grandparent can be traumatic enough to be ingrained in an individual’s memory for a lifetime.
- A Marriage Proposal: A proposal for marriage is usually a very private, intimate moment; quite the opposite of a public event. However, it fits many of the conceptual conditions for an FBM, including being personally significant, distinct, unexpected, and involving strong emotions.
- A Medical Diagnosis: Learning the outcome of an important medical exam can be a traumatic event. Although it may not have consequences for a society or general public, it will more than likely produce an FBM for the individual receiving the news.
- Pregnancy Test Results: The moment a couple discovers they will have a baby might be one of the most memorable events in their lives. Although the event itself can be anticipated and planned for, it is still dramatic enough to produce an FBM that may endure for a lifetime.
- Receiving a University Acceptance Notification: Opening a college admissions letter or going online to see if one’s name is listed as being admitted is a moment that can be ingrained in the mind of the individual for as long as they live. The consequences can be enduring and significant. The implications for one’s life far-reaching, and the emotional impact as strong as one may ever experience.
- Winning an Olympic Medal: Although this event might be highly publicized in the winner’s country, it might only create an FBM in the recipient and their extended family. That FBM will undoubtedly last forever and be as vivid as the day it was won.
- Winning the Lottery: Winning millions of dollars will most likely create an FBM, not just for the winner, but for those in their inner circle as well. The event is distinctive, consequential for sure, and probably completely unexpected.
- Being Drafted in the NFL: These days the NFL draft has become an event that is televised all over the United States. The moment the young man receives that phone call from the team that will select him will be one of the most memorable in their lifetime.
- Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster: On January 28, 1986, the entire world was glued to their television screens as the Challenger, a space shuttle, exploded shortly after launch. This tragedy that took the lives of seven individuals, including a civilian teacher, turned into a flashbulb memory for many amidst the shock and collective grief.
- Fall of the Berlin Wall: The unexpected downfall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, signifies an FBM for those who witnessed the monumental event, marking a turning point in global history. It captured the essence of freedom and united a divided Germany.
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings: The devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, were such traumatic events, they produced intense and enduring FBMs in the minds of survivors and the global community.
- First moon landing: On July 20, 1969, millions witnessed the historic moment when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. This achievement in human history undoubtedly created a flashbulb memory, particularly for those who recall the historic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- End of World War II: The announcement of World War II’s end on September 2, 1945, served as a flashbulb memory moment for many. People who experienced the relief and joy of that day likely remember vividly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
- The Release of Nelson Mandela: On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years of imprisonment. This historic moment of triumph over apartheid caused a surge of emotions worldwide, creating a powerful FBM for people who witnessed this milestone event.
- The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: The tragic news of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, razed the nation, making it an FBM for those who remember the time, place, and emotional reaction to the event.
- Election of Barack Obama: When Barack Obama was declared the 44th President of the U.S. on November 4, 2008, becoming the first African American to achieve this feat, the moment served an FBM for many who saw it as a pivotal moment in racial history.
- The Indian Ocean Tsunami: The horrifying occurrence of the Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, invoking massive destruction and loss, morphed into an FBM for both survivors and the global public.
- First Job Offer: The moment someone receives their first job offer can forge an intense FBM, whether it’s over the phone or through a missive, given the personal significance and emotional impact of this event in their professional journey.
- Graduation Day: A vivid FBM for many students would be their graduation day. The mixed feelings of accomplishment, anticipation, and apprehension are dramatic enough to etch this moment in their lifelong memory.
- Birth of First Child: The birth of a first child is a private yet intense occasion for parents that typically etches a long-standing FBM thanks to its unmatched emotional depth and significance.
- A Near-Death Experience: Such experiences heighten a person’s awareness and emotional response, and can leave a powerful FBM that lasts a lifetime.
- The Death of Steve Jobs: On October 5, 2011, the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs shocked the world and created an FBM for his admirers who remember the profound loss of this technological visionary.
Flashbulb memories are specific memories surrounding unexpected and impactful news events. People can often recall where they were, their actions, and the time when they heard the news (Mackay & Bluck, 2010). Major historical moments, like the assassination of prominent figures, serve as prime examples of these memories. While initial theories about flashbulb memories suggested certain conditions must be met for their formation, subsequent research challenges these ideas. For instance, the event doesn’t necessarily need to be surprising or carry personal significance.
Studies have also shown that these memories aren’t particularly more accurate, consistent, enduring, or vivid than other significant memories in one’s life. Due to these findings, some scholars believe that flashbulb memories aren’t distinct from other vivid personal memories, questioning the need for a separate memory framework.
Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5(1), 73-99.
Day, M. V., & Ross, M. (2014). Predicting confidence in flashbulb memories. Memory, 22(3), 232-242.
Hirst, W., & Phelps, E. A. (2016). Flashbulb memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(1), 36–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721415622487
Mackay, M. M., & Bluck, S. (2010). Meaning-making in memories: A comparison of memories of death-related and low point life experiences. Death studies, 34(8), 715-737.
Talarico, J. M., & Rubin, D. C. (2003). Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological science, 14(5), 455-461.