What were you doing when the man reached the moon? And when the Berlin wall fell? And when the Twin Towers fell? If we have lived through all these events, we may have an exact and precise answer.

We remember those moments with great accuracy. Why? That is what Roger Brown’s theory of memory explores .

A brief introduction: Robert Brown

Roger Brown was a renowned psychologist of American origin famous for his multiple studies and contributions to various fields of psychology, especially his studies regarding human language and its development.

Brown also had an important role in the study of memory, being remarkable the research carried out together with James Kulik regarding the vivid memory of what people were doing in moments of great historical importance, coining the term flashbulb memory .

Vivid or “flashbulb memories”

Flashbulb memories or vivid memories refer to the precise, intense and persistent remembrance of the circumstances surrounding a situation of great importance in our life. It reminds us of the event itself and what we were doing at the precise moment when it happened or when we found out about it.

The feeling of the person who has these memories is equivalent to the impression of having something like a photograph or a piece of film always available in the memory, totally clear and without possibility of error.

These are generally events with great historical significance . Examples of this are people who remember exactly the moment when man reached the moon, the assassination of Kennedy or Martin Luther King, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the most recent attacks on the Twin Towers.

Why do we remember it so accurately?

Generally, when we want to remember something it is necessary that the same information is repeated over and over again or that it is linked to other knowledge so that it generates a memory footprint that allows us to remember it later. Nerve connections that are stimulated by the learning done need to be strengthened. If it is never used or found useful, our body will consider the information as irrelevant and useful and will end up forgetting it.

But many memories remain much more permanent without needing to be repeated over and over again. This is due to the role of emotions . It is well known that when an event arouses intense emotion in us it generates a much more powerful and permanent imprint of memory than events without emotional significance. For example, the first kiss or the birth of a child.

In the case of events that generate flashbulb memories, the main reason why these moments and the circumstances surrounding them are remembered so vividly is similar to that of emotional activation: we are faced with an unexpected event that surprises us to a great extent. After the surprise, we process the importance of said event and this, together with the emotional reaction that this relevance generates, ends up provoking the appearance of a strong memory of what happened and the circumstances that surrounded it.

But it should be noted that the events themselves are only recorded if they are important to the person who remembers them or feels some identification with what happened or those involved. For example, the memory of what was being done at the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination is generally more potent for African-American subjects who experienced the effects of racial segregation in the United States than for the Caucasian population.

Are these memories totally reliable?

However, despite the fact that a large number of people claim to remember what happened with great accuracy and the high emotional impact it had on their lives, the total reliability of such memories is questionable.

Broadly speaking, we do remember the most essential information of the event , but we must take into account that our memory usually focuses on capturing the most relevant information and that every time we remember something, the mind reconstructs the facts.

If our mind does not find the relevant information, we unconsciously tend to fill in the gaps by confabulation . In other words, in general we combine and even create material that seems relevant and fits in with our reworking.

Thus, it is common for us to unconsciously falsify our memories. It has been proven that the number of details remembered correctly decreases over time, even though the person still believes that all details remain fresh. Little by little we are overwriting the most peripheral information. All this while the subject himself is completely convinced that the memory is real and just as he tells it.

Bibliographic references:

  • Brown, R. & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73-99. Harvard University.
  • Tamayo, W. (2012). Flashbulb memories and social representations. Proposal for a joint study. Revista Psicoespacios, 6 (7); pp. 183-199.