'Where were you when..?' – The flashbulb memory effect

Geoffrey Beattie

I have always been fascinated and depressed by the vagaries of human memory, long before I became a psychologist. Like anyone who has lost a parent early in life, I have always longed for vivid memories of my father, as I wished to relive our days together.

I was close to my father, but my memories of those days are weak and disjointed. He has no voice in my memory, no distinctive pattern of movement (how did he walk?), and his smile is the smile of photographs (that slightly forced smile that shy people do), which I have somehow managed to project back onto his everyday behaviour. But the night he died, and the moment I heard, I can recall with an aching vividness.

My memory of that fateful night is called a 'flashbulb memory'. It was investigated more than 30 years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Roger Brown and James Kulik. They argued that these memories are hard-wired in the human brain because they have a high selection value in evolutionary terms. These memories are triggered by events characterised by a high level of surprise (eliciting a response from the reticular formation) and a high level of 'consequentiality' (eliciting a response from the limbic system). When you have this joint action from two of the most primitive parts of the human brain, an indelible memory is laid down. According to Brown and Kulik, the innate basis for this type of memory works as follows: “To survive and leave progeny, the individual human had to keep his expectations of significant events up-to-date and close to reality. A marked departure from the ordinary in a consequential domain would leave a person unprepared to respond adequately, endangering their survival. The 'Now print!' mechanism evolved because of the selection value of permanently retaining biologically crucial, but unexpected events.”