The Main Characteristics and Basis Behind Flashbulb Memories

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction:
  • Characteristics of FBM:
  • Neuro bases of FBM’s:
  • Cultural bases of FBM’s:
  • Conclusion:


Flashbulb memories arise out of situations in which one first hears of a surprising or emotionally arousing event (Brown & Kulik,1977). (Spanhel, Wagner, Geiger, Ofer, Schulze-Bonhage & Metternich (2018) categorizes FBM’s as a subgroup of autobiographical memories that are associated with emotionally arousing news. Some examples of flashbulb memory events include 9/11, assassination of president Kennedy, attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai etc. Brown and Kulik (1977) state that flashbulb memory (FBM) is not the memory of the newsworthy event as such, rather it is the memory of the circumstances in which one first heard the news. What makes FBM distinct are the emotional arousals associated with the moment the event was registered in the memory and it is this emotion that increases one’s ability to recall an event (brown & Kulik,1977).

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Characteristics of FBM:

The “special memory mechanism” thought to be associated with FBM’s was examined by Talarico and Rubin (2017) using three main criteria: memory properties, conditions necessary to produce these memories and the way each individual processes these memories. What differentiates FBM’s from ordinary memories is their vividness and confidence with which one holds these FBM’s (Talarico & Rubin,2017). Longevity, accuracy and consistency, although thought of as important characteristics of FBM’s, provide very little evidence for the dissimilarity of FBM’s from ordinary memories (Talarico & Rubin,2017). In the necessary condition’s category, it was found that consequentiality was irrelevant to FBM’s, whereas distinctiveness was the most predictive and was corelated with the formation and vividness of FBM’s (Talarico & Rubin,2017).

Another condition thought to be necessary to produce FBM’s is the emotional affect of the situation which, surprisingly, has been understudied (Talarico & Rubin, 2017). This construct has mixed research findings. Some findings (e.g. Berntsen & Thomsen,2005) state that both positive and negative events can produce FBM’s while some findings (e.g. Bohn & Bernsten,2007) emphasize only the role of positive events in the formation of FBM’s (Talarico & Rubin,2017). Of the individual processing category, which included- significance, surprise, rehearsal and emotional intensity, significance was the most promising determinant of FBM’s as it was corelated with formation, consistency, vividness and confidence of FBM’S (Talarico & Rubin, 2017).

Neuro bases of FBM’s:

Amygdala, in addition to its role in the processing of emotionally arousing stimuli, has also been shown to be involved in the neurological examination of emotional memories (Spanhel et al.,2018). Support for the role of amygdala in emotional memories comes from studies (e.g. Phelps et al.,1998) that examined patients with bilateral amygdala damage and found that these patients’ emotional but not neutral memory was impaired (Spanhel et al., 2018). Positron Emission Tomography (PET) studies (e.g. Cahill et al.,1996) and fMRI studies (e.g. Canli et al.,1999) have also reported significant correlations between amygdala activation related to emotional stimuli and subsequent memory (Canli, Zhao, Brewer, Gabrieli & Cahill, 2000).

Furthermore, the activation of amygdala during the encoding of both positive and negative emotional stimuli was found to be predictive of later retrieval performance (Spanhel et al.,2018). This however was not true for neutral emotional stimuli (Spanhel et al., 2018; Canli et al.,2000). Canli et al. (2000) also found that that the correlation between long term memory and amygdala activity increases as the intensity of the emotions experienced increases. Upon examining 34 patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and 26 healthy participants, Spanhel et al. (2018) found that flashbulb memory recall consistency was impaired in TLE patients with amygdalar damage in the non-dominant hemisphere as compared to the healthy individuals. Patients that had TLE but had an intact amygdala or had impairment in the dominant hemisphere significantly differed from the healthy control individuals with regards to FBM recall (Spanhel et al.,2018).

Cultural bases of FBM’s:

The cultural construct also seems to play a role in FBM’s. Kulkofsky, Wang, Conway, Hou, Aydin, Mueller-Johnson and Williams (2011) studied the role of culture in FBM’s in participants from five different countries: China, Germany, Turkey, UK and the USA. Participants were asked to complete a memory questionnaire after recalling as many memories as they could of public events occurring over their lifetime. Participants were asked where they were when they first heard the event, and if they did remember, they were asked more questions to know the extent of the FBM. Participants were also asked how important the event was to them.

In cultures where remembering personal experiences is de-emphasized and controlling one’s feelings is encouraged, the effects of factors such as the extent of emotions felt appears to be reduced and there is less rehearsal of triggering events (Kulkofsky et al.,2011). As was hypothesized, the study found that in collectivistic cultures like China, personal importance of an event and emotional intensity played less of a role in predicting FBM performance (Kulkofsky et al., 2011). In contrast to the personal importance of events, it was found that national importance of events was similarly associated with FBM formation across cultures (Kulkofsky et al.,2011).


Flashbulb memories are memories of situations when one first heard of an emotionally stimulating news. FBM’s are characterized by emotional intensity, vividness, confidence, longevity etc. FBM’s have a neurological basis in the amygdala and individuals with an impaired non-dominant hemisphere in the amygdala often have deficiency in the recall consistency of FBM’s. Some cultural differences have also been found in formation of FBM’s. In collectivistic cultures like China as opposed to individualistic cultures in the U.S, U.K, Germany and Turkey, factors such as intensity of emotions felt, and personal importance of events seems to be less of a predictor of FBM’s. These findings suggest that to understand flashbulb memories, one must examine various constructs that might play a role in the formation of FBM’s such as gender, culture and may be even brain injuries!

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