This essay will evaluate flashbulb memory on how emotion can affect cognitive processes. Emotions are a mix of subjective experiences comprised of physiological changes and cognitive appraisal. Early theories of emotion have emphasized the relevance of the biological aspects, while later theories have focused on the cognitive component of emotion. However, modern research has approached it as an interactive combination of both biological and cognitive experiences. In 1977, Brown and Kulik proposed the theory of flashbulb memory, memories that are vivid in detail, long-lasting, and accurate because of their emotional relevance, aspect of surprise, and important consequences.
On the other hand, Neisser believes that the constant rehearsal and accessibility of the events resort to the maintenance of these “concrete” memories, which are eventually stored in long-term memory. More specifically, it’s believed that flashbulb memory is stored in the amygdala, responsible for emotional and episodic memory. It sets itself apart from other memories because of its supposed longevity and “photographic” conclusiveness. The theory also proposes a special neural mechanism that stimulates an emotional response to the shocking event as makeup of flashbulb memory. Essentially, the main premise of flashbulb memory is that it is resistant to change, long-lasting, and accurate in detail.
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It is due to the emotional aroused experience during the moment and immediacy an individual has to an event, which registered a permanent and increasing residence in their memory. Brown and Kulik (1977) conducted a study to investigate their emotion theory. Forty white Americans and 40 black Americans participated in a questionnaire that measured the elaborate clarity of important historical events such as JFK’s assassination. Nine events were associated on a national scale, and one event that they could choose based on personal relevance involving shock (the majority of them included a parent’s death).
They found that white participants remembered more events concerning white people; likewise, black people recalled more events concerning black people. This brought them to conclude that race does have a factor in an individual’s recall, suggesting consequentiality, surprise, and shock of an event is significant in its distinctly vivid memory. They believed that surprise and emotional relevance cause people to hold a stronger memory of the event and is, therefore, determinant to formulate the flashbulb memory phenomena.
The results were replicated in Tall Sharot’s 9/11 (2007) experiment. They separated the participants into downtown (near to WTC) and midtown groups. DT participants recalled more detail of 9/11 than participants in midtown, vice versa for summer vacation memory. The DT group often mentioned direct threats and the sensory experience they had while witnessing the 9/11 incident. They found that personal involvement is important in the formation of flashbulb memory but that the amygdala is more activated given experiences with higher emotional impact; in other words, the proximity of people to the incident positively correlated with stronger memory and activity in the amygdala.
The factor of surprise and consequential importance to one’s life enhances the memory of the event, and therefore recall much more vivid and concrete than compared to witnesses who were farther in the distance from the event and had less of an emotional impact; instead, they performed better when recalling for summer holiday memories. These findings, however, were not consistent in the results of flashbulb memory’s need for a specialized neural mechanism that evokes emotional influence. Thus, the attack on WTC was also used as an opportunistic chance for experimentation in Talarico and Rubin (2003)’s study.
The researchers asked a random sample of people to recall what had happened 1, 7, 42, and 224 days (s) after the attack and after a day-to-day event. Though the claimed flashbulb memory does contain vivid details uttered with confidence, they were as inaccurate as a recall for everyday memories. Such findings demonstrate that flashbulb memory may be as persistent and perpetual as regular memory, which for the most part, constantly evolves. Ultimately, this debunks the original theory as even an emotionally influential, surprising, and high consequential event changes with time.
Neisser and Harsch (1992) also question the existence of flashbulb memory, suggesting that it is merely the product of repetitive maintenance and recall. They asked 106 students to fill in a questionnaire and describe their emotional and surrounding experience upon hearing the Challenger disaster 24 hours prior. Forty-four of the same students returned after two years. They completed the same event, in addition to rating their confidence of memory accuracy and whether if they had taken a quiz similar to this before. Though their confidence was 4.17, their accuracy was poor, with 22 scorings 2 or less correct points.
Also, the initial 21% who reported to have been informed via television increased to 45%. The results challenge the flashbulb theory because though they were confident of their answers and exposed to a “traumatic” event, the recall accuracy was low and lacking. The researchers deduced that memory was deteriorating in detail, regardless of shock aspects of the event. It challenges flashbulb theory because the memory of participants did not remain the same. Therefore the hyped phenomena of flashbulb memory could be normal memories; its susceptibility to distortion also deems it unreliable. However, it must be addressed that the experimenters did not distinguish a control condition, thereby making results are unfit to compare between flashbulb and normal memory.
They believe its preserved state in memory is due to the conscious and unconscious retelling of aspects in the event. This outward retelling is open to distortions, as each recount transforms and slowly deviates from the original. Moreover, Neisser suggests that if flashbulb memory were true, then the encoding theory—and inflexible account of features surrounding the event is made—is wrong since erroneous memory occurs in the recall. According to various research, the strong emotional relevance and consequences to self constitute flashbulb memory. Surprise, on the other hand, was not well supported by empirical evidence.
Furthermore, the research to support or refute flashbulb memory shows that memory can be unreliable because emotion affects recall and retrieval of the event. However, one of the weaknesses of this claim is that the studies aimed to challenge flashbulb memory failed to show the immediacy between the individual and event distinctively. Thus, the two studies–contrary to propositional claims–show that flashbulb memory, despite its relative rich in detail and confidence in the recall, does not hold permanent residence in memory, nor is it any more accurate than normal memories.
The errors in flashbulb memory can be explained by reconstructive memory, which suggests memory is flexible to changes and is constantly changing, anew with every recall. Memory is not a passive process but an active one, so recollection is not merely a recitation of readied information. It implies that memory recall is affected by external influences. Like flashbulb memory, this also includes eyewitness theory. The factor of anxiety has been correlated to the performance of memory. Chrisitanison and Hubinette (1993) asked a total of 110 witnesses (victims or onlookers) on 22 different bank robberies. They found that victims in the crime scene had a better recall, which was still present 15 months later.
They concluded that fear does impact the clarity of memory recall. The heightened or diminished arousal/emotion can lead to a more inaccurate recall, whereas moderate stress or anxiety improves recall. This concludes that too much fear can divert attention away from the essential aspects of the situation, much like with too little arousal. People would less likely process all information from lack of attention. Moderate levels of stirred emotion, however, generally improve recall accuracy. The eyewitness theory (EWT) demonstrates that memory recall is improved by heightened physiological reactions.
As explained, flashbulb memory states that the event’s emotional impact is so strong that it imprints a long-lasting memory. Similarly, EWT can explain this phenomenon in that a person’s arousal to the situation broadens their attention, thereby processes more surrounding circumstances. Flashbulb memory is accepted as a viable phenomenon to explain why emotional memories are highly vivid. Some aspects such as emotional relevance and high importance consequences are deemed plausible in the formation of FBM, which was concluded from research sprouted by Brown and Kulik’s theory. Such that emotion-triggered hormonal changes cause people to remember events longer. However, many skeptics have reason to doubt some claims made by Brown and Kulik.
Flashbulb memory is a reconstructive memory whereby an emotion is a major determinant of the accuracy of the memory. Neisser has speculated that perhaps flashbulb memory is vivid because of the constant internal or external retelling of the event, altered through retrieval and social sharing. The elaborative recall of flashbulb memory, however, is not correlated with its accuracy. Research has also shown that the recall is no more accurate than recall on an everyday event regardless of confidence. This suggests that the factor of vividness and accuracy are independent of one another.
The inclination to errors in flashbulb memory questions the appropriateness of the term “flashbulb” used, which implies a remarkable photographic image is inscribed in memory, though contrary to the evidence presented. Many researchers on its existence have challenged flashbulb memory. Nonetheless, it does provide a valid explanation as to why emotional impressions increase the memory of the event.