Home > Memory > Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

By now you’ve probably searched your memory and are replaying the gruesome images you have vividly stored in your mind from that September morning over a decade ago. That day stands out in your memory and most likely will for the rest of your life. I was only nine years old that day, but even I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing that day… At least I think I can. I had just finished my second class of the day when an all-school assembly was called in the bunker-like cement building that is the German School of Washington, D.C. Faculty and staff were frantically pacing around our auditorium while older students sat holding each other, many weeping out of fear for family members and loved ones that worked a short 15 minute trip away in downtown D.C. Only after an over-head projector was flipped on was I able to understand the severity of the situation, and I clearly remember a feeling of shock and misunderstanding overcoming me. I recently discussed that terrifying day with my mom, who picked me up from school sometime after the North Tower in New York City was struck. After explaining to her what I remembered from that day she said to me, “that’s funny, I picked you up from school almost immediately after the first attack in New York.” What I recalled was sitting in that auditorium for what felt like an eternity, watching both the North and South Tower get hit, collapsing, and watching all the aftermath unfold from right there with my peers. In reality I was sitting safe and sound on my couch, watching the mayhem on TV back at home. Clearly my memory fooled me, and, in a study conducted on September 12, 2001, Jennifer M. Talarico and David C. Rubin of Duke University examined this phenomenon of misremembering. The experiment focuses on the validity of flashbulb memories, a specific type of memory that is defined by how vivid the recollection of a specific, most frequently traumatic, event is. Talarico and Rubin had Duke University students perform two separate tests the day after the September 11th attacks. These tests were used as a baseline, off of which Talarico and Rubin would later base the results of their data. The first was a task asked individuals describe everything they remembered from the terrorist attacks of the previous day, while the other task asked individuals describe a regular, habitual event. The same individuals were then divided into three groups and returned either 1, 6, or 32 weeks later to recall the same events. Talarico and Rubin evaluated the consistencies between the two different tasks to establish whether or not recollection for flashbulb memories was more accurate than for the other events. What Talarico and Rubin intended to illustrate through their experiment is the reality that flashbulb memories, although significantly more vivid, are in no way more accurate than memories of plain, every-day events. Personally, this idea seemed ridiculous to me at first read. On many occasions, I can’t remember what I was doing 24 hours ago, let alone provide any sort of specific detail of the previous day. Because of this, I found it exceedingly difficult to believe that my flashbulb memories might be nothing more than pure deception. Memories of events like 9/11 are extremely long lasting and emotionally loaded, leading to what Talarico and Rubin describe as perceived accuracy. Perceived accuracy, as Talarico and Rubin describe it, is the idea that we believe an event is more accurate due to its vividness and emotional significance. The ease with which we are able to retrieve these events from our memory convinces us that our recollection of the specific details is much more accurate than for other memories. What Talarico and Rubin found was precisely what I failed to believe before, participants for both the flashbulb memories and the every-day events showed similar levels of forgetting over time. Incorrect recollection increased over time while correct recollection decreased for both types of memories. Talarico and Rubin also found that recollection for specific details dropped dramatically over time, suggesting that individuals remembered the general information of a given event, not the specific details. The last idea, remembering an event rather than the details, makes a lot of sense.  September 11th is engrained in our memory as one of the most horrific events in recent history, suggesting that the event is what remains with us so vividly, not so much the exact details of the incident. The study conducted by Talarico and Rubin demonstrates the inaccuracies of flashbulb memories. Due to the vividness of flashbulb memories we convince ourselves that our recollection is more accurate than that of every-day events. One aspect that Talarico and Rubin argue is responsible for this phenomenon is the fact that we rehearse and retrieve flashbulb memories more frequently than normal memories. Ultimately it is important to note that, although we may believe our flashbulb memories to be perfectly accurate, our knowledge of these events deteriorates just as much over time as all our other memories. At the end of the day we have all been deceived by our flashbulb memories, and, even though I am well aware of such a deception now,  I will most likely fall for it again some time down the road. For this particular event, whether I was at school or at home in front of the TV, I now and for a long time will have a vivid recollection of September 11th, 2001 . . . which exact details of that memory are correct, I will never know. Jennifer M. Talarico & David C. Rubin (2003). Confidence, Not Consistency, Characterizes Flashbulb Memories. Psychological Science, 14, 455-461.

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  1. May 6th, 2013 at 14:19 | #1

    This article does a good job of reinforcing what we learned in class about the inaccuracies of flashbulb memories. Even though the evidence is clear, it is still hard to believe that my flashbulb memories are no more accurate than all my other memories – they seem so vivid! These type of studies are particularly interesting since there is such a limitation on when they can be conducted. It would be interesting to do a similar study focusing on flashbulb memories associated with the recent manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber.

  2. May 7th, 2013 at 19:21 | #2

    I thought the idea of perceived accuracy was especially interesting. It reminded me of metacognition, and the whole challenge of accurately gauging what we think and know to be true. This article also made me think again of eyewitness testimony as a method of criminal conviction. It pointed out that people tend to remember whole-picture information, instead of small details. If large, unmistakable memories such as 9/11 can be easily muddled, how can we trust witnesses to provide details on less significant cases? In particular, how can the findings of this article be applied to the assumed accuracy of flashbulb memories, when an emotional person claims to be absolutely sure of the truth?

  3. May 9th, 2013 at 17:11 | #3

    This whole idea is kind of scary for me. I have so many vivid memories- 9/11 being one of them (I was in my 4th grade classroom and they announced an early release- we were all so happy and excited about the surprise early release, and I remember feeling so shocked and guilty when I got home and realized why we were actually sent home early.) But what if this memory isn’t real? What if some of my most precious memories aren’t real? Did I really ride a pony at my 8th birthday party? I remember it being so awesome that my parents brought a pony to my house…but maybe I’m confusing it with riding one at a fair or something. It’s crazy to think that our personal memories- which make up a lot of our current schemas and beliefs- could be completely inaccurate.

  4. May 9th, 2013 at 22:45 | #4

    This makes me wonder what is the reason our most vivid memories are subject to the same forgetting process as our daily, insignificant memories. Of course, we may never know why exactly this is the case, but it is really unfortunate. I have a lot of vivid memories that, for the most part, make me happy when I think of them, however there are a few when I have been sad, angry, or scared. It would seem logical that the events that induce the greatest emotions would be cemented into our memory for the rest of our lives. Instead, however, we don’t remember what really happened, rather we add or subtract important details. Could it be some sort of coping mechanism? Maybe we cannot handle the huge range of emotion we felt during that “vivd” event every time we think of it. Is it because we change what happened in order to satisfy our subconscious desires? It is definitely scary to think about how memories we think we remember the best, are actually not remembered well at all.

  5. May 12th, 2013 at 14:54 | #5

    This article makes me consider the accuracy of all of my most vivid memories. I think this article did a great job of comparing flashbulb memories to normal memories. Prior to this, I had never considered that the two types of memories decay at approximately the same rate. I wonder though, do normal memories decline in the amount recollected, or do they change content as flashbulb memories seem to do? It is also interesting to notice that researchers are so involved in their work that they think up new experiments even at such chaotic times, such as during 9/11.

  6. May 12th, 2013 at 18:00 | #6

    Like many of the other commentators of this post, I too found the evidence suggesting that flashbulb memories are in fact no more accurate than normal memories unsettling. I can’t help but wonder whether the memories that I have of my senior prom and graduation are really “true” or merely figments of my imagination. It is scary to realize that I never really will know the accuracy of my memories because of the subjective nature of truth and the fact that everyone’s memory is malleable. I think it would be interesting to conduct a study comparing the accuracy of flashbulb memories for “happy” events to those for “sad” events. Do we include or exclude more information depending on the type of event that we have experienced? If there is a difference in the accuracy for the type of event (happy or sad) should this evidence be taken into consideration in legal settings, specifically eye witness testimony? I also wonder whether an individual’s cultural background or social upbringing, affects the accuracy or tendency to have flashbulb memories. This is definitely an intriguing aspect of memory that has many potential research opportunities!

  7. May 13th, 2013 at 20:04 | #7

    Nils, your mother recalled something different than you remembered of that day – How are we to know who is accurate? You could be entirely correct, for all we know, and your mom’s flashbulb memory could have been altered in order to cope with the traumatic events of 9/11. I am especially curious how our memories of not only ourselves, but of the actions of others around us during the traumatic occurrence, are affected.

  8. May 14th, 2013 at 14:51 | #8

    I like Hannah’s point – your mom is most likely remembering things at the same level of accuracy that you are, so chances are you both are kinda sorta right. I wonder if there is an age connection in flashbulb memories. It seems like when you are a kid, time seems to pass much more slowly when you are “bored” as you were when you were waiting for your mom to come pick you up. Maybe your memory of waiting there for “eternity” is not actually incorrect – it is just a reflection of your feeling at the time. I think that kid’s perceptions are often quite different than adult’s, and that definitely could affect one’s accuracy in recall as they age. Perhaps adults have “better” accuracy in flashbulb memories because their perceptions of time and the like are more accurate than kids? It would be an interesting phenomenon to explore. Great post! Flashbulb memories are super interesting, and it is so hard to believe that they are often inaccurate.

  9. May 15th, 2013 at 15:31 | #9

    What I’m curious to know is how much time needs to elapse before we first see diminishing effects of memory? For example, after an emotional event happens, if we go and write down every detail that we can remember, will this increase episodic memory if we go back and read what was written? Or will this statement be flawed already? Additionally, when we mis-remember past events, is this because we incorporate them with new memories? Is it because we incorporate imaginary dreams or goals? Is it influenced by regret or guilt? Perhaps changing flashbulb memories is a way we make ourselves feel better about the past–if we didn’t act the way we would have liked to, by subconsciously changing our flashbulb memory, we actually believe we acted the way we would have wanted to act, or convince ourselves that something wasn’t our fault.

  10. May 17th, 2013 at 19:59 | #10

    Like many of my other classmates who commented on this post, I also have what seems like a crystal clear memory of where I was on 9/11 and what happened. I haven’t discussed it with anyone recently, but I am wondering if I do talk to those who were with me if we would even get close to the same answers. It was shocking to me to learn how inaccurate flashbulb memories are, especially in comparison to how confident we are in them. I’m wondering if there are any ways to increase our ability to remember real events and not assimilate them or unknowingly fabricate our memories? Whether the answer is attention or encoding, here must be tactics or techniques of remembering that we can use to try to avoid this prevalence of false memories

  11. May 18th, 2013 at 14:37 | #11

    I think Hannah and Molly have a good point. I do wonder whether your memory, Nils, might actually be more accurate, simply because you were less likely to be exposed to a lot of retroactive interference – most parents probably tried to ‘protect’ young children from the details and you may not have been as exposed to much conflicting information.

  12. May 18th, 2013 at 18:02 | #12

    I’ve found flashbulb memories to be particularly interesting throughout the semester. I thought I could still recall where I was and what I was wearing on September 11th, 2001, but now I am left wondering if what I remember is actually a true representation of the day. I liked the task of comparing the two types of memories. I’ve found this research to be interesting, because I can relate to it, but its unfortunate that such tragic events have to occur in order to conduct the experiments.

  13. May 19th, 2013 at 01:35 | #13

    During this semester we have discussed the weaknesses of memory quite a lot. Flashbulb memories were a big part of that, and they are certainly fascinating. I was interested in what you said about “the fact that we rehearse and retrieve flashbulb memories more frequently than normal memories.” We discussed how the more something is retrieved the more it changes. Every incident of retrieval shifts the memory just that little bit, and this is a perfect example of that. We remember the event so often that the memory becomes completely deformed within us. I would be interested in seeing if there are any long term memories that are not as subject to decay. Where is the line for flashbulb memories? Is there a place between the everyday and traumatic where importance and correct recollection can somehow fit?

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