Flashbulb Memories

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Human Memory 207,

Do Flashbulb memories differ from other forms of memory?

"Our past is preserved in a variety of memories of very different nature" (Salaman, 1970)
There are many proposed divisions and sub-divisions of human memory, such as working memory, procedural memory, semantic memory or episodic memory. Many of the systems seem to overlap, with each having varying functions related to the maintenance of what is essentially human life. For example, episodic and autobiographical memory fundamentally share the same functions. One of the many functions is what Tulving (1983) called "Mental time travel", the ability to experience past event. Autobiographical memories are thought to be structured at different levels of temporal and spatial specificity that together are used as reference for the construction of "self". This mental time travel can take place through different hierarchic levels of autobiographical organisation. The hierarchy level can be as general as "university" or as specific as remembering the topic of conversation with a certain person on a certain day (Cohen, 1998). Autobiographical memories are therefore seen as being autonoetic in that they carry information about the context in which they were experienced.

One example of an extreme form of contextual specific memory is the death of Princess Diana. Many people especially the media ask a common question such as "what were you doing when you heard the news". Many people claim to be able to remember such major moments with unusual clarity and vividness, as if the events were etched on their minds throughout their lives. The question is whether these "flashbulb memories" are functionally different to all other types of memory such as autobiographical memory.

Brown & Kulik (1977), introduced the term flashbulb memory to describe memories that are preserved in an almost indiscriminate way. They postulated that these flashbulb memories were indeed different from ordinary memories, with some defining characteristics. Although these memories are thought to be photographic in their clarity and detail, they do not preserve all features of an event. Conversely Brown & Kulik proposed that idiosyncratic event details are remembered. These details help form what has been described as a "live" memory in that the "reception field" is remembered including ‘where', ‘when' and ‘who with' factors of an event. Brown & Kulik (1977) studied memories for important events such as the death of John F Kennedy. They found that irrelevant details were often recalled and it appeared that they had retained "a brief moment of time associated with an emotional event" (Smyth et al, 1994). Brown & Kulik suggested that flashbulb memories are formed by the activity of an ancient brain mechanism evolved to capture emotional and cognitive information relevant to the survival of an individual or group.

To summarise, flashbulb memories FMs are thought to be an unique survival mechanism distinct from other form of memory in their clarity, longevity and attention to idiosyncratic detail.

These characteristics of flashbulb memories can be mapped onto issues concerning memory. As with many memory systems, the argument over the distinctiveness of flashbulb memories involves encoding, storage and retrieval. These issues relate to many issues within Flashbulb memory such as their formation, accuracy, consistency and longevity. It appears that these processes are interrelated with each process being dependent on another.

In terms of FM formation, Brown & Kulik thought that the clarity and detail of FMs is correlated with the emotion, surprise and...
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