Key Studies - Brown and Kulick Flashbulb Memories

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Learning Objective: Evaluate one theory of how emotion may affect one cognitive process

• The interaction between emotion and the cognitive process of memory can be seen through research into flashbulb memory. • There is evidence to suggest that emotion plays a significant role in memory, and the amygdala appears to play an important role in emotional responses… thus having an impact on memory. • However, the debate still centers around whether flashbulb memories are a special kind or memory, or just as unreliable as other types of memory.

THE THEORY (Brown & Kulick, 1977):
Flashbulb Memories - Where Were You Then?
A flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid 'snapshot' of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and important (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.

In 1977, the psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick attempted to define people's recollections of the John F. Kennedy assassination when they referred to them as "flashbulb memories." They defined them as: • Exceptionally vivid memories

• Usually consequential events with emotional significance • Resistant to forgetting over time

They suggested that a novel and shocking event activates a special brain mechanism, which they referred to as "Now Print." Much like a camera's flashbulb, Brown and Kulick hypothesized, the Now Print mechanism preserves or "freezes" whatever happens at the moment when we learn of the shocking event. Bown and Kulick propose that there an evolutionary and biological basis for the “Now Print: The mechanism is activated when a given event occurs unexpectedly and has biologically significant consequences for individual’s lives so that people are ready to recognize similar events in the future.”

The debate centers on whether they are a special case, or the same as other memories Here is a description of a flashbulb memory of the JFK assassination: "I do not remember much of what happened just before or after the stunning announcement, but an image of the moment when I first learned the news has remained fixed in my mind for over thirty years. For many of us, the memory of that November afternoon in 1963 feels as though it has been frozen forever in photographic form, unaffected by the ravages of time that erode and degrade most other memories."

THE RESEARCH SUPPORT (Brown & Kulick, 1977):


Brown and Kulick did not query participants in their study about the JFK assassination until years after the event. To evaluate the accuracy of a flashbulb memory, we need some way to check the accuracy of a person's recollection. Subsequent researchers have investigated memories for flashbulb events--the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Gulf War in 1991--by obtaining recollections from people within a few days or weeks after the event. What researchers have learned about these flashbulb memories are quite interesting and are summarized as follows:

• Some flashbulb memories are indeed accurate and persistent.

• Yet even some highly consequential flashbulb events are not wholly unaffected by the passage of time that weakens other memories.

• Some flashbulb memories are far from photographic preservations of the original scene. So, our latest research shows that though flashbulb memories remain some of the most lasting memories we hold, they are still subject to decay. In fact, it is doubtful whether such memories are preserved by the ‘Now Print’ mechanism that Brown and Kulick envisaged. The key to understanding how these type of memories are preserved over time is to understand the level of emotional arousal they produced, and the strengthening of the memory through repeated discussion of the event in sharing it with others. Thus, it is...
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