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flash bulb memory

By Lewis-Miller Dec 04, 2013 2669 Words
Critically evaluate the claim that ‘flashbulb’ memories are qualitatively different to other memories Memory In psychology is the physical series of events within the brain that encode, store and retrieve information within the human body. When information is encoded within our memory it reaches our primary five senses and is converted into chemical and physical stimuli. This stimuli is stored in the next stage of the memory process where information if retained for potentially decades of time within us. We can retrieve this information by locating it within our subconscious. This can be effortless or difficult but this is based around the type of memory concerned. Memory itself can be broken down into three areas as shown by this image (The Human Memory 2013)

Long-term memory is the area of concern as this is where the topic of Flashbulb memory and the memories that it can be qualitatively analysed with are found. Long term memory is exactly what you would expect it to be and that is the storage of information within the brain over vast periods of time which is a seemingly never ending storage system. Information decays over time as people grow old but it is in some debate whether humans ever really forget information or it simply becomes too strenuous on the brain to recall the information in question. (The Human Memory 2013) Flashbulb memory is the main topic and is within the category of long-term memory and in its most simple form it is the memories a person forms when they witness a shocking or very significant event within the world. An example of a ‘significant event’ in the world may be the assassination of a world leader or the day you won the lottery for instance as an example of what both a shocking and a significant event may be for someone in the world. An individual after having witnessed or experienced a life altering event may experience the effects of flash bulb memory and astonishingly be able to remember an event at a very high level of detail at the moment the event took place. For example an individual may have the ability to recall where they were at the time and who they were with, perhaps what they were wearing or what emotions they were feeling throughout the event when it took place. A quick example of an event that many said to have retained a precise and accurate account of in the United States what the assassination of President John F. Kennedy even decades after it has taken place. [1] It is the first type of memory that showed the potential interaction between emotion and the cognitive process of memory itself and how they can actually be linked together. However it is still being debated whether the flash bulb memory is simply a unique or special type of memory or is it the same and just as unreliable as other types of memory.

Brown & Kulik created and experiment in 1977 from which they became the first ambassadors of notion that that flash bulb memory was triggered by important events in an individual’s life. It was the first type of memory that showed the potential interaction between emotion and the cognitive process of memory itself and how they can actually be linked together. Brown and Kulik describe flash bulb memory as the remembrance of extremely detailed and vivid memories which are significant to the individual concerned. They also are memories that are extremely resistant to being forgotten over large quantities of time. In the Study Brown & Kulik originally carried out in 1977 the way in which many viewed how they saw light bulb memory and in essence redefined it. The aim of this study was to find out if dramatic or individually momentous events would cause these so called ‘flash bulb memories’. They initially asked forty white and black American citizens if they could remember vivid imagery when they heard that a major event in the past had happened in a questionnaire format. Examples given were the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana as well as others. They then tested their initial prediction (that these influential events would have caused and now cause recollection of light bulb memory) against non-consequential more monotonous events in a person’s life. Overall it was found that flash bulb memory was more likely to be remembered of a shocking, disturbing or momentous event in a person’s life. Issues personally relevant were also likely to be remembered with flash bulb memory. (IB Psychology (Diana) 2011) It is believed by many that a flash bulb memory can be more accurate and longer lasting than alternative memory types such as Brown & Kulik who believed flash bulb memories were long term aspects of a person’s inherent memory in which they could remember specific instances and aspects they otherwise could not, while they did believe these memories were not always accessible by the person as they deteriorate with age. They also believed that an event remembered with flashbulb memory would depend heavily on different factors. The proximity firstly between the person impacted and the event itself would affect the memory as the closer a person was to an event the more involved and immersed they would become in the scenario. The emotion the individual felt when the scenario played out is another key factor as this emotion may be so strong it triggers a light bulb memory. The distinctiveness of the scenario is very important. Was it common place and very much familiar and the person feels like they can simply discard the event or is it so unfamiliar it is almost disturbing or creates a burning curiosity and amazement which consequently leads to a flash bulb memory. So from this information Brown & Kulik clearly feel that flash bulb memories are unique themselves and have special properties which set them apart from ordinary types of memory. (Wikipedia flash bulb memory 2013) Counter arguments created by Michael McCloskey were made in which he and his fellow colleagues analysed Brown & Kulik’s hypothesis and results to form their own findings on the subject of flash bulb memory. Their aim was to find out whether there was really a difference between ordinary trivial memories and distinctive ‘important’ ones and whether there really is a special mechanism used for a person’s flash bulb memory. The notion that flash bulb memories are simply memories of important events in an individual’s life that are completely viable and explicable in terms of the ordinary memory and do not show the existence of a new specific and special mechanism. Michael McCloskey also writes that an event may be seen by the person as more distinctive, influential and consequentially memorable but there is not a way a ‘qualitative distinction’ can potentially be shown between memories for learning about these shocking and important instances and memories for simply learning about monotonous trivial scenarios. Therefore flash bulb memory falling straight into the category of ordinary memory. Within the tests that McClosky carried out a questionnaire was used in which questions to participants (each month) were asked about significant events. They were repeatedly asked and it showed them that participants would have slightly varied responses to the same question showing them that just like ordinary memory flash bulb memories were not permanent or special and they distorted like any other memory. (McClosky 1988) The flash bulb memory may also just be the recollection of dramatic events vividly within a person’s head due to the fact the event was so important it has been rehearsed and thought about hundreds of times within their head. So rather than the brain having a flash bulb mechanism, perhaps it’s the rehearsal of a memory in the head so many times the person has a stronger memory of that event. This is a view that a duo called Neisser & Harsch (1992) originally researched and came up with. It their experiment they asked their participants one day after a chosen event which was the challenger explosion in 1986 about the predicament they were in the minute they heard of this news. They then proceeded to ask about the event again three years later. There was 106 participants that carried out the survey initially and 44 carried out the survey 32 months later. In their findings it was shown that the participants involved were able to show a high level of confidence in their recollection of the information. 40% of the participants showed distortion in comparison to the original account of the incident and 3/44 subjects had a completely perfect remembrance of the original day. They concluded that the flash bulb memory was no more special or exceptional than any other type of memory in the human brain and the loss of accuracy that was seen over the three years shows the basic mental ability of the brain to reconstruct and its ability to be flexible rather than flash bulb memories original vivid nature. A potential reason that may have caused the inaccurate accounts from the participants involved may well have been because the memory had been recollected too many times and therefore was altered and changed in the persons memory and aspects of their own imagination were implemented into the original memory. This may then be part of an individual’s reconstructive memory as they have added and ‘reconstructed’ an event within their minds. Also declarative memory coincides closely with what the participants explained had happened, they know exactly what happened in the event just like declarative memory but they don’t seem to have created the prerequisites needed for a flash bulb memory. (IB Psychology (Diana) 2011) However as a negative of this experiment the chosen scenario could have been more direct to the participants involved. This being one of Brown & Kuliks main aspects that create a long term flash bulb memory, perhaps if it had been more involving different results would have shown and more vivid and accurate memories would have also. It featured low artificiality and no control group also. On the other hand the experiment was precise due to the closeness of the initial questions asked and the event the participants were being questioned on which also means a high ecological validity for this study. (Neisser & Harsch 1982) This leads on to discussing how the specific factors that Brown & Kulik explain are needed to create a flash bulb memory are any different from the factors needed for other types of memory and if not then why is there a distinct difference being noted between them. Dr Daniel Wright argues that there is ‘systematic bias within FBM’. He stated ‘The class of memories described within the literature as flash bulb memories, are susceptible to the same type of systematic biases as everyday memories.’ Dr Daniel Wright refers to the biases that are given to flash bulb memory that claims that it has its own unique mechanism, specific and special which sets it apart from all other types of memory. Wright believes that it is simply consistent with Schematic or reconstructive memory. He observed this within subjects who recall the ‘Hillsborough football disaster’. In total there was 247 participants and they all recalled their circumstances at the moment that they had found out personally about this disaster. These participants gave their ratings of particular aspects of the event then proceeded to write down specific events that came to their mind when they thought of the Hillsborough disaster. Each of these measured variables resulted in exhibits of systematic biases. Consequently meaning that the most viable explanation for flash bulb memory, is that it requires only ordinary reconstructive memory procedures. (Dr Daniel Wright)

Talarico & Rubin were another duo who aimed to test the boundaries of the flash bulb memory theory so in 2003 they carried out their own experiment to find out the difference between flash bulb memory and ordinary memory. In the experiment they asked the participants involved to remember the incident and event which happened on September 11th 2001 on four separate occasions. This was carried out 1, 7, 42 and 224 days after the incident and they were also questioned about an ordinary event that happened relatively around the same time. They found in their findings that flash bulb memories of the participants were extremely intense for the entire experiment and were displaying the same confidence of their accuracy however they were not more or less consistent for the questioned everyday event. (IB Psychology (Diana) 2011) [6]

Overall the only difference that could be drawn between both the flash bulb memory and ordinary memory was the fact that flash bulb memories happened to be recollected with more confidence and they were more vivid in description that the everyday event. The flaw in the research that Brown & Kulik has carried out was that they themselves believed the participants and their reports that flashbulb memories had a higher accuracy than an ordinary memory would have. From checking the actual accuracy of flashbulb memories In this experiment you can see that they are no different from other memories and have no special mechanism.

Flash bulb memory is an interesting and useful idea proposed by Brown & Kulik who took the idea forward and pronounced it as being a special and individual type of memory separate from any other already established and recognised memory. It is based on the proximity, how distinctive and the emotional impact it has had on the person involved and as a result would be able to clearly recollect an instance of an important event within their memory. However I believe it is clear that flash bulb memory is in fact not qualitatively different to other memories. McClosky found that memories that would come under the definition of flash bulb memories in fact were just as susceptible to change and distortion as any other type of normal memory, therefore he felt there was no reason to call flash bulb memories in themselves anything other than ordinary and already explained parts of the human psyche. Neisser also found the same evidence as only 3/44 participants in his study could remember the day of the seemingly momentous occasion clearly and most importantly accurately which therefore showed declarative memory and reconstructive memory which are both ordinary types. Tarlarico and Ruben themselves found that the participants displayed only one difference between the FBM and ordinary memory which was that participants felt very confident in talking about flash bulb memories. Due to the nature of important events people are more likely to re tell and relive these memories and this distortion can become part of the memory itself. Due to FBM only being able to happen at one single time there are no opportunities for the individual to have repeated exposure to a very similar event therefore early errors in memory are more likely to remain. There is simply an extraordinary confidence that people find within FBM rather than the actual accuracy of the information they are recalling having high accuracy. People never want to forget these important events in their lives which lead to this over confidence. Flash bulb memories from the information I have collected seem to heavily miss hard evidence for their differentiation between itself and other ordinary memories. There are also many studies which are proving that FBM are simply falling into the categories of scientifically sound memories that already exist within the long term memory.

References
[1] http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-flashbulb-memories.htm
[2] http://www.human-memory.net/types.html
[3] http://dianabenovapsych.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/flashbulb-memory-brown-kulik-1977.html [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flashbulb_memory
[5] http://pjackson.asp.radford.edu/4McCloskeyetal1988memory.pdf [6] http://dianabenovapsych.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/neisser-harsch-1992.html [7] http://myclass.peelschools.org/sec/11/20135/Lessons/Period%202,%202011-12/Cognitive%20Level%20of%20Analysis/Neisser%20and%20Harsch%20%281992%29%20Flash%20Bulb%20Memory.pdf [8]http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpsychnet.weebly.com%2Fuploads%2F9%2F2%2F2%2F8%2F9228366%2Fhl_3.1_3.2.ppt&ei=Mac9UcPWNIGV7Aam5IHgBg&usg=AFQjCNG7K08gTLKYsNa3JhFe8FGQoQ5rjw&sig2=0HrZ13_Oj2UG0MlEx-qc2Q&bvm=bv.43287494,d.d2k

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