Flashbulb Memory: What to Know About Vivid Recall

World Trade Center, Tribute in Light and the Statue of Liberty on 9/11


A flashbulb memory is a vivid memory about an emotionally significant event, usually a historic or other notable event. People often experience these memories in photographic detail, and can recall aspects like what they were doing when the event occurred or how they learned about what happened. Flashbulb memories tend to endure over long periods of time, although it’s not clear if people continue to remember the events with accuracy.

Examples of Flashbulb Memory

Flashbulb memories usually involve a public event of importance and surprise. The memories formed aren’t just of the event itself, but circumstances surrounding the event: how you found out about it, who told you, where you were when you found out, and your emotional reaction.

Examples of flashbulb memories that many people share include:

  • September 11th
  • JFK assassination
  • The Challenger explosion
  • The fall of the Berlin wall
  • Natural disasters like earthquakes
  • The death of Princess Diana
  • Other significant political assassinations, wars, or noteworthy public occasions

Although flashbulb memories are usually associated with more public events, they also happen after personal events, especially ones that were surprising or pivotal in some way. For example, the memory of the sudden death of a loved one may turn into a flashbulb memory for some people.

What Causes a Flashbulb Memory?

The term “flashbulb memory” was coined by Roger Brown and James Kulik in a 1977 paper published in Cognition. They were studying how people remembered the JFK assassination and noted that these memories were formed with certain qualities. People remembered the JFK assassination with uncanny clarity, including details about where they were at the exact moment they heard, and what their emotional reaction was.

According to Brown and Kulik, there are three main qualities that cause a memory to turn into a flashbulb memory:

  • The event must elicit an elevated level of surprise
  • The event itself must have a significant level of importance
  • The event must cause a heightened emotional response

If these three aspects are not present, or don’t reach significant levels, it’s doubtful that a flashbulb memory will be formed, Brown and Kulik said.

Although flashbulb memories are still being studied, and much of Brown and Kulik’s characterization of them remains accurate, researchers have called into question the clarity of people’s flashbulb memories, noting that it’s common for people to form inaccurate memories of events that caused flashbulb memories, or that the accuracy declines as time goes on.

Where Are Flashbulb Memories Stored in the Brain?

Researchers are still learning about the biological mechanisms behind flashbulb memories. A 2020 study published in Memory looked at adults undergoing MRI while recalling their flashbulb memories. They found that different parts of the brain seemed to be involved in flashbulb memories, as opposed to more ordinary autobiographical memories.

According to the study, flashbulb memories were more associated with the left side of the brain. Additionally, the amygdala seems to play a significant role in flashbulb memories. A 2018 study also found that the amygdala appears to be a key player when it comes to flashbulb memories.

These findings make sense, as the amygdala is where people store emotional memories.

Why Are Flashbulb Memories So Vivid?

There are several reasons why flashbulb memories are experienced so vividly. One reason is that flashbulb memories are often events shared by others, and repeated often in news coverage and in history books. This makes our memories of these events feel more vivid and clear to us.

Additionally, these events are often extremely emotionally potent, and form a strong impression on us. In fact, some of the events are associated with personal or public traumas, which may make them easier to attach to our memories. Research has found that our amygdala is involved in flashbulb memories, which is involved in the creation of emotional memories.

How Do Flashbulb Memories Resurface?

Although flashbulb memories involve heightened emotions and often include traumatic experiences, they are not the same as PTSD and don’t involve repressed memories that resurface. The term “flashbulb memories” may be confused with “flashbacks,” which are common in PTSD. Flashbacks refer to traumatic memories that tend to resurface without warning and cause significant distress. However, flashbulb memories are often easily retrieved, and don’t usually cause intense distress.

If you believe you are experiencing a flashback related to PTSD, please reach out to a therapist or mental health counselor. PTSD can cause serious mental health challenges, and impact your ability to function. But there’s hope: treatment is available and effective, including therapy for PTSD and medication to treat the condition.

Can Flashbulb Memories Be False?

One characteristic of people who have flashbulb memories is that they are usually quite confident in the accuracy of their memories, especially if the memories had emotional significance or a high level of emotional attachment. But research has found that flashbulb memories may not be as accurate as the people who experience them believe them to be.

For example, a group of researchers looked at flashbulb memories after the September 11th attacks. The researchers were able to look at how people recalled these events over a ten year period to see how accurate the flashbulb memories were.

What they found was surprising. People’s flashbulb memories were clearest right after the event, but lessened in accuracy within the first year. After that, their forgetfulness of the event stayed pretty much the same, and didn’t change much over the 10 year period. However, their confidence about the accuracy of their memory did not change, and remained high throughout.

Research has also found that although most people remember flashbulb memories with higher accuracy than more common memories, the rate at which they forget is similar in both flashbulb memories and ordinary memories. This decline usually happens in the first year after the event that elicited the flashbulb memory, and whatever inaccuracy the memory acquired remains present when the flashbulb memory is recalled in the future.

Flashbulb memories also often involve something called “time slice confusions.” This involves hearing reported news about the public event, and then incorporating that news into one’s memory of the event.

A Word From Verywell

The characteristics of flashbulb memories and how they work are a fascinating topic. Almost all of us have experienced flashbulb memories as the result of notable and emotionally potent events. It’s important to point out that although flashbulb events aren’t commonly associated with symptoms like PTSD, people who experience a traumatic event may also experience PTSD and other mental health disturbances. Please reach out to a mental health counselor if you are experiencing distress after a difficult event. You aren’t alone and help is out there.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.