Consumer & Behavioral Science Consulting

Never Forget: events and memory

Today is 9/11, the anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers (World Trade Center) in NYC, the Pentagon, and UA Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, PA.

Today in social media I’m seeing friends posts their condolences and prayers, honoring the victims and heroes, and remembering. This event is deep routed in our memories, the emotions, the details, the reactions and so on. Even the tag line that has become most associated with this event is “Never Forget”. It’s a time for remembering and reflection.

In this spirit, I thought it might be interesting to revisit some psychological and neurobiological theories of memory, specifically episodic, flashbulb and autobiographical memory.

Here are some clips I’ve seen in social media:

I was in California getting ready to teach my 7th and 8th grade English classes. I couldn’t believe it was real. We watched news coverage all day and cried. I am so grateful to those men and women who serve at home and abroad to protect and defend our freedom, security, and way of life.

Thinking back on 9/11 makes me think about my life then versus now. ..

I was a graduate TA and that Tuesday a major test was scheduled. Before I left home for the class there were vague reports on the radio about a plane crash in NYC. But no one knew any details yet. As I walked across campus I could see pictures of the burning 1st tower on tvs in the student center. I went to the professor’s office where we would then to walk to class. Another tower was hit and the news had changed by then, this was not an accident. We got to class and everyone was there for the test. The professor made an announcement, tragedy. He then offered them a choice, to take the test or postpone it. All of the students agreed to go ahead and take the test that morning. We did.

I remember exactly where I was when it happened, and watching the news last year when all the U.S. embassies came under attack.

Working as a flight attendant on my way to New York. Had a stop in Myrtle Beach when the first tower hit, ended up staying in MB, until my wonderful boyfriend at the time —- drove over 10 hrs on 3 hrs of sleep to take me home. Its one of those moments in history you cannot forget.

I was in 10 grade American History class!

I was in my office listening to everything unfold via Bob & Tom. less then 10 months later my happy ass was in Kyrgyzstan providing design support to the USAF CE .

Rising a quarter of a mile into the sky, the World Trade Center’s twin towers were about five blocks tall.

I live four blocks from where they stood. I saw them ablaze. I saw them fall. All from my dining-room window, which, within ten seconds of each tower’s collapse, offered less than one inch of visibility while the opaque dust cloud of pulverized concrete rolled by. From that same window, blue sky now appears where the twin towers used to be. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Some people can recall every detail, emotion, smells, places, times, what they wore… So whey can someone remember so many details about that one day, but not what they wore last week?

In psychology, cognitive science or neuroscience, whatever you want to call it, these sorts of memories are considered to be episodic memories. Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated. It is the collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place. For example, your memory of where you were on 9/11, or what you wore yesterday, or your wedding day. It’s a form of explicit memory, which is the “knowing” or “what” type of memory (as opposed to implicit memory or the “how”).

Episodic memories:

  • Contain summary records of sensory-perceptual-conceptual-affective processing (smells, looks, places, etc.)
  • Retain patterns of activation/inhibition over long periods.
  • Often represented in the form of (visual) images. (images of what happened, etc.)
  • They always have a perspective (field or observer). (what you saw, versus what s/he saw)
  • Represent short time slices of experience. (events)
  • They are represented on a temporal dimension roughly in order of occurrence. (like a story)
  • They are subject to rapid forgetting. (can be easily influenced, details lost)
  • They make autobiographical remembering specific.
  • They are recollectively experienced when accessed.

There is very often a strong emotional connection to these types of memories. Strong emotions for a particular event tend to increase the likelihood that an event will be remembered later and that it will be remembered quite vividly, as a flashbulb memory.

Flashbulb memories are named as such because they offer a sort of detailed, vivid “snapshot” of the event. Evidence has shown that although people are highly confident in these types of memories, the details of the memories can be forgotten or even influenced by another person’s memories, or news or movies that someone may have seen regarding the same event.

Examples of events usually included in flashbulb memories:

  • Where were you when JFK was shot?
  • Where were you when John Lennon was shot?
  • Where were you when we landed on the moon?
  • Where were you when the Challenger exploded?
  • Where were you when Princess Diana died?
  • Where were you on 9/11?

These questions come up a lot when talking with other people. And you’ll notice when they answer, their descriptions are quite vivid for events that occurred 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years ago; long past when most memory for such details would have degraded. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday! Researchers think there may be a reason to distinguish flashbulb memories from other types of autobiographical memory because they rely on elements of personal importance and emotion. Some believe that ordinary memories can also be as accurate, vivid and long lasting as flashbulb memories if they are highly distinctive, personally significant or repeatedly rehearsed.

Some interesting determinants of the accuracy of flashbulb memories include: age, culture, gender. In general, younger adults form flashbulb memories more readily than older adults. A study conducted by Kulkofsky, Wang, Conway, Hou, Aydin, Johnson, and Williams (2011) investigated the formation of flashbulb memories in 5 countries: China, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Turkey. The participants in the US and the UK reported more flashbulb memories in a 5 minutes span than participants from Germany, Turkey, and China. This could simply be due to the fact that different cultures have different memory search strategies. Some reports have suggested that men tend to report more details in their flashbulb memories while women report more emotions (however, more work needs to be done in this area).

The formation of new episodic memories requires the medial temporal lobe, a structure including the hippocampus. Laboratory studies have related specific neural systems to the influence of emotion on memory. emotional arousal causes neurohormonal changes, which engage the amygdala. The amygdala modulates the encoding, storage, and retrieval of episodic memory and is explicitly tied to physiological arousal. The prefrontal cortex (and in particular the left hemisphere) is also involved in the formation of new episodic memories (also known as episodic encoding). Patients with damage to the prefrontal cortex can learn new information, but tend to do so in a disordered way. For example, they might be able to recognize an object or person they had seen in the past, but not be able to remember when or where it had been experienced.

So why do I remember every detail of where I was on 9/11? Because of the strong emotional component to such an horrific event, the repetition in the news and with conversations with friends, family and neighbors, and because of the visceral reactions that so many of us had: fear, nausea, anger, etc.

So I’ll conclude this with what a friend posted on social media:

“Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.”
–Buddha, Dhammapada

In memory of 9-11, and in hope that we all choose love.

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This entry was posted on September 11, 2013 by and tagged , , , , .



The Nerdoscientist @nerdoscientism

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