Top myths about the brain, #9 Flashbulb memories

Myth #9. “Flashbulb memories” are precise, detailed and persistent.
Smithsonian: We all have memories that feel as vivid and accurate as a snapshot, usually of some shocking, dramatic event—the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the attacks of September 11, 2001. People remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, what they saw or heard. But several clever experiments have tested people’s memory immediately after a tragedy and again several months or years later. The test subjects tend to be confident that their memories are accurate and say the flashbulb memories are more vivid than other memories. Vivid they may be, but the memories decay over time just as other memories do. People forget important details and add incorrect ones, with no awareness that they’re recreating a muddled scene in their mindsrather than calling up a perfect, photographic reproduction.

RCG: This is a myth that we perpetuated in RapidChange work for years. People do have vivid memories of events such as the Kennedy assassination because there is a lot of emotion attached to them. Which, it turns out, is one of the reasons they aren’t wholly reliable. The part of your brain that holds your long-term memory sits near the part of your brain that is the catalyst for emotional responses. Those emotions and the stories we tell ourselves about those events combine to alter our memories.

Another factor is how the brain uses those stories to keep long-term memories. One of the best explanations of this is found in the book, “Picking Cotton,” a tale of what happens when a victim of violence becomes convinced someone she picks out of lineup is guilty. Eighteen years later, she discovers she was wrong. The reasons and the results make for an inspiring, and humbling, read.

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