HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 3, 2007, Herald Journal

‘Flashbulb’ memories are vivid


We are between two of my biggest “flashbulb” memories. On Aug. 31, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. On Sept. 11, more than 3,000 people died when terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City.

Flashbulb memories are those in which you hear or see shocking news. Where you were, what you saw, what you were doing, the entire moment, all are burned into your brain for the rest of your life. Whenever you think of that moment, in a flash, the entire scene is recalled also.

When I heard about the car accident involving Princess Diana, I was sitting with my husband next to a campfire up at the cabin. We were there for Labor Day weekend. We were listening to the radio and staring into the fire.

At first I thought the newscaster was exaggerating the seriousness of the accident. Princess Diana was always followed by paparazzi, as if everything she did, no matter how small, was newsworthy. Still, I was very disturbed by the news.

The next morning, I heard she had died from her injuries.

On 9/11, I was walking down-stairs carrying a laundry basket full of clothes. Through the window I could see my husband, a teacher, rushing down the sidewalk with his fourth-grade class. We live next door to the school, but this was very unusual.

He burst through the door and said, “Turn on the TV. I think we are being attacked.”

I did, and saw film footage of the twin towers collapsing in a cloud of smoke.

I also vividly remember when I heard President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was in school, and was waiting outside the locker room after my phy. ed. class, waiting to go to English class. That was another time when at first, I didn’t believe what I heard. One of my classmates said the phy. ed. teacher had heard it on the radio.

We hurried to our English class, and there, found out it was true.

I also was shocked when US Sen Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) was killed in a plane crash five years ago. A clerk in Sibley East Elementary school saw the news on her computer while I was waiting in the office.

My dad always said he could remember every detail of the moment he heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese, Dec. 7, 1941.

I wonder if these flashbulb memories are nature’s way of protecting us from danger. Our physical bodies develop antibodies that recognize and “remember” specific germs. Antibodies then help us resist the germs’ dangerous effects.

Flashbulb memories might be similar to how antibodies recognize germs, only they are mental or psychological defense mechanisms.

When our brains are reeling from shock, everything about the moment is stored in our memory. Then, we recognize it the next time.