McGaugh says neurobiological research from his and other
labs shows that activating the amygdala with emotional stimuli
correlates highly with subsequent memory of that stimuli.
Because of this emotional component, flashbulb memory is
more accurate than regular memory, he claims; it’s just that
studies to date haven’t controlled comparisons of flashbulb and
regular memories carefully enough.
“Just a tiny bit of emotional arousal will influence whether
you remember something just a few minutes later,” says
McGaugh. And the more directly you’re affected by something
like 9/11 — the closer you are to it physically and emotionally
— the more emotionally arousing, and better remembered, it
will likely be, he says.
McGaugh points to a study led by Cornell’s Neisser that
looked at people’s personal recollections regarding the 1989
Loma Prieta earthquake — what they were doing when
they found out about it, for example. The study found that
Californians directly jolted by the quake remembered their
own experiences of it almost perfectly, much better than they
remembered hearing about the Bay Bridge collapse. Atlantans,
by comparison, had mostly forgotten how they heard about
the event. But those Atlantans with relatives in the Loma Prieta
area remembered learning of it much more clearly. The study
results were published in 1996 in Memory (Vol. 4, No. 4).
In the same vein, and not surprisingly, the British remember
close-to-home events, such as the death of Princess Diana and
the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, much
more clearly than Americans do, past research indicates.
But what couldn’t be clearer for many Americans —
whether recalled accurately or not — are the horrific events of
9/11. As the Phelps study indicates, those who saw it firsthand
can recall it like it was yesterday, the images forever seared into
“I saw some scaffolding that I could go under to avoid the
• Berntsen D., Thomsen, D.K. (2005) Personal
memories for remote historical events:
Accuracy and clarity of flashbulb memories
related to World War II. Journal of Experimental
Psychology: General, 134, 242–257.
• Brown, R. & Kulik, J. (1977) Flashbulb
memories. Cognition, 5, 73–99.
• Davidson, P.S.R., Cook, S.P., Glisky, E.L.
(2006) Flashbulb memories for September
11th can be preserved in older adults.
Neuropsychology, Development, and Cognition,
• McGaugh, J.L. (1993) Memory and emotion:
The making of lasting memories. New York:
Columbia University Press.
• Phelps E.A., Sharot T. (2008) How (and
why) emotion enhances the subjective sense of
recollection. Current Directions in Psychological
Science, 17, 147–152.
Talarico, J.M., Rubin D.C. (2007)
Flashbulb memories are special after all; in
phenomenology, not accuracy. Applied Cognitive
Psychology, 21: 557–578.
falling debris,” said one participant in her study. “I saw with
my own eyes: the towers burning in red flames, the noises and
cries of people,” reported another. For them, it is an instant
frozen in time by emotional Instamatic. The focus preserved
and unwavering. Much like a photograph. n
Bridget Murray Law is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.
Psychologists’ memories of 9/11
In the days and weeks following 9/11, psychologists in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia
provided comfort and support to victims’ friends and families and to recovery workers. Click
on the names below to watch three psychologists discuss their experiences:
• Margaret Pepe, PhD, who now manages military mental health services for the American
• Daniel Dodgen, PhD, who works in disaster mental health for the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, spent weeks volunteering at the Pentagon site. The experience helped convince him to
work in disaster mental health full time.
• June Feder, PhD, a New York City private practitioner, was the New York State Disaster Response
Network chair in 2001. She coordinated the hundreds of psychologists who volunteered in the aftermath
of the attacks.