Flashbulb memory

Dateline: 07 February 2007

They say that everyone can remember what they were doing when they first heard of the Kennedy assassination. They say it a lot, though it is probably not true.

“Flashbulb” memory is an intriguing phenomenon. John Kerry talked about a memory of being in Cambodia being “seared, seared, into his brain”. It didn’t happen. He talked about being ordered there by Richard Nixon – though Lyndon Johnson was President at the time. He talked about hearing the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Vietnam, though if so he heard the news many months after King’s funeral.

This is not to suggest that John Kerry fabricated his accounts of Vietnam. The official records back up some of them – though not the Cambodia story, which seems to be utterly false.

But flashbulb memory – the memories that are seared into your brain – does seem to be unreliable. People adamantly insist that these are deeply memorable experiences, but their recall of them is no better, and sometimes worse, than of more mundane matters.

Researchers in Britain tried an experiment with students. The news events were – if my memory is not playing tricks on me – the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the day after these events the students were asked what they were doing when they first heard the news. Many could not remember. A year later they were asked again. This time almost everyone could remember, and with great confidence, including those who had forgotten the event within 24 hours. Not only that, those who had clear memories on both occasions frequently contradicted their previous account.

American researchers took a different tack. Tourists who had visited Disneyland were asked to imagine what it would have been like to encounter Bugs Bunny. A few pointed out that Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers’ character and is not featured at Disneyland. These people were excluded from the experiment. Most concocted a story about meeting Bugs Bunny. A year later these same people remembered the story as an actual event, not as a story they had invented.

So, what if you were a prosecutor and someone gave you two different accounts of how he first heard a piece of news? This is not a case of “no, I wasn’t in Atlanta on the day of the murder”. It is someone saying the first time I heard that was from so and so. And then, on another occasion, saying that some other hearing of the same story was the first time. Would you fancy your chances prosecuting that as perjury? I certainly wouldn’t. Confusion about such trivia more than a year after the event is common, and every member of the jury will know that. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is being prosecuted on this basis over his accounts of how he first heard that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

Meanwhile, Sandy Berger is has been slapped on the wrist for stealing classified documents relating to the Clinton administration’s failure to arrest Osama bin Laden. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, Berger was given access to original documents which had been neither copied nor even logged. We have no idea if these were among the documents he stole and destroyed. Was critical evidence kept from the 9/11 Commission? No-one knows, but why else would he have taken the documents if it wasn’t to cover something up?


Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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