Flashbulb Memory in Psychology: Definition & Examples

Key Takeaways

  • A flashbulb memory is a highly vivid and detailed ‘snapshot’ of a moment in which a consequential, surprising and emotionally arousing piece of news was learned.
  • Roger Brown and James Kulik introduced the term ‘flashbulb memory’ in 1977 in their study of individuals’ ability to recall consequential and surprising events.
  • Debate centers on whether they are a special case (resistant to forgetting over time), or the same as other memories.
  • The photographic model, the comprehensive model and the emotional-integrative model are some models which have been employed to study the phenomenon of flashbulb memory.
  • The vividness and accuracy of flashbulb memories can vary across age and culture.
  • The amygdala seems to play a key role in the formation and retrieval of flashbulb memories.
  • Relatively little evidence for flashbulb memories as a distinct memory process. They ‘feel’ accurate (we are confident in recall) but are just as prone to forgetting & change as other episodic memories.

A flashbulb memory is an accurate and exceptionally vivid long-lasting memory for the circumstances surrounding learning about a dramatic event. Flashbulb Memories are memories that are affected by our emotional state.

The analogy of a flashbulb describes the way we can often remember
where you where, what you were doing, how you were informed, and how you reacted, as if the whole scene had been “illuminated” by a flashbulb.

Roger Brown and James Kulik coined the term ‘flashbulb memory’ in 1977. While the term ‘flashbulb memory’ implies shock, illumination, brevity and detail, a memory of this type is far from complete.

Moreover, the fundamental characteristics of a flashbulb memory are informant (who broke the news), own affect (how they felt), aftermath (importance of the event), other affect (how others felt), ongoing activity (what they were doing) and place (where they where when the event happened).

Examples of Flashbulb Memory

Flashbulb memories are often associated with important historical or autobiographical events. Typical ‘flashbulb’ events are dramatic, unexpected, shocking.

An example of a flashbulb memory is the assassination of the US president John F. Kennedy in 1963 and recalling the moment you learned of the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Recalling where you were when you learned about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Remembering the moment when you heard that Mr. Trump had won the 2016 Presidential election.

Why do Flashbulb Memories Occur

Brown and Kulik (1977) constructed the special-mechanism hypothesis which supposedly demonstrated the existence of a distinct special neural mechanism for flashbulb memories.

This mechanism was named “now print”, because it was as if the whole episode was a snapshot and imprinted in memory as such.

Brown and Kulik argued that experiences and events which exceeded the critical levels of consequentiality and surprise caused this mechanism of neural memory to register a permanent record of the event.

Surprise refers to not anticipating the event and consequentiality refers to the level of importance of the event.

Notably, however, they held that while flashbulb memories are fixed, they are not always necessarily accessible from long-term memory (Cohen, McCloskey & Wible, 1990).

The special-mechanism hypothesis of Brown and Kulik further held that the features of flashbulb memories are distinct from those of ordinary mechanisms of memory (Brown & Kulik, 1977).

Detail, vividness, accuracy, and resistance to forgetting were initially identified as the distinct properties of flashbulb memories. However, over time, the validity of these properties has been debated, and several models have been subsequently developed to understand and explain the phenomenon of flashbulb memory (Er, 2003).

The Photographic Model

The photographic model posits that a stimulus experience can engender a flashbulb memory only with a significant amount of shock, emotional arousal and consequentiality (Brown & Kulik, 1977). The element of surprise initially helps register an event in memory, and the event’s importance would subsequently trigger emotional arousal.

The consequentiality of the memory maybe determined by the event’s impact upon one’s own life. Finally, the properties of surprise, emotional arousal and consequentiality would impact the frequency of rehearsal of a certain flashbulb memory, thereby possibly strengthening or weakening the associations to and accounts of the experience.

The Comprehensive Model

The comprehensive model emphasizes upon the importance of incorporating a larger sample of subjects from a greater diversity of backgrounds (Conway, Anderson, Larsen, Donnelly, McDaniel, McClelland, Rawles & Logie, 1994).

Additionally, unlike the photographic model which follows a sequential process in the development of a flashbulb account, the comprehensive model incorporates the interconnected nature of the pertinent variables.

For instance, interest in and knowledge of the experience may impact the level of consequentiality, which in turn, may affect one level of emotional arousal.

All these factors would impact the frequency of rehearsal, and finally, their aggregate impact would influence the strength of the associations.

The Emotional-Integrative Model

The emotional-integrative model incorporates elements of the photographic model and the comprehensive model (Finkenauer, Luminet, Gisle, El-Ahmadi, Van Der Linden & Philippot, 1998).

Like the photographic model, this model posits that the degree of shock constitutes the initial registration of the event.

Moreover, according to this model, the elements of surprise and consequentiality as well as one’s attitude can trigger an emotional state which directly helps create a flashbulb memory.

Furthermore, this emotional state in turn contributes to the rehearsal of the event, thereby strengthening the association and forming a flashbulb memory.

Herein, the formation of the flashbulb memory is significantly influenced by the individual’s emotional relationship to the particular event (Curci & Luminet, 2009).

What Research Suggests

A common approach seems to characterize studies of flashbulb memory. Researchers generally conduct their studies of flashbulb memory following a surprising and consequential public event (Neisser, 1982).

Initially, the participants are tested via interview or survey questions immediately after the event. Herein, the subjects are often expected to describe their personal relationship to the event.

Afterward, the participants would be divided into different groups and be tested for a second time—each group at a different time.

For instance, one group may be tested 12 months later while another group may be tested 18 months after the event (Schmolck, Buffalo & Squire, 2000). This approach can expose memory decay and the rate of accuracy of the relevant flashbulb memories.

Brown and Kulik (1977) found that participants tended to have vivid memories of political assassinations:

75% of black people who were asked about the assassination of Martin Luther King could recall it, compared to only 33% of white people. This shows the importance of relevance.

Several studies imply that although flashbulb memories may be recollected with great confidence and vividness, they might not be as accurate as most people expect them to be.

For instance, a study conducted among 54 Duke University students in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks suggests that the accuracy of retrieval declines over time for flashbulb memories in the same way as it does for everyday memories (Talarico & Rubin, 2003).

Moreover, a study which examined the flashbulb memories of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion showed that despite the participants’ high level of confidence in their recollection of the event, their actual recollections were not accurate three years after the tragedy (Neisser & Harsh, 1992).

Thus, it is possible that flashbulb memories rank higher not necessarily in their accuracy but in their perceived accuracy. However, there are other research findings which suggest that flashbulb memories are more accurate than everyday memories because consequentiality, personal involvement, distinction and proximity can enhance recall (Sharot, Delgado & Phelps, 2004).

Neurology Related to Flashbulb Memory

Studies have shown that emotional arousal engenders neurohormonal changes which impact the amygdala (Dolcos, Labar & Cabeza, 2005). The amygdala, thus, seems to play a role in encoding and retrieving the memories of significant public events.

The amygdala’s function in memory is related to the increase of arousal caused by an experience (McGaugh, 2004).

This suggests that what influences arousal possibly impacts the nature of memories. Moreover, as the amygdala’s involvement with episodic memory is explicitly linked to physiological arousal, the intensity of the arousal may differ based on an individual’s personal relationship to an event (Phelps et al., 2006).

Individual Differences


Younger adults in general, are more likely to form flashbulb memories than older ones (Cohen, Conway & Maylor, 1993). Moreover, younger adults and their older counterparts recall flashbulb memories for different reasons.

For instance, among the younger ones, the chief predictor was emotional connectedness to an experience. Among the older adults however, the reliance on rehearsal seemed to be the more salient determining factor. Additionally, the older adults demonstrated a greater tendency to forget the context of the experience.

However, if older adults had been severely affected by the relevant event, then they would be able to form flashbulb memories which are as detailed as the flashbulb memories formed by their younger counter parts (Kvavilashvili, Mirani, Schlagman, Erskine & Kornbrot, 2010) (Conway, Skitka, Hemmerich & Kershaw, 2009).

For instance, older adults who were directly affected by the 9/11 attacks recollected memories which, in detail, resembled the recollections of younger adults. Additionally, older adults also tend to have an enhanced recollection of experiences from their early adulthood and adolescence.

This phenomenon is described as the ‘reminiscence bump’. As a result of the ‘reminiscence bump,’ older adults can retain flashbulb memories from their adolescence and early adulthood better than flashbulb memories from the recent past (Denver, Lane & Cherry, 2010).


In general, the factors which impact flashbulb memories are considered to be independent of cultural variation. Proximity to an event and personal involvement are generally regarded as the chief determining factors in memory formation.

However, some research suggests that the vividness of flashbulb memories may be influenced by cultural factors (Kulkofsky, Wang, Conway, Hou, Aydin, Johnson & Williams, 2011).

For instance, a study which evaluated the formation of flashbulb memories in China, the United States, Germany, Turkey and the United Kingdom showed a notable variation in retrieval.

The participants from the United Kingdom and the United States were able to report more memories within the allotted time span than the participants from Turkey, China and Germany.

Moreover, the Chinese participants were less impacted by factors associated with personal involvement and proximity. Additionally, the effects of surprise and emotional intensity too, varied across the countries.

Relationship to Autobiographical Memory

Flashbulb memory has long been classified as a subset of autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory involves’ one’s everyday life experiences (Davidson & Glisky, 2002).

However, the memory of neutral autobiographical experiences such as an exam or a picnic is considered not as accurate as an emotionally arousing flashbulb memory involving one’s experiences closely tied to an issue of public concern or a national calamity.

Moreover, a comparative analysis of flashbulb memories and non-flashbulb memories demonstrates that while the former are encoded incidentally, the latter can be encoded specifically (Kvavilashvili, Mirani, Schlagman, Erskine & Kornbrot, 2010).

It has also been observed that although vividness accompanies both these types of memory, the vividness of non-flashbulb memories decreases over time—unlike that of the flashbulb memories.

Additionally, while ordinary autobiographical memories involve a dimensional structure containing every level of autobiographical information, flashbulb memories stem apparently from a more densely integrated area of autobiographical information (Lanciano & Curci, 2012).

Additionally, while flashbulb memories require episodic memories, everyday memories are semantic recollections (Curci & Lanciano, 2009).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Ayesh Perera


B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.