Flashbulb: Memories and Emotion After a Natural Disaster

Reference: Knez, I., Willander, J., Butler, A., Sang, Å. O., Sarlöv-Herlin, I., & Åkerskog, A. (2021). I can still see, hear and smell the fire: Cognitive, emotional and personal consequences of a natural disaster, and the impact of evacuation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 74, 101554.

Picture a significant event that changed your life. What happened that day? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing? What were you wearing? What did you eat? It is common for people to know the answers to many of these questions, even if they were not directly connected to the event in question. It is also very common for people to remember many details related to important historical events, community tragedies, and catastrophes. Autobiographical memory is part of the human long-term memory system that includes information about our identity and important life events. Catastrophes – ranging from accidents to natural disasters and acts of violence – can alter aspects of cognition, including perceptual and thought processing and the formation of new memories. A type of autobiographical memory that is formed after the direct or indirect experience of a traumatic event is called flashbulb memory.

Autobiographical memories of all types are rich in sensory information. For example, the smell of chocolate chip cookies may evoke a childhood memory of a relative making similar smelling cookies. Flashbulb memories tend to be more vivid than other types of autobiographical memories and may include personal details about that day that are unrelated to the catastrophe. Although most autobiographical memories are formed from direct experience, flashbulb memories can also be formed from indirect experience such as learning about a catastrophe via media. Experiencing a catastrophe may change our autobiographical memory, and, in turn, alter our ability to relive or reexperience life events. Relevant sensory cues may cause some people who have experienced trauma to relive it. Anyone who was old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001 may hold flashbulb memories of where they were and what they were doing that day, even if they did not experience those events directly. It is worth noting that flashbulb memories are not necessarily more accurate than other types of memories, but they are typically held with higher confidence (1)

Until recently, most studies of flashbulb memory investigated the experiences of people who only indirectly experienced a significant event (e.g., read about the event or heard about it through word of mouth). The few studies that have investigated flashbulb memories that were formed from direct, rather than indirect, experience attributed the persistence of such memories to the memory-holders’ frequent revisiting – or rehearing of the remembered information. In general, rehearsing memories is more common when the memories contain information that is more relevant to oneself. For research purposes, psychologists identify three criteria that distinguish flashbulb from other types of autobiographical memories: 

1) flashbulb memories are associated with a sense of surprise, resulting in a strong emotion; 

2) the precipitating event has personal significance and/or consequences; and 

3) the memory-holder engages in frequent mental rehearsal of the memory, such as by talking to others about the event.

With the goal of better understanding the unique properties of flashbulb memories, Willander Knez and colleagues at University of Gävle, Uppsala Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Alnarp Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Fieldforest Research Institute examined individuals’ recollections of a massive fire that occurred in Sweden on July 31, 2014. The fire, which raged for 12 days, had a far-ranging impact. Nearly 1,200 people were evacuated and one person died. Further, 4,500 people were on standby for urgent evacuation, and 20 homes were destroyed. 

Smoke from the fire that impacted thousands in Sweden in 2014

Prior research about the incident neglected to investigate the memories and emotions of those who experienced it. Knez and colleagues addressed this research gap by studying all forms of autobiographical memory (including flashbulb memories related to the incident). The scientists compared the memories of two categories of participants: (1) those who lived near the fire and were evacuated, and (2) those who lived further from the fire and were not evacuated. Based on previous research, the researchers predicted that evacuees with first-hand experiences with the catastrophe would have stronger emotions, more flashbulb memories, and a greater sense of personal consequence of the fire than those who were not evacuated.

One year after the event, the researchers randomly surveyed 2,264 households that were located closest to the disaster area; more than 650 individuals responded. The survey asked about participants’ emotions in the first hours of the tragedy and one year after the incident. Participants were also asked how often they re-lived, discussed, reflected upon, or flashed back to the event. Further, participants described the personal consequences of the fire and the extent to which sensory processes were involved in their re-experience of the tragedy. 

People with first-hand experience of the fire relived, reflected upon, discussed, and experienced a greater degree of sensory recall of the catastrophe more than those with second-hand experience. As predicted, evacuated participants experienced stronger emotions in the first hours after the fire and in the following year than individuals who were not evacuated. The researchers found that strong emotions – specifically anxiety and rage – were associated with flashbulb memories. As a result of their direct experiences, the lives and worldviews of the evacuees had changed. Evacuees also experienced post-traumatic growth such as resilience and new insights about life.

Overall, this study suggests that first-hand experience of a traumatic event results in stronger emotions and a greater sense of personal significance of an event than second-hand experience. The researchers could not determine if the first-hand experience itself brought about flashbulb memories, or if the memory rehearsal that ensued after the traumatic experience created the flashbulb memory. Regardless, the investigators found qualitative differences in the memories of those who have experienced the event first-hand vs. second-hand. Therefore, if you remember the vivid details of the event you were asked to recall at the beginning of the paper, it might be because it is an event with personal significance that you experienced directly. 

Additional References:

(1) Talarico, J. M., & Rubin, D. C. (2003). Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological Science, 14(5), 455-461.