Following is the latest Wednesday Wisdom article from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.
Flashbulb Memory: The Attacks of September 11, 2001, Yields Valuable Research
Flashbulb memories are vivid remembrances of surprising and significant events. These memories are preserved in people’s minds like a photograph when a flashbulb goes off.
Since the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the Foundation’s articles have presented examples of contributions made to others by family survivors as well examples of social progress made in the wake of this horrific event. This month’s Wednesday Wisdom will present another example: how the 9/11 tragedy allowed for additional research on an important concept in factors that may cause people to remember important events in their lives, differently—flashbulb memories.
Flashbulb memories are vivid remembrances of surprising and significant events. These memories are preserved in people’s minds like a photograph when a flashbulb goes off. While the term flashbulb memory has been around since 1977 and several researchers have sought to understand it, the 9/11 tragedy allowed for additional research which sheds light on what may be the reason why some of us have more vivid memories of events than others. Not surprisingly, it has to do with the level of emotion that we experience.
While the events of 9/11 may not represent a flashbulb memory for our younger readers who can’t remember that tragic day, it has significance to our work at the Foundation for everyone for the many lessons learned and advancements made in crucial areas of response to future events. To Care and Special Assistance Team employees, understanding this concept is a vital part of our education as it allows us to understand why initial contact with the families of those involved in a tragedy in their workplace is of great significance. We have long known from interviews with survivors how important notification is, and by understanding flashbulb memories, we gain additional insight as to why.
In 1977 two researchers, Roger Brown and James Kulik introduced the term “flashbulb memory,” but the phenomenon was around long before then. Numerous studies involving major events as far back as the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the attacks of Pearl Harbor, assassination of President John F. Kennedy and more recently, the Challenger Space Shuttle have provided understanding into this field.
Researchers have noticed that the memories were not always perfectly preserved, and some details differed across time. Overall, though, people were able to recall flashbulb memories even years later with clarity that was not the same as other kinds of memories. This led the researchers to believe that people experiencing flashbulb memories must have a neural mechanism at play in recall of some events that is not involved in ordinary memories.
9/11 and Research on Flashbulb Memories
While more than one study was conducted on 9/11 and flashbulb memories, a study of the neural activity of the recall of this event compared to everyday memories is of relevance to the work of notifying families of a tragedy involving their loved ones. Three years after the attacks, researchers asked participants to recall their memories of the day of the attacks and memories of an everyday event around the same time. While all the participants were in New York during 9/11, some were close to the World Trade Center and witnessed the devastation firsthand, while others were a few miles away.
The researchers scanned the participants’ brains as they recalled the events and found that when participants who were close by recalled the attacks, it activated their amygdala, a part of the brain that deals with emotional response. This was not the case for participants who were further away or for any of the everyday memories. While the study did not account for the accuracy of the participants’ memories, the findings demonstrated that first-hand personal experience may be necessary to engage the neural mechanisms that result in flashbulb memories. In other words, flashbulb memories could be the result of being there rather than hearing about an event later.
While many years of interviewing family members about how and when they were notified of the tragedy involving their loved one has shown that these notifications are indeed flashbulb memories—it is encouraging to know that if we deliver news in a timely manner, compassionately, and with great heart, we have an opportunity to shape that memory that lasts throughout their entire lifetime. We can’t make the news better, but we may influence how they feel about those who are trying to assist them. Any feelings of love and compassion carried forward will affect healing and recovery from the loss—research elsewhere supports that to be true.
“When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity. When your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”
– Stephen Levine, (1937-2016) American poet, author, and teacher
Organizations that plan and prepare for the first few moments of a tragedy in their workplace have a greater chance of getting the notification process accomplished, humanely. At the Foundation, we advocate working with local authorities who perform the formal death notification, but because of social media’s reach today, we encourage companies to reach out to the next-of-kin of anyone who may be a victim of the tragedy, alerting them of a family member’s potential involvement.
This allows the family to have an internal phone contact within the company, where they can be kept in the loop on what the company is learning about the crisis and does not interfere with the formal death notification that will ultimately come from official resources (police, medical personnel, coroner, etc.) when there is a positive identification of the deceased. This practice works well in all cases—especially when the deceased is never identified, and official death notification is not possible. Memories of speaking with caring, well-trained employees lasts a lifetime.
Understanding research that shows why family members have such vivid recall of when and how they learned of a death, as in the studies of flashbulb memories is vital to helping employees and other responders appreciate the importance of their work. Understanding more about flashbulb memories is yet one more example of lessons learned from the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Leaders will do well to share information about flashbulb memories with their care and special assistance team members and all who interact with families in the first few moments of a tragedy in their workplace.
 Freelance writer, Cynthia Vinney, defined and summarized current research on flashbulb memories in a July 31, 2019, article, “Flashbulb Memory: Definition and Examples.” To read her complete summary of the research and full article see https://www.thoughtco.com/flashbulb-memory-4706544