Remembering the Gist Without Remembering the Details

Question: What is a "flash-bulb memory?"

\r\nChristopher Chabris:
A "flash-bulb memory" is a memory that forms \r\nkind of as though a flash is  going off in a camera and you imprint a \r\npicture in your mind of what’s going on at a particular moment in time. \r\n That was a term that was devised and coined in the 1970s by the late \r\nsocial psychologist, Roger Brown, who did a study on people's memories \r\nof the assassination of President Kennedy.  And he found that people had\r\n extremely vivid memories of where they were when they heard about it, \r\nwhat they were thinking, doing, who they were with, what they did next. \r\n And he found also for other significant events, like the assassination \r\nof Martin Luther King, people had formed similar memories. 

And \r\nhe concluded on that basis that highly significant events sort of \r\nimprint themselves into your memory and you’re going to always remember \r\nthem.  It turns out that... and this is kind of a natural belief, and \r\nthis shouldn’t surprise us.  For example, we all probably have a pretty \r\ngood idea where we were when we heard about the terrorist attacks on \r\nSeptember 11, 2001.  I have a good memory of it.  I actually heard about\r\n it on "The Howard Stern Show," of all places, when I woke up, I was in \r\ngraduate school, so I woke up late those days and I actually tuned into \r\nthe Howard Stern Show, and that’s how I found out about it. 

\r\nAt least I think that’s how I found out about it.  That’s how I remember\r\n it.  When people have actually done clever studies on flash-bulb \r\nmemories to look and see whether our intuitive beliefs about how \r\naccurate they are match up with their true accuracy, they find out that \r\nthe flash-bulb memories are not really any more accurate than ordinary \r\neveryday memories. 

One especially interesting study was done by\r\n Ulrich Neisser, who had also done, long ago, the study that inspired \r\nour gorilla study.  He actually, after the Challenger space shuttle \r\nexploded in 1986, the very next day he went to a class full of students \r\nand had them write down all this information.  Where they were, who they\r\n were with, how they heard about it, and so on.  And then followed up \r\nseveral years later before they graduated college and had them recall it\r\n again.  Found out that their recall, years later, did not really match \r\nwhat they had written down the day after, but their confidence was \r\nextremely high.  They were sure that that’s exactly how they remembered \r\nit.  They had no doubt, whereas, of course they couldn’t tell you what \r\nthey were doing the day before the Challenger exploded or the day after \r\nthe Challenger exploded, just like all of us probably have no memory of \r\nwhat was going on, on September 10, 2001.  So, the thing about \r\nflash-bulb memories that really makes them sort of deceptive is that \r\nthey’re no more accurate than ordinary memories, they’re subject to the \r\nsame kind of distortions that just happen in time to all of our \r\nmemories, but we’re more confident in them because they’re so vivid and \r\nthey’re so detailed and we sort of place, really, unwarranted faith in \r\nthem.

If these kinds of highly vivid memories aren’t reliable, \r\nare any memories reliable? 

Christopher Chabris: Memory\r\n is not a complete fraud, we do remember some things.  It’s not as \r\nthough everything in our memory is a distortion and inaccurate and so \r\non.  One thing that’s been learned from a lot of research on memory over\r\n decades is that memory for the jest of something, for the main idea, is\r\n much better than memory for specific details. 

Memory for \r\ndetails can change and fade over time.  Memory for sort of main ideas, \r\nthemes, emotional experiences, probably nobody really misremembers how \r\nthey felt on September 11, but they might misremember where they were, \r\nwho told them about it, and details like that.  Especially the farther \r\naway they are from the epicenter of events.  But they’re not going to \r\nforget how they felt on that day as easily. 

So, sort of the \r\noverall message often comes through, but the details can change and fade\r\n over time.  The problem, of course, is that we don’t realize that.  So,\r\n we can get into big arguments over the details of memories, who said \r\nwhat to whom, when did they say it?  Exactly what was said before that, \r\nwhat was said after that.  Think about how many arguments you’ve gotten \r\ninto over the course of your life where that’s what’s going on and those\r\n are kind of silly arguments because nobody can really trust their \r\nmemory as much as they claim to in the heat of the moment.

How do errors in film continuity relate to illusions and \r\nmemory errors?

\r\nChristopher Chabris:
A surprising fact about memory is that our \r\nmemories can be pretty weak even for things that just happened a couple \r\nof seconds ago, and really a timeframe when you would think that memory \r\nshould be pretty good.  It’s one thing for memory to fade after a few \r\nyears, but it’s another thing to get completely erased after a couple of\r\n seconds.  And a great example of how this can happen is shown in films \r\nevery day.  Every movie that you watch has what are called "continuity \r\nerrors," and there are catalogues of these on the web.  You can and type\r\n in any movie name you want and find all the mistakes that the film \r\neditors made.  Now, sometimes they realize they were making those \r\nmistakes, but they knew that most people wouldn’t see them.  and in \r\nfact, when you watch movies, you hardly ever notice a continuity error \r\nbecause you’re paying attention to the plot and the action and the \r\ncharacters and so on and you don’t notice that, for example, in the \r\n“Godfather” there’s a glass of wine on the table in one scene and when \r\nthe camera comes back to it, it’s gone, and then when the camera comes \r\nback again, it’s back again.  But those are really sort of failures of \r\nmemory. 

You looked at that scene and you felt like you were \r\ntaking it all in, and then when you came back to it from a different \r\ncamera angle, or from a cut, you didn’t bother to match up your previous\r\n memory to what was then on the screen afterward, or you didn’t even \r\nstore as much detail about it in the first place as you thought you \r\ndid.  You might not have actually even stored the information about the \r\nwine glass even though you paid attention to it at the time. 

So\r\n it’s one thing to pay attention to things and notice them, but it’s a \r\nwhole other thing to get them into memory and this phenomenon of \r\ncontinuity errors and how many changes we can miss as a video cuts from \r\none angle to the other, from one scene back to another, illustrates \r\nanother aspect of the illusion of memory.

Recorded May 13, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

We are more likely to believe the veracity of intense "flash-bulb memories"—yet these are just as likely as normal memories to be distorted over time.

Related Articles

A controversial theory claims past, present, and future exist at the same time

Our experience of time may be blinding us to its true nature, say scientists.

Back to the Future.
Surprising Science
  • Time may not be passing at all, says the Block Universe Theory.
  • Time travel may be possible.
  • Your perception of time is likely relative to you and limited.
Keep reading Show less

Six disastrous encounters with the world’s most hostile uncontacted tribe

From questionable shipwrecks to outright attacks, they clearly don't want to be bothered.

Culture & Religion
  • Many have tried to contact the Sentinelese, to write about them, or otherwise.
  • But the inhabitants of the 23 square mile island in the Bay of Bengal don't want anything to do with the outside world.
  • Their numbers are unknown, but either 40 or 500 remain.
Keep reading Show less