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JFK before assassination
Human feelings are the bridge between 20th Century humans and our primal ancestors, who hunted, scavenged, and gathered food on the African plains more than a million years ago. Like screams and gentle whispers from the past, the fears and hopes that fill our mind are first evoked by the very same circumstances that dictated life or death on the African savanna. - Victor S. Johnston, author, "Why We Feel-The Science of Human Emotion"

The following are excerpts from "Searching for Memory," Daniel L. Schacter, M.D.

"Emotional Memories - When the Past Persists"

Flashbulb Memories - Where Were You Then?

In 1977, the psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulick attempted to define people's recollections of the John F. Kennedy assassination when they referred to them as "flashbulb memories." They suggested that a novel and shocking event activates a special brain mechanism, which they referred to as "Now Print." Much like a camera's flashbulb, Brown and Kulick hypothesized, the Now Print mechanism preserves or "freezes" whatever happens at the moment when we learn of the shocking event.

Dr. Schacter recalls his own flashbulb memory of the JFK assassination:

"I do not remember much of what happened just before or after the stunning announcement, but an image of the moment when I first learned the news has remained fixed in my mind for over thirty years. For many of us, the memory of that November afternoon in 1963 feels as though it has been frozen forever in photographic form, unaffected by the ravages of time that erode and degrade most other memories."

Brown and Kulick did not query participants in their study about the JFK assassination until years after the event. To evaluate the accuracy of a flashbulb memory, we need some way to check the accuracy of a person's recollection. Subsequent researchers have investigated memories for flashbulb events--the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Gulf War in 1991--by obtaining recollections from people within a few days or weeks after the event. What researchers have learned about these flashbulb memories are quite interesting and are summarized as follows:

  • Some flashbulb memories are indeed accurate and persistent.

  • Yet even some highly consequential flashbulb events are not wholly unaffected by the passage of time that weakens other memories.

  • Some flashbulb memories are far from photographic preservations of the original scene.

So, our latest research shows that though flashbulb memories remain some of the most lasting memories we hold, they are still subject to decay. In fact, it is doubtful whether such memories are preserved by the Now Print mechanism that Brown and Kulick envisaged. The key to understanding how these type of memories are preserved over time is to understand the level of emotional arousal they produced, and the strengthening of the memory through repeated discussion of the event in sharing it with others. Thus, it is clear that the emotions elicited by a flashbulb event also increase its memorability.

Personally Traumatic Memories - How Accurate Are They?

Some researchers have adopted the view that memory for emotionally traumatic events is accurately preserved--perhaps forever--in great detail, and therefore differs fundamentally from memory for nonemotional events, which is subject to decay and distortion. There is a good deal of merit to this view: memory for emotional trauma is frequently more accurate than memory for ordinary events. But even personally traumatic memories are sometimes subject to distortion. One might ask: "How can a particular memory be precise, detailed, and at the same time wrong?" One researcher, Lenore Terr, conducted a study that revealed evidence memory distortions of a traumatic event can be caused by the stress of the shocking episode.

Our Brain's Emotional Computer - The Amygdala

The release of stress-related hormones, signaled by the brain's emotional computer, the amygdala, probably accounts for some of the extraordinary power and persistence that characterize many highly emotional or traumatic experiences. Just like our more mundane memories, recollections of emotional traumas are constructions, not literal recordings. The amygdala works cooperatively with many other brain structures in order to assemble emotional memories.


"Searching for Memory, the Brain, the Mind and the Past,
Daniel L. Schacter - BasicBooks, 1996

Why We Feel - The Science of Human Emotions
Victor S. Johnston, 1999, Perseus Books Group