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One theory of how emotion affects the cognitive process of memory is flashbulb memory. It is a theory that was suggested by Brown and Kulik (1977). Flashbulb memories are emotional memories that are both vivid and detailed that are formed after a highly emotional event. These memories are recorded in the brain like a picture, hence the name. Flashbulb memory theory has features that make it unique to other memories. They are more vivid, accurate, consistent, last longer and are easier to remember. This is different from normal memories that tend to be selective, unreliable and are easily changed/distorted.
Some events stand out in the memory more than others. When events occur, the person experiences a high emotional state, whether it be extreme happiness or extreme sadness. It is this high emotional state that causes the event to become imprinted in the memory. Events can either be personal or something that affects the world. An example of this would be the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 or the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
Flashbulb Memory was first demonstrated by Brown and Kulik in a study that they conducted in 1977. The aim of their study was to investigate flashbulb memories and to determine how it works. There were 80 American participants that were used in the experiment. Half of them were African Americans and the other half were Caucasian Americans. The participants were given 10 questions to answer about different events. Out of the 10 events, 9 of them were assassinations (or attempts) of well-known American public figures. The last event was one was a personal event that each of the participants chose. This even had to have involve “self-shock.” The participants were then asked how much they went over these events, either overtly (discussing with other people) or covertly (thinking about it privately).
The findings showed that 90% of the participants were able to recall what happened with regards to J.F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. African Americans recalled more flashbulb memory of assassinations of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King more than the Caucasian Americans did. For the tenth event, the one which was self-selected, the majority of the participants recalled shocking events such as the death of a parent.
This study supported Brown and Kulik’s (1977) theories of flashbulb memory. It showed that they were formed in situations in which we receive surprising and highly emotional information. Flashbulb memory are maintained by both overt (discussing memory with others) and covert (private) rehearsal. A specialized neural mechanism is involved in the creation of flashbulb memories. This neural mechanism stores information permanently in a unique memory system.
One strength of flashbulb memory theory is that most of the studies involve real life events (it’s naturalistic) and people’s reactions and memories concerning them. This means that the ecological validity of these studies are high. One weakness of this theory is that these studies are not as reliable because they can’t be duplicated. It is therefore impossible to see if the results are consistent. Flashbulb memories can also be affected by emotions because memory is either enhanced or repressed through rehearsal.
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