Flashbulb Memory Theory (Brown and Kulik, 1977)

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Studies and Theories

Most Americans born before 1955 will remember vivid details about when they heard JFK was shot. Do you have any flashbulb memories?

Flashbulb memories are memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event.” (Brown and Kulik, 1977).

For example, remembering where you were when you found out you got accepted into your dream college, that a loved one had passed away or a public news event like the death of a celebrity. This definition is important to remember, as many people mistakenly define FBMs as memories of an event. Remember, an FBM is not a memory of an event – it’s the memory of circumstances surrounding hearing news of the event.

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This theory can be used to show how emotion may affect cognition.

FBM theory claims that two significant factors lead to FBMs being created:

(a) a high level of surprise,

(b) high levels of emotion.

If these two variables are not present there won’t be FBM creation. This is because the surprise and emotion lead to increase rehearsal of the memory, both overtly (publicly) and covertly (internally). This rehearsal is what strengthens the memory.

This video explains FBM Theory and how emotion can affect cognition.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjzglgx-SRE]

The final claim of the theory is that there is a physiological process that facilitates the creation and consolidation of FBMs. Even though Brown and Kulik admitted in their original 1977 paper that there was limited evidence for this neuro-physiological correlation with FBMs, more modern research could provide some support for this claim.

Unbeliveable! Young Shocked Surprised Man In Glasses Looking On

I can vividly picture where I was when I was playing an online quiz game on Facebook ten years ago, when I found out Heath Ledger died as it was one of the quiz questions.

According to Brown and Kulik, FBMs often include these features:

  • the place where the news was heard (Place)
  • the person who supplied the information (Informant)
  • what they were doing at the time of hearing the news (Ongoing event)
  • their emotional state upon receiving the news (Own affect)
  • the emotional state of others (Affect of others)
  • the consequences of the event for the individual (aftermath)

To summarize, when describing FBM theory make sure you include:

  1. An accurate definition of an FBM
  2. An explanation of how surprise and emotion lead to increased rehearsal, thus forming the FBM.
  3. The neuro-physiological claim made in the theory.
  4. Some of the key details of memory that are recalled in an FBM

Brown, Roger, and James Kulik. “Flashbulb Memories.” Cognition, vol. 5, no. 1, 1977, pp. 73–99.

This video from our youtube channel will help show you how to use FBM to discuss how cultural factors can affect cognition.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWy6OUnFMek&w=560&h=315]