If you ask any American over 18 if they remember where they were and what they were doing the morning of September 11th, most will answer with total confidence. It’s become a sign of respect to “never forget” what happened that September morning, but it turns out that many of us have forgotten but just don’t realize it yet.
Memories surrounding emotional events, like September 11th, are known as flashbulb memories. They are marked by a major occurrence, like the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a national emergency. What may feel like a vivid, permanent memory may in fact be completely false, no matter how real it may seem.
Flashbulb memories were first studied after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Roger Brown and James Kulik, Harvard researchers, noticed that people had particularly strong memories of where they were when they learned the horrible news. There is something inherently different of flashbulb memories that make them seem resistant to erosion, most likely do to the personal and national relevance of the event.
As clear as the memories feel, Brown and Bulk set up an experiment that asked volunteers about how well they remembered Kennedy’s assassination. The same people were studied over time, and the study found that people feel very strongly that their flashbulb memories are crystal clear, while they in fact erode over time just like your memory of Christmas 8 years ago.
After the 9/11 attacks, researchers began to study people across the country, asking subject where they were when they heard about the attacks. They asked the students the same questions one week, 6 weeks, and 32 weeks later, and details in the memories started changing profoundly. Even so, the people felt very certain that they were recalling the exact moment correctly.
Flashbulb memories are different than regular memories because people are resistant to forgetting important events.
William Hirst, a psychologist at the New School in New York City, said that “people are extremely confident in the accuracy of these not-necessarily-accurate memories… People began to tell what I would call a canonical story. The error they made at 11 months and the error they made at 35 months was the same.”
Hirst said our hindsight changes our memories of emotional events, making our reactions seem more appropriate or more dramatic. People tend to think they felt the same way about it in 2001 as they do now, but their emotions have changed, which changes the memory.
Elizabeth Phelps, a New York psychologist, thinks that the news has changed people’s memories. “They didn’t see the building fall, they heard about it and looked at the news like everybody else in the world”.
National events such as 9/11 have a major effect on American pride. That first moment when you heard about the attack marks your sense of identity as an American citizen, and when people don’t have a very clear memory, they tend to form one based around the news and stories they have heard.