Not so total recall

The day JFK was shot. The Challenger disaster. September 11. Ask most people to tell you about highly charged emotional events, and, even many years after the fact, you'll get a picture that seems stunningly clear.

Subjects remained convinced that they remembered their emotions accurately.

Psychologists term this kind of recall "flashbulb memory." But is it more accurate than our memories of run-of-the-mill events? In a study about recollections of 9/11, a team of psychologists, including Yale's Marcia K. Johnson showed that the answer is no. (The work appears in the May Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.)

The researchers developed a questionnaire to test recall 1 week, 11 months, and 35 months after the attacks. (The intervals were chosen to avoid anniversary news coverage.) Almost 400 people completed the surveys. The results showed that the pattern of forgetting -- both of facts and of a subject's own emotions -- "looks like what we see in normal memories," says Johnson. "Most of the forgetting happens early and then levels off."

Subjects corrected some erroneous memories of the facts over time, due to conversations and media accounts. But they remained convinced that they remembered their emotions accurately. "If something seems vivid and detailed, you feel it must be real," says Johnson. "Your internal fact-checker is fooled." 

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