Is There a Special Flashbulb-Memory Mechanism?

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Many people report vivid recollections of the circumstances in which they learned of major events, such as the assassination of President Kennedy, or the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Brown and Kulik (1977) argued that this phenomenon, which they labeled flashbulb memory, implies the existence of a special memory mechanism that creates a detailed, permanent record of the individual's experience when triggered by an event exceeding criterial levels of surprise and consequentiality. In this article we evaluate the special-mechanism hypothesis, arguing on empirical and logical grounds that the flashbulb-memory phenomenon does not motivate the postulation of a special flashbulb-memory mechanism. We suggest instead that flashbulb memories should be viewed as products of “ordinary” memory mechanisms, and hence as phenomena that may offer insights into the nature of these mechanisms.

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