Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 January 2010
It is an old observation that life events attended by particular emotional or cognitive relevance leave behind ‘images’ or ‘memories’ which may include vivid background detail (normally not remembered) such as colour of clothes being worn at the time, weather conditions, background music, etc., etc. On account of this quality of being like a photograph such recollections have been called ‘flashbulb memories’ (Brown & Kulik, 1977). This metaphor has helped neither the description or understanding of this phenomenon. Equally unhelpful has been the fact that the original research was carried out on parochial American events which may have introduced into the structure of flashbulb memories some social ambiguity.
It is suggested in this chapter that, as far as psychiatry is concerned, ‘vivid personal memories’ should be studied against the wider canvas of other repetitive phenomena of the imagination such as drug flashbacks, palinopsia, palinacusis, tinnitus, post-traumatic memories, and the vivid memories of subjects suffering conditions such as phobias, panic attacks, obsessional disorder, phantom-limb phenomena, and depressive melancholia. The reason for this is twofold: first, that there is little evidence that flashbulb memories are a special phenomenon; secondly, that it is more parsimonious (and in keeping with empirical findings) to think that, like all other mnestic acts, flashbulb memories are also governed by the rules of narrative. The latter is particularly important for the very name of ‘flashbulb memories’ (and the fact that some have been reported as detail-perfect sensory images) may have caused the misleading impression that they: (a) may be impervious to the influence of narrative templates, and (b) constitute clinical evidence against a ‘reconstructivist’ view of memory.