- So-called flashbulb memories actually fade considerably even though, paradoxically, they seem so vivid that we hold a misguided confidence in their fidelity.
- Emotion produces a kind of tunnel memory, boosting recall of central objects but allowing people to forget surrounding details.
- Putting a positive spin on a bad situation—a technique called cognitive reappraisal—can both enhance accuracy in emotional memories and diminish their negative overtones.
On September 11, 2001, Elizabeth A. Phelps stepped outside her apartment in lower Manhattan and noticed a man staring toward the World Trade Center, about two miles away. Looking up, “I just saw this big, burning hole,” Phelps recalls. The man told her that he had just seen a large airplane crash into one of the skyscrapers. Thinking it was a horrible accident, Phelps started walking to work, a few blocks away, for a 9 a.m. telephone meeting. By the time she reached her eighth-floor office at New York University, a second jet had struck the other tower, which collapsed after an hour. Later, she saw the remaining tower fall.
Like Phelps, many Americans have searing memories of that day. In your mind’s eye, you can probably relive the moment you first learned of the terrorist attacks: where you were, what you were doing, the shock or fear you experienced. Yet chances are that although they feel real and true, our memories of 9/11 are riddled with errors. “I remember all those details; I’m certain that I’m right,” says Phelps, a psychologist. “But the data suggest I’m not.”