Cognition and Emotion – flashbulb memories

By Saturday, February 1, 2014 , , 0

This is a part of the syllabus that can be seen as complex by many students. One way in is to look first at Brown and Kulik’s (1977) argument regarding flashbulb memory. This allows students to meet two learning outcomes:

  • With reference to relevant research studies, to what extent is one cognitive process reliable?
  • Evaluate one theory of how emotion may affect one cognitive process.

There is a lot of material that is helpful here. This video is a good one to play as students enter the class, to introduce the topic, though the Sep 11th 2001 attacks on New York are the only ones that will be within their memory.

The debate is whether emotion not only makes the memory more vivid (researchers are generally agreed that it does) but also whether it makes it more accurate. This is where Brown and Kulik have been heavily criticised by Neisser (1982) and Neisser and Harsch (1992).  Their research suggests that the memory feels more accurate because it is so vivid, but actually is no more likely to be accurate that any other memory, and certainly is not qualitatively different.

Talarico and Rubin (2003) point out that “confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories.”

An excellent article by Daniel Greenberg (2004) explores President Bush’s different accounts of his memory of 9/11 This of course all fits within Loftus’s theory of false memory, with a flashbulb memory being very much like an emotion-filled eye-witness testimony.

It is hard to be sure of the accuracy of personal flash bulb memories, but an interesting exercise is to ask your students to speak to a sibling or parent about a shared family memory, and explore the differences found in the personal recollections.

This song about photographs and memories seems particularly appropriate. (I personally prefer Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” bit I think that’s the wrong generation for most students).


Tips on how to proceed with Cognition and Emotion
1. Use Lazarus and Folkman (1984) cognitive appraisal theory (see the OSC student blog for this month for materials). The role of music in films and its generation of emotion is particularly relevant here.
2. Introduce LeDoux and the biological and cognitive factors in emotion, including the “short route” and the “long route” to the amygdala.
3. Make everything as relevant as possible to the students’ own lives.


1 Comment
  • Eileen Dombrowski
    February 3, 2014

    Thank you, Laura, for a splendid post on emotion and memory. I’m sure that you realize that you are dealing with two of the TOK ways of knowing in the version of the course that has just started rolling. Your comments are valuable for any TOK teacher dealing with the interaction of ways of knowing, and many of the complexities of justifying knowledge claims.

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