Sept. 11 memories are vivid, but study shows they are flawed


How a first-grade student at Newark's Abingdon Avenue School remembers the Sept. 11 attacks, drawn one year later. (MIKE DERER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Everyone can remember what they were doing that day just before they heard the news on television or when they saw the twin towers burn. I can remember no buses or cabs available to get to school in Chicago, clutching my brown bag lunch as I panicked about being late, and noticing a strange silence in the city that didn’t seem quite right.

But was that precisely how it went? A new study from New York University shows that while vivid, our memories of 9/11 may be flawed, the Scientific American reports.

Decades ago, psychologists said that sudden, tragic events leave highly emotional memories, called “flashbulb memories.” NYU’s study — which surveyed more than 3,000 people in eight cities at intervals of one week, one year and three years after the attack — suggests that flashbulb memories aren’t necessarily accurate.

New York University psychologist Elizabeth A. Phelps, a lead investigator of the survey, told the Scientific American that “emotion kind of focuses you on a few details but lets you ignore other details ... emotion gives you a stronger confidence in your memory than it does necessarily in the accuracy.”

Phelps explains that usually, if someone is confident in the details they remember, they are likely to be right. Unless, that is, it’s a highly emotional memory. In that case, confidence doesn’t necessarily mean accuracy. I’m confident I was holding a brown bag lunch that day, but it could have also been in my backpack.

Phelps also points out that while we are more likely to remember the important details of 9/11 than we are some neutral event, that doesn’t mean you remember all of them.

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