Cognitive Psychology

Flashbulb Memory Explains Why 300,000 #COVID19 Dead and 3,000+ Deaths Per Day Are Not As Memorable As 9/11 Was

We were living in Busan, South Korea and my brother-in-law and his friend had come to visit. We had been out having dinner and stopped off for a few drinks on the way home. Just as we arrived another friend rang up and said, “Some maniac just flew a plane into the World Trade Center! They’re showing it on the TV here at the bar. I thought you’d want to know.” I can still remember my shocked disbelief and stammering something like, “You’re not serious! Really?” And, as my computer screen took an agonizingly long time in loading wondering if a major node of the Internet had been destroyed was part of the reason.

I remember thinking that I had to be strong and in control because… I don’t know why, I’m the oldest man in the group? I was the head of the foreign faculty at our university? I was married and my stalwart unbending full of piss-and-vinegar French Canadian wife would need me to be strong? That I should have all the answers and understand this situation when it was completely and utterly not understandable. I don’t know, but it was a major part of my reaction. Maybe because it was so utterly shocking that I felt like I could easily fall apart if I didn’t?

We broke out the booze and watched on the computer until we could no longer stand the tortuously slow refreshing speed and endless buffering of the live feed and decided to go back to the bar to watch with everyone else.

The question is why is 9/11 blazoned so clearly in my head but I can’t remember the first day that we reached a death toll of 3,000, what I was doing when I heard we had gone over 300,000 dead, where I was when we broke the 10 million, 15 million, and 16 million infections barriers. How are those memories different than those of 9/11? Those #COVID19 moments are equally as tragic and significant to me personally and to our country, so why is one so vividly and easily recalled and the other so fuzzy? I feel almost guilty because it is, though.

It’s not like my only clear memory of 9/11 is the day of the event, the moment it happened, either. One crystal clear memory is watching the news the day after when the family of occupants of the building were down there looking for the missing. One family in particular was looking for their sister who had called them shortly after the plane had hit her building. She was above the floor where the plane hit and, so, couldn’t make her way down. They had been instructed to shelter in place, which she did. Her sister was sure she had survived some how even though her last words are on the phone were something like, “It is getting hot. The fire is coming. It is near. It’s hot. It’s here. It’s here.” I can remember her description of her sister’s last words and her stubborn optimism that she had survived like it happened yesterday. It broke my heart then and it does now.

Please leave your 9/11 memories in the comments. I’d love to hear what you were doing when you found out and other significant memories you have of 9/11.

#COVID19 Pandemic Memories

So, what is up with our #COVID19-related memories? It’s not like these are insignificant events devoid of emotion. We’ve recorded record numbers of daily infections, deaths, and hospitalizations recently. Those records are routinely broken, usually the next day. I mean, those records are piling up faster than the bodies at the morgue — Or is that too soon? Okay, probably, too soon. Sorry y’all. Just stow that one in the freezer truck until it isn’t. Too soon, too? Damn. Sorry. Really. I am.

I don’t know about you, but I’m shocked and appalled by two things: (1) We have 300,000+ dead in this country and 16 million+ infections. I am reduced to tears of grief, frustration, and disbelief each and every day because of it. How the fuck is that possible in the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid. And (2) there are 74 million+ Americans who are not only okay with it, but think we should do more of the same for four more years. I weep tears of shame every single day because of it. How the fuck is that possible unless we really are the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid?

You know, Trump’s America where up is down, and down, up; white is black, and black, white; now is later, and later, now; routine is shocking, and shocking, routine. It’s like the Red Queen, Voldemort, and Sauron all won. It just doesn’t seem possible. The #Resistance was all fun and games until 300,000 fucking people died. Now, we’re plunged into some dystopian alternate universe of despair and misery holding on by our fingernails until Inauguration Day.

Many pundits have gotten great mileage out of saying that we’re losing a 9/11’s worth of Americans every day. And, memes noting the most American lives lost on a single day have been circulating on all the social medias.

God help us if we ever reach a daily death count that tops the Great Storm of 1900. Of course, if we do, it will probably be after Inauguration Day and the Repubes will be crying bitter crocodile tears and gnashing their teeth and rending their clothes lamenting the #BidenHarris failure in addressing the covfefevirus and soundly condemning his team for their failures. You now at 12:01 PM on 20 January 2021, the Repubes are going to be demanding that #BidenHarris do something and noting all the failure and limiting spending because oh-my-god deficits. But, I digress.

Flashbulb Memories

Particularly sharp enduring memories that we form like those on 9/11 are called flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories were first described by Brown and Kulik in 1977. They have been studied extensively since then. They are a specialized form of memory that occur when events have personal significance and strong emotional content. These memories seem to share specific details like the location the person is when the memory formed, who the person was with, and what they were doing. There are several events that are often cited as examples: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, the Oklahoma City bombing, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the election of Obama in 2008, the Paris terrorist attack in November 2015.

Please tell us about your flashbulb memories in the comments.

Strong Emotion and Flashbulb Memories

There are other interesting details that distinguish flashbulb memories from regular run-of-the-mill garden-variety memories. They have a distinct neurological pathway which is activated by the strong emotions we experience during the event. It creates the long-lasting fragmented memories. While these memories are enduring, vivid, fragmented, and emotional, they are no more accurate than any other memory even though we feel like they are more accurate.

Personal Significance Produces Rumination and Discussion of Flashbulb Memories

One of the best explanations of the enduring nature of flashbulb memories and our inaccurate feelings of accuracy is that we seem to ruminate and discuss flashbulb memories more than our other memories. It is because of their personal significance to us that we discuss them so often.

Because they are formed with such strong emotions, they have stronger connections to other memories and thus are more easily triggered through associations, so we end up discussing them and thinking about them more than other memories. We know that (a) the more often a memory is recalled, the stronger the memory is and (b) that memories can become distorted through the recall and re-storage process. Each time a memory is recalled, it is stored anew, which means that the emotions you’re feeling at the time and new information available to you can be included in the memory giving it the illusion of truthiness but robbing it of some of its accuracy. Flashbulb memories are not immune to this process.

When the attack on 9/11 occurred, it was all we talked about for weeks. It had happened to all of us, collectively, as Americans. When you met someone, you wanted to know what they were doing when they found out. You repeated your stories to each other over and over again. When you met acquaintances and others you just didn’t see that often, like when I saw my mother or my in-laws that year, we told those stories again. It’s the same for any of those emotionally charged events. The strength of the emotion combined with the personal significance causes us to think about it and talk about it frequently.

Flashbulb memories start out as strong memories with strong links between the elements of the memory and the rest of our associative network. We tend to rehearse the memory immediately reliving it, telling the story to ourselves and others. And, if it is a public event with personal significance to a large number of people, we tend to talk about it with them and hear it about in the media. All of these things combine to produce a vivid long-lasting fragmented memory.

#COVID19 and Flashbulb Memories

When we turn our attention back to the #COVID19 pandemic debacle, we can begin to see why the individual record breaking days do not qualify for flashbulb memories. There is no singular moment when you found out. There was not a collective holding of our breathe waiting to see what would happen next. Unless someone told you, you didn’t know many of these records were broken. And, now that the Thanksgiving surge is here to be followed by the Christmas surge to be followed by the New Years surge, those records will be broken again and again. There isn’t a moment to fix in your memory a la 9/11 or Obama winning the presidency.

Worse, since it has been so badly politicized, the MAGA crowd don’t feel any emotion or personal significance associated with #COVID19, so when we hear about 300,000 dead Americans, it is through that filter. It does not bind us in our grief as Americans like other events of this magnitude did.

There isn’t a strong emotion associated with it either. Tragic as it is, the pandemic has been going on for ten months. We’ve been hearing about infections, deaths, and hospitalizations everyday for ten months. You can only be on high alert for so long. You have to plateau, you have to habituate to it, you have to become numb. Those strong emotions just aren’t there unless you have a very personal story to tell — which, if you do, then you will have a flashbulb memory — but for everyone who hasn’t met personal tragedy in this pandemic, we won’t. I really hope I haven’t offended anyone who has been touched by #COVID19.

I will always remember sitting with my sister in her oncologists office when he suggested to her that she discontinue her chemo treatments. She accepted with the caveat that she could start them again. The glance that the doctor and I shared told me that she was not likely to ever restart them and that the end was near. I understood in that moment that she needed the comfort of the prospect of re-starting those treatments to face her own mortality. That’s a very personal flashbulb memory that I have only ruminated on but never discussed with anyone. Anyone having a similar moment with #COVID19 has my deepest empathy and respect, but, not everyone will have such a memory.

Now that the vaccines are being distributed and given, many people might could have a flashbulb memory of seeing the trucks pull away from the distribution centers, watching the hand-trucks being wheeled into buildings, and healthcare workers being given the vaccine. Those were emotional scenes of relief and hope that we all need to buoy our spirits during these very dark times.

I would love to hear your stories of where you were and what you were doing when you saw the vaccines being distributed or any other flashbulb memories you have to share or any thoughts you have on how the #COVID19 tragedy is playing out in the comments.

Image Attribution

“Sylvania Blue Dot Flashbulbs” by Randy Heinitz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

9 replies »

  1. I was a Freshman in college at George Washington U. in DC when JFK was killed, and for the aftermath and funeral. That is burned into memory. A year earlier, as a Senior in High School it was The Cuban Missile Crisis and there were kids weeping in fear in the halls, afraid we were all going to die. Another one that sticks as clearly was the Loma Prieta earthquake in ’89 for which I was working 15 miles from the epicenter. These kinds of events become punctuation marks in the time line of our lives, the “before-and-after” points when our world changes suddenly and irreversibly. The COVID pandemic will have a similar status only when it has passed. Those who talk of a return to normal can only ever be partly right. The ways this will change us forever are yet to be known.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 09/11/2001, Cottonwood, AZ, morning: I heard about the first plane on the radio (I rarely but on the TV during the day.) and turned on the TV about the time the second plane hit. Watching that seemed as if in slow motion. Time was stretched the way it can be in dreams, or high on pot, or tripping, adding to the surrealism of the thing. I wasn’t scheduled to work that day, having finished a 72 hour on-call shift the day before. Still, I waited for a call that the crisis service at our clinic was overwhelmed. It didn’t happen, I think because, like me, everybody was glued to their TV. Watching those buildings crumble brought thoughts of how fragile our constructions and monuments really are, how vulnerable we each can be in so many ways; how we can all at some scale become Ozymandias and empires turn to dust.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!
      I think we were all riveted to whatever device would disseminate news at the time. I remember schools had the TVs on for children to watch until the images got to be too gruesome and frightening for them. It was just one of those moments when everyone literally felt as one. Luckily, those moments have been few and far between for us as a country: Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and 9/11. I can’t think of another that seemed to touch everyone living at that moment.

      While the country unified after Pearl Harbor to carry on and fight WWII and support LBJ, the unity didn’t last long after 9/11. Social media and profiteering off of negative divisive emotions is just too strong of a magnate for people not to fan the flames of division and hate using whatever is possible. Now our instinct is to use whatever is available to attack the other side and win political points. The #COVID19 pandemic is the perfect case in point. With millions suffering needlessly over the past ten months from the disease, hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, and tens of millions suffering economically, emotionally, and socially, we can’t come together and fight the disease, we have to fight each other instead.


      Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      I’ve worked those on-call shifts before. They were the worst. You never knew when you were going to be needed so you were just left to putter around the house until the next call came in. The shifts that were busy were always the best since the time passed quickly and I felt like I wasn’t just wasting my time.

      Now, as I sit here in Cambodia, unemployed with lots of time on my hands, I wouldn’t mind picking up some of those on-call shifts not because I feel like I’m wasting my time. Quite the contrary, I feel busy and vital it’s just that blogging and housework are so fungible that it would be easily workable together.



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