January 8, 2008

Kira Moore ’09 Measures Accuracy of ‘Flashbulb Memories’

Neuroscience major is performing EXCEL research with Jennifer Talarico, assistant professor of psychology

Kira Moore ’09 (Lincoln Park, N.J.) is a Marquis Scholar majoring in neuroscience. This year, she is working as an EXCEL Scholar with Jennifer Talarico, assistant professor of psychology, on the project “Freshman Flashbulbs: Vivid Memories of Starting College.” The following is a first-hand account of Moore’s experiences with the project.

If you were to ask people about their memories of Sept. 11, chances are they would quickly tell you a very thorough, coherent story of their recollection of that day’s events, particularly the circumstances in which they learned of the tragedy. For members of older generations, the same question could be asked of the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and many other events of national significance.

These easily recalled, detailed memories of a significant event are known as “flashbulb memories,” which is a term originally coined by researchers Brown and Kulik in their groundbreaking 1977 paper on the phenomenon. These memories are emotionally vivid and often described as resembling that of a photograph in that the individual can remember with strong confidence his or her memory of the event. Such details that are generally cited by individuals recounting a flashbulb memory are who they were with, what they were doing, where they were, exactly when (time of day, following what activity, etc.) they learned of the event, and any emotions they felt.

Research in the years following this pioneering paper showed that flashbulb memories are not necessarily remembered with a greater accuracy than ordinary autobiographical memories. The difference is that individuals display a perceived accuracy for flashbulb events that is much higher than those for a commonplace occurrence. It has also been questioned whether memories that are personally significant, but of no great national or historical importance, can satisfy the criteria necessary to be considered “flashbulb memories.”

This brings me to the EXCEL project I have been working on with Professor Jennifer Talarico. “Freshman Flashbulbs: Vivid Memories of Starting College” is exploring the memories of first-year students concerning the beginning of their college experience. We have been analyzing these memories to determine their emotional intensity and perceived accuracy, as well as if they satisfy the basic who, what, when, where type criteria of flashbulb memories.

This project is ongoing, but early results have shown that while flashbulb memories do not show fewer inconsistencies than everyday memories, participants do perceive them as more vivid and are more confident in their accuracy than routine events.

I have enjoyed working on this project a great deal as it has opened up an entirely new area of academic pursuit. Having the opportunity to explore beyond textbooks and theories to see how scientific research is conducted has been fascinating to me. I am eager to continue conducting research in my remaining time at Lafayette. Professor Talarico is a wonderful mentor as she offers the perfect balance of intellectual challenge and encouragement. This project has also helped me to hone my critical thinking skills, which will become increasingly more important for me in my career plans.

Moore is a member of Psi Chi, the psychology national honor society, and the Order of Omega, a Greek leadership honor society. She is vice president of public relations for Delta Delta Delta sorority and secretary of the Lafayette Society of Neuroscience. Moore has served as an orientation leader, a campus tour guide, and a volunteer with the Landis Community Outreach Center.

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