On a Wednesday afternoon in early March of 2020, I sat amongst my friends, professor and a guest speaker in the computer lab on the first floor of the Machinery Building. Everyone’s phones simultaneously started to buzz in the middle of the lecture. We looked down to see a notification from the Office of the Provost, stating that, due to the coronavirus outbreak, classes were cancelled for two weeks and the rest of the semester would be conducted online.
We read the email out loud to one another, chatting about what this would mean for our plans. I wondered if I would still be able to report for work (I wouldn’t). My friends talked about their spring break trip to Europe, and if their flights would get cancelled (they were). My professor questioned the next time she’d be able to teach in a classroom again (the verdict is still out on that one).
Those aren’t the only details I remember. I can close my eyes and see where I went after receiving the news (my friends’ townhouse), remember the dinner I had (dumplings), remember the phone call I had with my parents about what to do (I thought I’d stay in Brooklyn, but ended up staying only three weeks). I remember going to bed unsure about what to expect, but confident that I wouldn’t forget whatever was coming.
For my thesis project, I’ve been looking at the way we preserve sentiment and emotions, whether through keeping mementos or posting on social media. Our brain already has a built-in preservation system, keeping memories that we may not want. Though I usually have terrible memory, the details of finding out that Pratt was closing remain vivid because of a phenomenon called the Flashbulb Effect.
Conceptualized by psychologists Brown and Kulik, the Flashbulb Effect theory states that when we hear surprising or emotionally arousing news, our mind takes a “snapshot” of the moment we are in. Flashbulb memories are autobiographical, as they rely on the personal experiences and emotions attached to them. The theory states that there are six defining characteristics that we remember: place, informant, ongoing activity, our reaction, others’ reactions and immediate aftermath. Try to think about where you were when you heard the news and see if you can identify those six elements for your experience.
In an experiment conducted in the United Kingdom, people were tested to see if they were able to recall details from the moment they heard about Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. Researchers compared participants' answers directly after the event and, eleven months later, found that 86% of those who were from the UK had accurate flashbulb memories while only 29% of those outside the UK had accurate memories. This proved that having a personal connection to these memories is key to its retention.
I learned about this theory in high school, and it’s something I continuously revisit, especially when reflecting on emotional experiences. It’s a wonder to think about how the mind retains information and how sentiment plays a role in that retention, as well as the uniqueness of the memories themselves. Do you remember where you were when you heard that Joe Biden won the election? How about when you first read your Pratt acceptance letter, or when you had a bad crit? What about when your last relationship ended? Do you have a vault of those sad and happy memories that you can never seem to shake?
The emotions we attach to certain memories are strong and subjective, persistent and permanent. Through studying flashbulb memory and the way that we retain memories depending on how emotionally important they are, perhaps we can learn to practice empathy. We don’t know what memories everyone keeps, what triggers them and what memories we ourselves have unintentionally created in someone else’s mind. To us, the things we do and say may not be significant, and they’ll be forgotten by us in a few minutes' time; to others, however, they may last a lifetime.
Art by Amber Duan