In remembering 9/11 - how well do we actually remember?

That morning I was in the kitchen, busying myself with getting the kids organised for school, when I heard the radio commentators discussing “the terrible event” and “how it didn’t seem real”. What were they talking about? I turned on the TV and there it was in technicolour surrealism: an aeroplane crashing deliberately into the World Trade Centre. Still finding it difficult to comprehend what was happening, I scooped up the kids and headed off to the day’s work. During the day I listened to the continuing reports on the radio and watched the news that night with the video footage being replayed over and over in it’s ghastly montage.

Ten years on and we remember those events.

But how well do we actually remember them?

We know how flukey our memories are and how susceptible to change. Those memories with the strongest emotional attachment are supposedly the most robust – which is why it is easier for us to remember where we were and what we were doing at the time.

Psychologists have recently completed a ten year survey (not yet fully analysed) of 3000 people who were followed up after 9/11. Surveys were conducted at intervals of one week, one year, three years and now ten years after the event. This is the longest prospective study of how flashbulb memories erode over time.

A flashbulb memory is one created usually by a sudden traumatic and large-scale event, which metaphorically burns a unique mnemonic experience into our brain. The term came from the work of two psychologists Brown and Kulik in 1977, when they studied the impact on memory, following the assassination of president J.F.Kennedy.

In traumatic events because the imagery remains very vivid, we are usually confident in our memory. However that confidence is not necessarily matched by accuracy according the findings of this project.

Emotion, especially fear, has helped in evolutionary terms to keep us safe. It’s the trigger for the flight, fight or freeze response. When we are fearful, we are in a state of high alert taking in information in a narrow focussed way. We don’t usually see what’s going on in the periphery. The part of our brain that regulates our emotions is called the amygdala and when we are highly aroused, it works along with the area concerned with learning and memory called the hippocampus to embed our strongest memories.

Mention 9/11 and everyone immediately knows what you are talking about- it had such an emotional and historical impact on the world.

In the survey it was found that whilst most people retained accuracy in remembering the actual event, personal recollections were hazier. I had for example, forgotten that my husband was away in Jakarta at that time.

Reviewing the video footage ten years on, it was apparent, to me at least, that yes I had forgotten some of the salient images. However, if I were to look at those images and discuss what happened on a more frequent basis, I would expect my overall recall to improve. In the study the psychologists have also looked at how much our interaction and conversations with others about these traumatic events, moulds or reshapes our own memories.

In remembering 9/11, I pay tribute to those who lost their lives, to their families who continue to grieve, and to those that lived. To the many people who displayed tremendous feats of courage and selflessness that day I remain truely grateful.

Ref: The memory consortium comprises: Randy Buckner (Harvard University); Andrew Budson (Harvard Medical School); John Gabrieli (MIT); William Hirst (New School University); Marcia Johnson (Yale University); Cindy Lustig (University of Michigan); Mara Mather (University of California – Santa Cruz); Kevin Oschner (Columbia University); Elizabeth Phelps (New York University); Daniel Schacter (Harvard University); Jon Simons (University of Cambridge); and Chandan Vaidya (Georgetown University).