Today is not a good day to turn on the TV, look at the Internet, or listen to any kind of talk radio. For the past eleven years, Americans have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 by re-watching news footage, listening to haunting 9-1-1 recordings, and otherwise reliving the largest terrorist attack in US history. More importantly, we share with each other our personal recollections of that morning, offering firsthand narratives as a way to connect to and reflect upon a shared tragedy.
These stories are known as flashbulb memories, the supposedly ultra-clear mental impressions left by particularly traumatic events, and they are not unique to 9/11. Just as most adults alive today can recall exactly where they were when they first heard the World Trade Center towers had been hit, members of previous generations reported especially strong recollections of what they were doing when JFK and MLK were shot, or when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and they engaged in the same sort of ritual social recitation of those memories in the years following those events.
The thing is, as clear as those memories may feel to us, they are actually no more accurate or resistant to decay than regular old non-traumatic memories (and that’s not saying much). One of the most famous examples of how these memories can fail us comes from a psychologist named Ulric Neisser who, while researching the flashbulb phenomenon, realized that his own recollection of the Pearl Harbor attack was inaccurate. Neisser reported vividly remembering listening to a baseball game on the radio when news broke of the attack, even though baseball games are not played in December. In his research, Neisser found that other subjects had similarly faulty memories of Pearl Harbor, even though those memories felt accurate to the people who held them.
So where do these faulty memories come from, and why do they feel more accurate than regular memories? One of the important factors at work here is something called constructive processing. We think of our memories as being like photographs, something that we can pick up and examine and then store away for later, but this is not the case. Memories are closer to Play-Doh sculptures; every time you pick one up to look at it, you nudge it around a bit, change it slightly, leave a few fingerprints. The nature of these fingerprints depends on the context in which you recall the memory, and can be affected by things as simple as the words you choose to relate them. The earlier on a change gets made, the more it is reinforced with each successive recollection. Paradoxically, the more we rehearse a memory, the more certain we become of its accuracy.
One of the obvious effects is that we tend to take historical events and shape them into stories that more closely fit our ideas of what a story should look like; in other words we impose familiar narrative structures on them. What makes 9/11 so interesting is that we have an extensive audiovisual record of the event, which you might think would act as a failsafe against the fallibility of human memory. If I remember something slightly wrong, the video is there to correct me.
However, it’s important to consider how we are given access to these recordings. While it’s possible to go watch hours and hours of unedited footage, most of us don’t do this. Most of us are exposed to the 9/11 record through TV, which means we are getting some producer’s idea of which video clips and retrospective interviews can be fitted together to form the best, most gripping story. If anything, it’s accelerating the push of information from history to mythologized history (to say nothing of the effect of a decade of politicized retellings of 9/11, which 38% of Americans still believe had something to do with Sadam Hussein).
I don’t say this to suggest we stop reflecting upon September 11. I think it’s perfectly healthy to observe the anniversary of tragedy by reminding ourselves what we went through and how it felt. As Neisser described it, “"The flashbulb recalls an occasion when two narratives that we ordinarily keep separate -- the course of history and the course of our own life -- were momentarily put into alignment… we line up our own lives with the course of history itself and say I was there.” But if we are going to bear the burden of Never Forgetting, we should also pay some mind to what it is we’re remembering.