9/11 and the Upshot of Flashbulb Memory


9/11 and the Upshot of Flashbulb Memory

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Five people – my entire family at the time – were staring at the television. I’d just walked into the living room. Oblivious to the world, barely 14 yet, I took the remote. It was time for F.R.I.E.N.D.S, reruns of which played every weeknight at 8 pm. Nobody really objected, but at the persistent “breaking news” ticker on Star World (these were the days before it had become BREAKING NEWS!!), I was asked to switch back. Sombre presenters on CNN were talking about the first plane crashing into the towers. My 14-year-old self imagined it to be a grand stunt, straight out of the movies. In my memory, still luridly cinematic, there’s an orange hue that I can see – like an uncool Instagram filter. The date was September 11, 2001.

I could tell you more about that day. What I was wearing. The weather that day in Delhi. What we had for dinner. And that was 17 years ago. And yet, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I had for dinner last night. I count on Facebook to remember my best friend’s birthday and my phone to remember his number. I even blank out mid-sentence while ordering takeout. Yet we all remember where we were that day – what we were doing, how cold it was, who we were fighting at the time.

In my memory, the initial flippancy about the event was followed soon enough – by the time the second plane collided – with the realisation of its magnitude. Just like it did when 26/11 happened, when the Bhuj earthquake shook the country, or when Germany decimated Brazil in the 2014 football World Cup. I also remember where I was when I failed my pre-board math exam. All of it to an inch-perfect detail.

The easy explanation for this HD memory that records all of our experience in highly emotional moments when anything major, dramatic, historical, and noteworthy unfolds, is explained by the obvious: The world changed after the fact. You know, before 9/11, the world was a normal, happy, pleasant, peaceful place (relatively speaking), but then the Big Thing happened. And now we live in an “Us vs Them” world, with aggressive nationalism and rampant paranoia, with persistent fear and constant panic. The events of that day, 17 years ago, split the world into two distinct sections: then, and now – the post-9/11 world. So yeah, we’re bound to remember.

We’re not lying and we’re certainly not “co-opting grief” by hijacking someone else’s suffering for some selfish emotional gains – what we’re doing is empathising.

But here’s the thing – we didn’t know at that time that it was going to change the world. At least my 14-year-old self didn’t. As I watched, fascinated, the sight of the collapsing towers, I had no idea history was being made. I didn’t understand the concept of America or forces at play that led to an event of this nature. I wouldn’t learn the specifics of the attacks or the consequence until years later. Why then do I remember? Why do all of us?

In 1977, two psychologists called Roger Brown and James Kulik introduced us to the idea of “flashbulb memories” – memories for the circumstances in which one first learnt of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event. Essentially, it’s a term to explain how those memories remain so clear. A lot of research indicates that they are, in fact, not all that accurate, but we believe wholeheartedly in their accuracy. Often, you’ll notice that these memories, they’re not strictly about the event itself; they are largely autobiographical memories that are personal pathways to how an event as colossal and faraway as this is connected to you. Events like 9/11 dominated not just national discourse, but also much of private conversation in the days, weeks, years that followed, and each of these served to enhance the vividness of our memory, our subjective confidence in it as we fleshed it out one colour block by block.

We’re not lying and we’re certainly not “co-opting grief” by hijacking someone else’s suffering for some selfish emotional gains – what we’re doing is empathising. That day, and over time, people – regardless of political inclinations or religious bent – felt genuine sadness at the many lives lost. That too in a country that was seemingly infallible, immune to such concerns. The clarity and the impact, especially when we talk of 9/11, come from a basic human need to empathise and connect. It’s a way of building a community – in solidarity with those who suffered and in protest against the attackers. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, I want to be a part of this and share the grief with you.”

There’s scorn as well as confusion around flashbulb memories – some studies suggest the rate of forgetting slows down after a year, some indicate the opposite – but for me, they’re a welcome reminder that human beings are actually not dead inside, that they’re capable of feeling compassion even in times when they’re not directly affected by something. It’s an urgent need to just make some kind of a difference, small as it may be, in the face of helplessness. It’s a show of unity, a desire to stand together.

Maybe it’s why the rallying cry around 9/11 is “never forget”. It reminds us of an essential truth in this divisive world: No matter where we were watching from… that day we were all in it together.