Flashbulb memories and other repetitive images: a psychiatric perspective

Compr Psychiatry. 1999 Mar-Apr;40(2):115-25. doi: 10.1016/s0010-440x(99)90115-3.


The term "flashbulb memory" was used by Brown and Kulik in 1977 to refer to the vivid recollections that humans may have of events considered to be of particular significance to the individual or group. These memories are described as having a photographic quality and as being accompanied by a detail-perfect apparel of contextual information (weather, background music, clothes worn, etc.) pertaining to the time and place where the event was first known. They may even evoke emotions similar to the ones felt upon hearing the news. It has been suggested that flashbulb memories are formed by the activity of an ancient brain mechanism evolved to capture emotional and cognitive information relevant to the survival of the individual or group. Some of the original assumptions made by Brown and Kulik have since been challenged, but the phenomenon in question remains an important area of research. However, the latter is often marred by the fact that flashbulb memories are studied as if they were unique psychological events without parallel in clinical practice. Psychiatrists, however, should consider flashbulb memories as being members of a broad family of experiences that include drug flashbacks, palinopsia, palinacusis, posttraumatic memories, and the vivid and haunting memories experienced by subjects with some forms of mental disorder (e.g., phobias, panic attacks, obsessional disorder, phantom-limb phenomena, and depressive melancholia). All of these experiences share clinical features such as paroxysmal repetition, sensory vividness, a capacity to trigger emotions, dysphoria, and a tendency for the rememberer to shift from the role of actor to that of observer and for the reminiscence to become organized in a stereotyped narrative. Some of these clinical phenomena are discussed, and the suggestion is made that seeking phenomenological and neurobiological common denominators to all of these experiences may be a superior research strategy versus studying flashbulb memories alone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Dreams / psychology
  • Eidetic Imagery / physiology*
  • Hallucinations / psychology
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Periodicity
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology