False memory 9/11

For most Americans, as the nation's thoughts turn to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, memories of that day readily come flooding back. People can remember with great clarity what they were doing or to whom they were speaking when they learned of the crisis—whether via a sister's phone call or a first-hand glimpse of the World Trade Center on fire.

Decades ago, psychologists theorized that the brain imprints such details into its memory, like a photograph, when we learn of sudden, tragic national events. These highly emotional recollections were dubbed "flashbulb memories"—but the notion of photographic accuracy didn't bear out in later research. [For more about the psychology of 9/11, read the Streams of Conscious blog, "Forgetting About 9/11"]

How much can we trust, then, of what we remember of 9/11? Some answers are provided by a national study of 9/11 memories conducted by researchers at intervals of one week, one year and three years after the attack. The team surveyed more than 3, 000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, and four other cities in Connecticut, Missouri and California. Last month, the scientists did a 10-year follow-up survey—data yet to be analyzed—making the project the longest prospective study of how flashbulb memories change over time. Scientific American spoke with New York University psychologist Elizabeth A. Phelps, a lead investigator of the survey.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

New York University (NYU) is only two miles from the World Trade Center site. What was it like when you got to your lab the morning of 9/11?
By then, the second plane had hit the towers. There was nobody else in the office at that point, but one person. I went to his office, which looked out at the World Trade Center, and we saw one tower go down. You just couldn't even believe it. And then it was kind of a weird day. Some people came into the office. You really couldn't focus on work. So eventually I went home, watched CNN and ended up trying to go give blood.

How did the 9/11 memory project come about?
Phone service was hit or miss that day, but John Gabrieli, a friend and neuroscientist who was then at Stanford, managed to call me. He just wanted to make sure I was okay. We started talking about doing a study of 9/11, because every memory researcher knows about the classic studies of memories of the Challenger space shuttle explosion or the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Then after a day or so, we decided to do it.

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