Curious Phenomena of Retrieval

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Psychologists have explored several puzzling phenomena of retrieval that nearly everyone has experienced. These include déjà vu, jamais vu, flashbulb memories, and the tip-of-the-tongue state. 

1. Deja Vu and Jamais Vu

The sense of déjà vu (French for “seen before”) is the strange sensation of having been somewhere before, or experienced your current situation before, even though you know you have not. One possible explanation of déjà vu is that aspects of the current situation act as retrieval cues that unconsciously evoke an earlier experience, resulting in an eerie sense of familiarity. Another puzzling phenomenon is the sense of jamais vu (French for “never seen”). This feeling arises when people feel they are experiencing something for the first time, even though they know they must have experienced it before. The encoding specificity principle may partly explain jamais vu; despite the overt similarity of the current and past situations, the cues of the current situation do not match the encoded features of the earlier situation.

2. Flashbulb Memories

A flashbulb memory is an unusually vivid memory of an especially emotional or dramatic past event. For example, the death of Princess Diana in 1997 created a flashbulb memory for many people. People remember where they were when they heard the news, whom they heard it from, and other seemingly fine details of the event and how they learned of it. Examples of other public events for which many people have flashbulb memories are the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Flashbulb memories may also be associated with vivid emotional experiences in one’s own life: the death of a family member or close friend, the birth of a baby, being in a car accident, and so on.

Are flashbulb memories as accurate as they seem? In one study, people were asked the day after the Challenger explosion to report how they learned about the news. Two years later the same people were asked the same question. One-third of the people gave answers different from the ones they originally reported. For example, some people initially reported hearing about the event from a friend, but then two years later claimed to have gotten the news from television. Therefore, flashbulb memories are not faultless, as is often supposed.

Flashbulb memories may seem particularly vivid for a variety of reasons. First, the events are usually quite distinctive and hence memorable. In addition, many studies show that events causing strong emotion (either positive or negative) are usually well remembered. Finally, people often think about and discuss striking events with others, and this periodic rehearsal may help to increase retention of the memory.

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