In the first days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a team of scholars around the country set out to capture the moment’s “flashbulb” memories: the vivid, enduring mental snapshots formed at the instant of historical import, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They asked more than 3,000 people a few questions, including: Where were you when you learned about the terrorist attacks?
In New York, graduate students working on the study set up tables and handed out surveys at Union Square and Washington Square, where thousands had gathered in the days and weeks after the attacks just to be with one another, moments of communal mourning also now slipping from memory.
A year later, the researchers asked the same questions of many of the same people, only to find that 40 percent of the memories had changed. A man now saying that he was in the office when he learned of the attacks might previously have said that he had been on a train.
These altered recollections were consistent with similar studies done in connection with other historical events, according to Elizabeth A. Phelps, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard University who worked on the 9/11 memory study. What distinguished the memories of Sept. 11, when compared with ordinary autobiographical memories, was the extreme confidence that people had developed in their altered remembrances, which by the first anniversary had begun to concretize.
“You have your story and you’re sticking to it,” Dr. Phelps said.
William Hirst, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, who also worked on the study, agreed. “I think what happens is they develop a narrative about their flashbulb memory,” he said. “It becomes their story.”
Dr. Hirst wonders whether the changes in memory are somehow linked to a sense of identity. After all, what would it say about you as a New Yorker — as an American — if you didn’t know how you first heard about the Sept. 11 attacks? Aligning your personal narrative with a consequential moment in history may be a way of asserting that you are a part of the affected community, that you belong.
Inevitably, someday there will be no one alive with a personal narrative of Sept. 11. Inevitably, the emotional impact of the day will fade a little bit, and then a little bit more, as time transforms a visceral lived experience into a dry history lesson. This transformation has already begun; ask any high school history teacher.