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In which John discusses Neisser & Harsch's study of flashbulb memories and the memory-storage capacity of human brains in the context of a miniature dachshund pooping in a Nintendo.

For more info on the study and on flashbulb memories in general, check out the book "Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of "Flashbulb" Memories," parts of which can be found online here:


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A Bunny
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((') (')
Willy, look at the camera. Be a star, Willy.

Good morning, Hank, it's Wednesday, and Willy and I are outside because, you know, it's beautiful.

So Hank, your video about Phineas Gage on Monday made me think about the human brain--God I love brains! I'm like a zombie in two respects, Hank. One: I love brains. Two: on some fundamental level, I pretty much just walk around doing whatever I need to do in order to keep walking around.

Right, but anyway I love brains. I love all the crazy wonderful things that human brains can do, and today I wanna use my knowledge of brains to definitively solve the mystery of the poopy Nintendo.

Right, so Hank I'm sure you're familiar with Neisser and Harsch's work in the late 1980s on flashbulb memories. But Hank, just for those people who aren't specialists in the fields of memory science, let me tell you about the famous classic 1989 Challenger Flashbulb Memory Study.

Okay, Hank, so in 1986, this is very sad, there was a space shuttle called the Challenger, and as it was going up into space, it blew up and everyone inside of it died, including a teacher named Christa McAuliffe, and there were millions of schoolchildren all around America watching this space shuttle launch because there was a teacher inside, and then we were all, you know, horrified.

The Challenger explosion is one of those moments where everyone know what they were doing and who they were with when they heard the news. And here are two such stories.

Story one: "When I first heard about the explosion, I was sitting in my freshman dorm with my roommate, and we were watching TV. It came on a newsflash and we were really shocked and I got really upset and then I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents."

Story two: "I was in my religion class, and people walked in and started talking about it. I didn't know any of the details, except that it had exploded and all the teacher's students had been watching on TV."

So, Hank, we have two very different stories, one in which a person found out about the Challenger explosion while in Religion class, and one in which the person found out watching TV. And that's perfectly plausible, there's no problem with that, right? Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-BUT BUT same person.

Those two stories were recorded by the same person in this famous study by Neisser and Harsch. She wrote the Religion class memory the day after the Challenger explosion, and the TV memory three and a half years later expressing total confidence in her recollection.

In fact, almost everyone who participated in this study remembered three years later who they were with, what they were doing, and how they found out about the tragedy, and yet, the vast majority of them were wrong.

There is, in fact, very little correlation between how well you remember something and whether that something happened. The brain is not good at storing accurate memories, it's good at destroying narrative memories. I wrote a book about this. (An Abundance of Katherines).

Here is what I am saying Hank...I have a flashbulb memory, extremely vivid, of discovering Red Green's poop in the Nintendo. I believe that memory to be accurate, but after extensive research, it would appear that the only person who physically saw Red Green's poop in the Nintendo was me.

Hank, before I move forward with this discussion, I should acknowledge that I was an inveterate liar. As opposed to now, when I am a novelist. It is possible that I created the fiction of Red Green's poop in the Nintendo and found that fiction so credible and compelling that I myself came to believe it true. It's possible that I have blamed a deceased miniature dachshund ...and my be-liked brother...for putting poop in a Nintendo that never had poop in it.

So Hank, I want to apologize to you. I believe that my broken brain might've created an incorrect flashbulb memory. I also want to apologize to Red Green, whose bad name I unfairly besmirched. But I can't apologize to him, Hank, because he's dead. But, I can ask Willy's forgiveness on behalf of all canine-kind.

Willy! Would you like to come over here and perhaps...have all of your dreams come true? Oh you would!

I'm sorry, Willy. I'm sorry about my incorrect flashbulb memory. Do you forgive me? Can you ever forgive me?

Hank, I feel the tongue of forgiveness on my cheek. I will see you on Friday.