Today, on the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we will hear many stories of this defining moment for the course of World War II.
Pearl Harbor may have dramatically changed the course of history, but it has left a particularly important impact on those who were alive when it happened. Such memories of historic events often seem untouchable. But, how accurate are they really?
Of course by the time Pearl Harbor happened, World War II had already changed the world forever with a series of atrocities that were never to be forgotten. Perhaps suitably, with Germany being at the forefront of much of the damage, the German language has a word to describe someone who lived through such historic events; “Zeitzeuge,” which translates to “time witness” (or “contemporary witness”).
Zeitzeugen are the ones who live to tell the tale to future generations, to describe their experiences in vivid detail, remembering the fine grain of human history as it unfolded. A great deal of importance is often given to these elders. These time witnesses often have what are known as “flashbulb memories.” Flashbulb memories are incredibly detailed and vivid recollections of moments of our lives, usually moments that carry strong personal or historical importance. Some flashbulb memories are formed the first time we hear about an atrocity.
These memories feel like they are forever etched into the crevasses of our brains. But as I talk about in my research and in my new book, The Memory Illusion, these memories often feel more accurate than they actually are.
Perhaps one of the most famous flashbulb memories about Pearl Harbor was recalled by the cognitive psychologist Ulric Niesser in 1982 (as quoted here):
“For many years I have remembered how I heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on the day before my thirteenth birthday. I recall sitting in the living room of our house-we only lived in that house for one year, but I remember it well—listening to a baseball game on the radio. The game was interrupted by an announcement of the attack, and I rushed upstairs to tell my mother.”
Sounds fine, right? Wrong. According to Niesser there is one critical problem—“This memory has been so clear for so long that I never confronted its inherent absurdity until last year: no one broadcasts baseball games in December!”
His memory was wrong, perhaps even absurd. Other psychologists, Charles Thompson and Thaddeus Cowan, however found it much less weird, and wrote a commentary about his memory in 1986, suggesting that although the memory was wrong, it wasn’t totally off kilter:
“Neisser’s flashbulb memory is quite accurate rather than totally inaccurate,” they wrote. “Neisser apparently was listening to a broadcast of a game between two football teams which had the same names as two rather famous baseball teams.”
Anyone could make this kind of mistake, they claim. While Cowan and Thompson tried to trivialize his error, Niesser responded to this by saying how much of a baseball fan he was, and that mistaking a football game with a baseball game was actually a big deal for such a big fan. He offered instead an alternative explanation:
“In my later memory of the event, that uninteresting activity [football] was replaced by something much more significant: it became listening to baseball. That ‘understandable’ change not only made the memory more congruent with my own self-image but also converted it into a personal symbol of “Pearl Harbor Day”: when my country was attacked, I was doing the quintessentially American thing.”
You see, flashbulb memories have come heavily under attack for quite some time. Many people have vivid and detailed memories of important life moments, but it seems that these memories are not so different from other types of memories—they too can be prone to errors.
They can instead be false memories. These false memories can have all the critical components of true memories. In them we can feel things, see things, smell things in them—even if what we remember never happened that way at all. They can be incredibly compelling.
Why? Mostly because our brains are great at weaving creative pieces of historical fiction. As researchers William Hirst and colleagues, who looked into the accuracy of flashbulb memories of 9/11, stated in a recent study: “Even traumatic memories and those implicated in a community’s collective identity may be inconsistent over time.” We unintentionally add pieces of stories we hear from others, and forget and replace pieces in our memories.
It means that even our most vivid memories of historic events can be dramatically wrong.