College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

Flashbulb Memories of 9/11

Researchers explore why memories of some events refuse to fade.

9/11 debris

On September 11, 2001, Donna Korol exhibited many of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it wasn't the repeated broadcasts or images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that caused the LAS psychology professor to suffer intrusions of thought, hyper arousal, and elevated levels of adrenaline and glucose. Just days before that fateful Tuesday, Korol was an eyewitness to a tragic accident and she was still processing that memory.

"So when I heard about 9/11 I was already a little bit numbed," Korol remembers. "I was definitely intellectually horrified by 9/11, but the impact didn't hit until a couple weeks later. I still don't feel as traumatized by 9/11 as I do by this accident I witnessed. My emotional reaction was much more disrupted because of the accident, and I don't know if it's because it came first or of how personal it was."

With both tragedies still fresh in her mind, Korol quickly teamed with her two sisters—Dr. Mindy Korol and Dr. Rhonda Korol, clinical psychology faculty at colleges in Maryland and Vermont, respectively—to launch a survey that probed respondents' flashbulb memories.

The term refers to one-of-a-kind, unexpected occurrences. Oftentimes personal, the events can also be publicly shared national disasters, such as John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and, of course, the 2001 terrorist attacks. Flashbulb memories do not fade easily from the brain. Noted American psychologist and philosopher William James defined them in 1890 as "so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues."

"With the flashbulb nature," Korol explains, "the brain gets turned on in a way and everything that's somewhat coincident with that event becomes a part of the experience, too."

Surveys were distributed among 432 students, staff, and faculty within two weeks of the 2001 attacks at each of the sisters' universities. The data compared gender, proximity to the attacks, and age. Also measured were coping strategies, PTSD-like symptoms, subjective feelings, and various indices of memory. Respondents were re-tested just before the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

Not surprisingly, Maryland respondents, who were closer to the Pentagon attack and knew people who worked there, reported higher rates of PTSD-like symptoms and greater use of specific coping strategies. They also watched less of the coverage than the more distant U of I group, Korol assumes, because they were on the phone to family and friends instead of glued to the television.

Gender differences in coping strategies also stood out. Women, who watched much more of the media coverage than men, used higher levels of social support, wishful thinking, cognitive restructuring, and emotional expression. They also felt the emotional impact of 9/11 more intensely. Men more often coped by employing a strategy of self-criticism, and they had a slightly higher degree of problem avoidance.

Aside from the unique opportunity to do a project with her sisters, Korol says the clinical survey complements her field of neural mechanisms of memory, which includes the study of how the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline—one of the ways the body regulates memory storage—can be manipulated to lessen the effects of PTSD and memory deterioration in the elderly.

"Most of us don't carry those PTSD symptoms long after the traumatic event, but there are individuals that can't get rid of those thoughts. If we block the adrenaline response, for example, in car accident victims, can we reduce the severity of PTSD? There's already a suggestion that this might be an effective treatment."

Summer 2004