Our memories aren't what we think they are.

Today there was a long article about Olaf Palme in one of Sweden's leading newspapers DN (SWE). It was an interesting article, and I then asked my wife if she remembered what she was doing when she heard he was assassinated in 1986.

My wife could tell with fairly good detail where she was and what she was doing at this time. I started to ponder memories and how we interact with digital technologies. I can still remember when I used my first computer, or digital camera. Where these memories any different ?

I did some research and it turns out scientist have be studying memory surrounding significant events for quite some time.

Flashbulb memory

Remembering traumatic or dramatic events in great detail is called “flashbulb memory” by psychologists, and has been studied for several decades.

Emotions are processed in the amygdala part of the mid-brain, and the amygdala is very close to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in the long term coding of information into memories.

So it is no surprise that psychologists first believed that emotionally laden memories might be very strong and remembered vividly.

The problem with these memories is that are often not remembered well and incorrect.

Professor Ulric Neisser researches memories like these. In 1986 (this was a tragic year) the space shuttle Challenger exploded upon take-off. If you where old enough to remember the Challenger explosion will probably remember this vividly, i.e., as a flashbulb memory.

Neisser took this opportunity to do some research. The day after the explosion he had his students write down their memories of what had happened, where they were, what they were wearing, what the TV coverage was like, etc. Three years later, he asked them to write down their memory of the event again.

Most (over 90%) of the 3-yr later reports differed. Half of them were inaccurate in 2/3 of the details.

One person, when shown her first description written three years earlier, on the day after the event, said, “I know that’s my handwriting, but I couldn’t possibly have written that”.

The Forgetting Curve of 1885

In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus created a formula showing the degradation of memories:


where R is memory retention, S is the relative strength of memory, and t is time.

So surely these 'Flashbulb' memories are different then other memories ? Neisser's research shows that this isn't the case. We forget them just quickly as other more mundane everyday memories. Ebbinghaus forgetting curve held true regardless of event.

So how does this influence user experience.

I think this is something that definitely influences how user research is performed. At a minimum it needs to be kept in mind.

Simply put: we cant really rely on peoples memories with regard to websites or other consumer experiences. The best information will be obtained immediately after the encounter. Anything after one week has deteriorated so much as to question the value of such memories.

Does user memory influence your UX work ? let me know.


Neisser and Harsh, “Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing the News about Challenger”, in Winograd and Neisser (eds) Affect and Accuracy in Recall, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 9-31.

Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.