The September 11th

I remember September 11, 2001. My wife was out of town with her sister, and I was alone at home working on (what else?) lecture prep. I don’t turn the TV or radio on when I’m working--don’t want any distractions--but I was working on the computer. I needed to get some information, and went to Google.

I distinctly remember an unusual thing on Google’s home page: a picture of the World Trade Center towers on fire, and a link to more information. I followed the link, thinking it was a promotion for a movie or something, but then I quickly realized what was Really Happening. That’s when I turned on the TV...needless to say, I didn’t get any more work done that day. And I was much relieved when my wife got home that evening.

I recently found a screenshot of Google’s actual home page on 9/11. It did not have a picture of the towers, but it did say, “Breaking news: Attacks hit US” and there were links to several news sites. How could I have misremembered something that seemed so clear to me?

Many people report having very vivid memories of a highly emotional event--not just of the event itself, but also of their personal experience (where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, etc.) when they first heard about the event. (These are called “flashbulb memories”, as if these memories are seared into our minds by the bright flash of emotion.)

But research has shown that these memories are not as veridical as we feel they are. 9/11 provided a unique opportunity for psychological scientists to do a sort of natural experiment on flashbulb memories. For example, Dr Elizabeth Phelps and her colleagues found that people did remember significant things about the 9/11 event quite well (80+%, even though these eroded over time), but only remembered about half of their personal details surrounding the event correctly. This means that you would swear you saw a picture of the burning towers on Google’s home page even though that never happened.

Incidentally, I did have a class to teach in the late afternoon of 9/11. I went and taught the class and didn’t say a word about the attacks. I felt that, as long as students were showing up, I’d teach them; I’d do my job. If they hadn’t heard about what was happening, I didn’t want to be the one to tell them. I imagined that would make it hard to concentrate for the rest of the class.

Now that I have children, though, I think I would handle things differently. I’d probably cancel my classes, take my kids out of school/daycare, and just hug them for the rest of the day. In fact, I think I’ll go hug them right now.

Why aren’t you studying?


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