September 11, 2001. For most, a day that will live in infamy; for all, in memory.

View of downtown Manhattan, the World Trade Center Towers, and the Statue of Liberty

     Traumatic events have always been a part of history and have always made an impression on the memory of those immediately aware of the incident, and especially on those directly affected by the circumstances. Even in recent times, such events as the Challenger explosion, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, the assassination of John Lennon, the riot in Hillsborough, England, and the premature death of King Baudouin of Belgium have had strong impact on memory, both individually and within the respective societies at large.

     In 1977, two psychologists, Brown & Kulik, studied the impact of large-scale traumatic events on memory, using the assassination of President Kennedy as the source of their research. They concluded that such sudden and emotionally salient events imprint themselves on one’s memory to the degree that they create a unique mnemonic experience, which is often experienced almost like that of the images on a flashbulb photograph. This early work provided the basis for future studies of memory for public traumatic events.

     The terrorist attack of 9/11 is not only a significantly traumatic event that qualifies for this type of research, but may be considered, by the nature of the scale, intensity, and breadth of its effect, to be the definitive case study of memory for a public, traumatic event. In the least, no previous study has focused on an event with the level of emotion and degree of historical importance as September 11. The mere fact that the attacks have come to be referred to as “9/11” or “911” or “September 11” demonstrates, on the most basic level, that the date itself has already made an unforgettable imprint on the memories of all individuals.

     The project involved a collaborative arrangement of memory researchers across the United States. Within days of the attack, a group of psychologists began communicating on the design of a flashbulb memory survey that would engage voluntary participants in an in-depth questionnaire targeting a multitude of mnemonic aspects in regards to their recall of 9/11. The consortium was comprised of, in alphabetical order: Randy Buckner (Harvard University); Andrew Budson (Harvard Medical School); John Gabrieli (MIT); William Hirst (New School University); Marcia Johnson (Yale University); Cindy Lustig (University of Michigan); Mara Mather (University of California – Santa Cruz); Kevin Oschner (Columbia University); Elizabeth Phelps (New York University); Daniel Schacter (Harvard University); Jon Simons (University of Cambridge); and Chandan Vaidya (Georgetown University).

     The response to the survey was overwhelming. From September 17 – 24, 2001, the questionnaire was distributed to all regions of the country represented by the members of the consortium, one location in Europe, and to specially targeted demographic groups, such as the elderly. With 1,495 returned questionnaires, 546 of them from residents of New York City or its surrounding area, the study offers a means of comprehensively and thoroughly studying flashbulb memories of 9/11, in addition to investigating the correlation between regional and other demographic differences in greater depth than in previous studies. The project included two follow-up surveys. The first follow-up was conducted approximately a year after the attack, from August 17 to 30, 2002. The next survey was conducted around the 3 year anniversary, from August 8 to 22, 2004.

     Since the groundbreaking work of Brown & Kulik, research has focused on the quality and accuracy of memories people report of the circumstances under which they learned about a public, traumatic event. The attack of September 11 offers a unique and unprecedented opportunity to extend this line of research. It is the hope of the consortium that this research project will provide substantial progress of assessing the content, accuracy, and impact of traumatic events, such as 9/11, on the memory of all who are involved, either directly or indirectly.

On this page, you will find the copies of the surveys from each round.

If you have any questions, please contact:
William Hirst Elizabeth A. Phelps
New School University New York University
80 Fifth Avenue, Fifth Floor 6 Washington Place, Room 863
New York, NY 10011 New York, NY 10003
(212) 229-5426, ext. 4967 (212) 998-8337

© 2006, Sandra Yoshida
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