Flashbulb Memory, Nostalgia

Moon Landings, Memories, and Mental Marvels

Why we remember major events so vividly

By Arnold
October 25, 2019

This Saturday, July 20th, will be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. On that day in 1969, the world watched astronauts walk on a celestial sphere that humans have looked up at for millennia. The moment of accomplishing something that had previously seemed impossible elicited intense feelings of awe, inter-connectedness, and pride all around the globe.


The memory of this step in mankind’s history holds a special place in the minds of everyone old enough to have witnessed it. Many Baby Boomers remember sitting on their elementary school classrooms’ sticky linoleum floors, enraptured with the glowing screen of the boxy TV set. As their teachers shushed them, they reverently watched the puffy-suit-clad figures bounce on the dusty surface of the Moon. The luminous, mirror-like surface of the astronauts’ helmets seemed to reflect the hopes of the entire world.


Even today, people distinctly remember Neil Armstrong’s resonant voice crackling through the airwaves: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


Similarly, most people who were alive at the time of the 1969 moon landing remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Even decades later, their memories of that historical moment are extremely vivid; small details such as the texture of the classroom carpet or the model of the rickety TV set are still as poignant as ever.


The reason for these sharp, crisp, near-photographic memories is a cognitive phenomenon known as “flashbulb memory.” Events that are highly emotional or consequential trigger the mind to record an event in its entirety, capturing everything down to the insignificant details.


Though these memories are not 100% accurate, the confidence that we have in being able to precisely describe the scene gives us a sense of fulfillment when we retell them.


Some researchers have proposed that flashbulb memories even have their own recording process, separate from other types of memory. This would explain why we remember events like the moon landing so vividly, while math equations and names of past acquaintances fade into the background of our minds. It is believed that the emotions tied to an event cause the mind to become hyper-aware, a rush of adrenaline hormones improving the mind’s perception and memory. These hormones prime nerve cells to retain information, increasing their sensitivity at sites where the brain rewires to form new memories.


Thanks to flashbulb memories, Armstrong and Aldrin’s slow, fateful bounces on the moon’s surface are imprinted upon the minds of every person who saw them — becoming a sort of shared, universal memory. Such collective flashbulb memories are rare, and are usually associated with traumatic or negative events, such as JFK’s assassination or 9/11. However, in the case of the moon landing, millions of people shared a memory of an event that opened up the horizons of humanity.


As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaches, it is important to celebrate the wonder of witnessing and remembering such a pivotal moment in history. After all, to people who remember the moon landing, simply looking up at the moon elicits a happy kind of nostalgia.