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Good Question: Why Are Traumatic Memories So Vivid?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Almost all of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center 12 years ago.

"I remember thinking, is this really happening, like an out of body experience," said Kristin Witte of Minneapolis.

Augsburg College psychology professor Bridget Robinson-Riegler said we remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001 because they were distinctive and we've talked about them many times over.

"Things that are distinctive are well-remembered, things that are rehearsed are well-remembered, so obviously airplanes flying into buildings is incredibly distinctive," she said.

Robinson-Riegler said our brains remember these events just as we would everyday occurrences – in pieces.

"Memories are very fallible," she said. "We think it's like a tape recorder in our head, but our memories are reconstructed in our head at the time we're asked to remember something."

She said our memories of huge, impactful events, like 9/11 or the JFK assassination are different because "we believe we're correct about what we remember about it."

Psychologists have a term for it: flashbulb memories.

"It is really a phenomenon that people remember these things -- the thing that isn't real is that they're more accurate than other memories," she said.

After the JFK assassination and the Challenger space shuttle explosion, psychologists started to study flashbulb memories in more details.

Researchers took recordings of what happened right after the event and then asked the same details years later.

"There were several people in the story who remembered things that were completely opposite of what actually happened," Robinson-Riegler said.

In a study of more than 3,000 people after 9/11, researchers found people were particularly bad at remembering their emotions. They were accurate only 40 percent of the time. Some others recalled seeing the first plane crash on Sept.11, but that video didn't surface until weeks later.

"Their memories have been changed over time due to the fact that they start to rehearse it, due to the fact that they hear stories from other people," said Robinson-Riegler. "That memory starts to change just like any other memory does."

She said people have no idea they're even doing it.

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