After the attacks on September 11, 2001, a friend—unable to get home—came by our place so as not to be alone. We sat on the stoop sharing a cigarette and looked up at the billowing smoke in the distance. After a long pause she looked at the smoke, then down to a recently painted mural commemorating a recently deceased singer and then turned to us. "First Aaliyah," she said with all seriousness, "now this." We've been telling that story for just about a decade now...but did it really happen that way? According to research out of NYU, maybe not! Though our memories of that day may feel extraordinarily vivid and true it turns out they are just as flawed as any other memory.
You see, in the days after 9/11, NYU's Elizabeth Phelps and the New School's William Hirst (along with many others) went about conducting a comprehensive study of how 1,495 people from around the world (546 in NYC) remembered the event. A year after the attack they conducted a followup survey; then another one was conducted at the fifth anniversary; and yet another survey was just completed (its results are still being tabulated). And though people get the big details right, especially when reinforced by media coverage and movies like Fahrenheit 911, it turns out we're pretty bad at remembering the personal details.
"With emotional events like 9/11, I think we do have better memory for the important details [as compared with a neutral event]—we just don't have great memory for all the details," Phelps told Scientific American recently. But "we think we do, and that's the real contrast. Whereas, if I told you that you don't remember the details of your 26th birthday, you wouldn't be surprised, necessarily."
Phelps even has the numbers to back it up:
"In recalling the number of planes involved, they were 94 percent accurate immediately afterward in the first survey, 86 percent accurate a year later, and 81 percent accurate three years later. But of course, those facts are supported by external reminders from media coverage." Things get much more fluid when people recall how they learned of the attack: "From that first survey to the second survey a year later, the overall consistency of the details of how they learned of 9/11 was only 63 percent. At the third survey, three years after the attack, consistency was 57 percent. So people were only a little more than 50 percent right for a lot of the details."
So, long story short? If you didn't write down your memories of September 11, 2001 soon after, you've probably already forgotten a lot of details. But you are probably still okay when it comes to the big ones. Like planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. You may not remember exactly where you were when you found out about them, but you surely haven't forgotten about them...right?