From Steph: Recently, news media has reported claims from many Taylor Swift concertgoers that they cannot remember large parts or even any of the 3-hour “Eras Tour” concert such as which songs Taylor performed. This so-called “concert amnesia” is particularly distressing for those paying the high prices of resale tickets. However, it is widely known among psychologists—if not among the general public—that people’s memories are often much more fragile than people believe them to be. People often over-estimate the accuracies of their own memories and may even think of their memories as photographs or video depictions of the events.
At the other end of the spectrum from such “amnesias” are “flashbulb memories,” which are named so because these vivid memories are thought to be more or less replicas of events that are surprising, important, and emotion-arousing (e.g., assassinations of important political figures). In research on flashbulb memories, people are asked where they were, what they were doing, who told them news of the events, what was the immediate aftermath, and how they felt about it. A key characteristic of flashbulb memories is that people feel very confident in their accuracy.
Both amnesia and flashbulb memories involve episodic memories of public events that are highly emotional. And emotions—both positive and negative—have been found to strengthen memories.
In this episode of VoxPopcast, we want to discuss possible causes of “concert amnesia” proposed in media and consider other possible causes (e.g., the sheer length of the concerts).
One proposal given in media was that these concert-goers’ extreme excitement led to a type of “fight-flight-or-freeze” response that inhibits memory formation. However, it’s unclear why an extreme positive emotion would lead to a fight-flight-or-freeze response. And even if it did, a fear-based response should strengthen memory of the situational “threat.”
Attention is also necessary for memories to be encoded. A common example is when you’re reading a book, your mind may wander to other thoughts and at some point you realize you have no idea what you just read. So, another—I think more plausible—possibility raised in media is that these concert-goers’ attention may have been focused on their thoughts (“I can’t believe I’m really here!”) and other aspects of the environment (e.g., other concert-goers) rather than on information like the particular songs Taylor sang that are later forgotten.
Interestingly, I have not heard complaints of “concert amnesia” among people attending other recent concert tours, including the Cure. But that could be because this tour hasn’t been covered by media to the extent that Taylor Swift’s tour has been.
To better understand this phenomenon, we’d like to hear from you! How well do you (think you) remember concerts? Have you ever fallen victim to “concert amnesia”? What moments of concerts do you feel that you vividly remember (that could be considered flashbulb memories)?
From Mav: This episode idea was recommended to us by listener, Lee Barker, and I’ve really been looking forward to it ever since he first mentioned it. I think the ramifications here are huge. This is much more Steph’s jam than mine, but I’ve been able to at least listen to some recorded talks on YouTube with her as she’s been researching.
The fascinating thing to me starts with the distinction Steph hinted at between positive and negative memories. That is to say that people typically talk about flashbulb memories as traumatic… and in fact, my very first memory is — I quite vividly remember falling and breaking my jaw when I was two. And certainly people talk about things like the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11. But I imagine there are similar markers for heavily emotional positive memories like man walking on the moon, the election of the first black president, or the passing of marriage equality. Are people really remembering every detail or is it just that we’ve all talked about all of those things a billion times since then? I *feel* like I remember the Kennedy assassination, but it happened well before I was born.
I imagine this works for personal experiences too. I expect you’re just as likely to form a flashbulb memory over graduating high school, your favorite team winning the Super Bowl, or losing your virginity as you are to breaking a bone, getting in a car crash, or having a close relative die. Or at least you certainly probably FEEL like you have a flashbulb memory. Do I remember my first sexual encounter, or do I just know that it happened and I’ve conflated it with a bunch of more memorable sex over the rest of my life. Same thing with like, the death of my grandfather. It’s a very formative moment in my life. It changed everything about my existence. But how much is me remembering the actual event and how much is me just missing his presence in my life ever since?
So wouldn’t a concert be the same way? If the emotional connection to TayTay is that strong, does it matter that you don’t remember the exact pitch she sang “Shake it Off” at? Do you remember that she flubbed one lyric. How long she held a note? You don’t need to. After all, if you’re a fan, you’ve heard the song a million times before. What you’re buying is the pseudo-orgasmic experience of having been there live. It’s an ephemeral shared feeling with the rest of the mob. Is it really a memory you want or is it an acknowledged feeling? How do you “remember” a religious awakening?
And does this translate to other cultural events? Do I need to “remember 9/11” or is it more important that I am part of the cultural shift that happened because of 9/11? Anyway, like Steph said, we want to know your thoughts on both the cultural significance of memory in general and how it works with things like concerts in specific. Let us know in the comments below.