Do People Vividly Remember—or Repress—Memories of Traumatic, Life-Threatening Events?

Imagine yourself on a Toronto to Lisbon flight. Five hours after takeoff and with open seas beneath you, your pilots become aware of fuel loss (a fractured fuel line is leaking a gallon per second). Declaring an emergency, the pilots divert toward an air base in the Azores. But while still 135 miles out, one engine dies of fuel starvation, and then, still some 75 miles out, the other. Moreover, your aircraft has lost its main hydraulic power, which operates the flaps.

In eerie silence, and with nothing but water beneath, you are instructed to put on a life jacket and, when hearing the countdown to ocean impact, to assume a brace position. Periodically the pilot announces “[X] minutes to impact.” With the ocean’s surface approaching, you keep thinking, “I’m going to die.”

Lisa Noble Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Lisa Noble Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

But good news: when the engines went silent, you were still 33,000 feet in the air, and your captain is an experienced glider pilot. And the bad news: You are losing some 2000 feet per minute. After minutes of descent, the pilot declares above the passenger screams and prayers, “About to go into the water.”

Then, “We have a runway! We have a runway!. . . Brace! Brace! Brace!”

Nineteen minutes after losing all engine and primary electrical power and after a series of violent turns, the plane reaches the air base, making a damaging hard landing. You and 305 other passengers and crew members have escaped death. Your pilots return home as heroes. And your flight becomes the subject of television dramas.

For psychologist Margaret McKinnon, now at McMaster University and St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, this traumatic flight was not imaginary. It was the real August 24, 2001 Air Transat Flight 236, and she, as a honeymoon passenger, was among those thinking “I’m going to die.”

Seizing this one-time opportunity to test people’s memory for details of a recorded traumatic event, McKinnon and her Baycrest Health Sciences colleagues Brian Levine and Daniela Palombo tracked down 15 of her fellow passengers. In a recent Clinical Psychological Science article, she reports that seven met criteria for PTSD, and that all of them, some four years later, exhibited vivid, “robust” memories of the details of their experiences.

In a follow-up study, also appearing in Clinical Psychological Science, eight of the passengers underwent fMRI scans while recalling the trauma. Their “enhanced” amygdala activation suggested that the amygdala may, via its links to the hippocampus and visual cortical areas, help create such emotion-fixed memories.

The persistent memories from Flight AT236 confirm what other researchers have found—that it’s much easier to forget neutral events (yesterday’s parking place) than emotional experiences, especially extreme emotional experiences. After observing a loved one’s murder, being terrorized by a hijacker or rapist, or losing one’s home in a natural disaster, one may wish to forget. But such traumas are typically etched on the mind as persistent, haunting memories—for survivors of Nazi death camps, “Horror sear[ed] memory.” With many forms of trauma comes not repression but, more often, “robust” memory.

Note:  Don’t let this essay leave you thinking that commercial flying is dangerous.  From 2009 to 2011, Americans were—mile for mile—170 times more likely to die in a vehicle accident than on a scheduled flight. In 2011, 21,221 people died in U.S. car or light truck accidents, while zero (as in 2010 and as on AT236) died on scheduled airline flights. When flying, the most dangerous part of the trip is your drive to the airport.