The World Trade Center towers in flames after the 9/11 attacks in New York (United States). – ROBERT GIROUX / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Few do not remember with such precision how they learned of the September 11 attacks in the United States or, fourteen years later, the November 13 attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis. Just ask your loved ones or your colleagues who are old enough to remember: they will tell you where they were, with whom, what they were doing, even the weather of the day or the clothes that they wore.

Romain, 36, has a vivid picture of when he learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center. This native of the Vosges, who now works in the automotive press, remembers that he took the bus that day out of high school to go to his grandparents. He even got it in his head that it was hot, that he was in shorts and a T-shirt.

Romain thinks first of an earthquake, of the “big one”, this devastating earthquake announced and expected in California. “It took me three or four minutes to figure out that it was an attack.”

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For psychiatrist Muriel Salmona, founder and president of the Traumatic Memories association, there is nothing surprising in remembering the smallest details of what surrounded us during this type of Events. “Memory is very emotional,” she explains to “The more connotation the event has, whether positive or negative, the more it can be reactivated and rise to the surface.”

This is the very principle of memory-flash, analysis for Francis Eustache, neuropsychologist and chairman of the scientific council of the Observatoire B2V des mà © moires. As if memory had photographed the moment.

The attacks of September 11 and November 13, as well as older events such as the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, the death of Kennedy or, to a lesser extent, that of François Mitterrand are among these moments of History at the origin of memories-flashes.

According to a Credoc study carried out seven months after November 13, some 97% of the French population had formed a flash memory. Almost three years later, they were still 93% remembering where they were when they learned about the attacks and 87% who first spoke to them.

Francis Eustache is also the scientific co-director of a research program – Remember – on the memory of November 13, with the historian Denis Peschanski, and moreover took part in this investigation. Numerous interviews have thus been and still are conducted with people affected in a more or less direct manner in order to understand how individual and collective memories intertwine.

They are therefore generally negative even if Francis Eustache mentions a “counter-example”: the victory of France against Brazil in the final of the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

Benoît Puichaud, a 36-year-old journalist, for his part, has an almost minute-by-minute memory of the evening of Friday, November 13, 2015. He and his lover were to attend a concert in a Parisian theater.

The young man goes out, checks his phone and learns of the explosion that has just occurred at the Stade de France, the shootings that have targeted the terraces. “Other people would come out and say, ‘Did you see?’ I went to get my girlfriend, we wondered if we should stop the concert, warn people. But we thought it was going to create a movement of panic, so we ‘is barricaded. “

The concert continues in an “irrepressible” atmosphere. Benoît and a small group of people alert the security guards, lock the doors, check that no exit is left open. “The Bataclan hadn’t happened yet but we felt vulnerable. We were scared, we thought we were going to be attacked. We thought if they came back, we were screwed . Some have started watching. “

If Benoît remembers in great detail the course of that evening until they return home and the discovery of “war scenes” on television, he has on the other hand completely forgot the name of the group he was going to see. “It had to be a band that I liked, I will never see an artist in concert that I do not know. But I can’t remember.”

For psychiatrist Muriel Salmona, faced with such an event, her brain is bugging. “It’s like he’s stuck, frozen, paralyzed in the face of something you can’t fit.” What makes the emotional circuit “break”: this is how we find ourselves speechless, in front of the TV, with a feeling of unreality. Memory, unfiltered, captures everything.

If it remains alive, the flash memory is not for all that fixed. It changes, distorts or is truncated over time. “Although it is first and foremost very individual and personal, it is modeled, modulated and completed by collective memory”, adds researcher Francis Eustache, director of the research unit in neuropsychology and functional neuroanatomy of human memory at Inserm.

For September 11, for example, the flash memories of the day itself are therefore mingled today with everything that has been seen, read or heard since.

For the memories of November 13, they too will evolve in the future and be associated with the commemorations, the process that has just opened or the many evocations and stories in the media.

“In our study, some of those interviewed associated the great citizens’ march of January 11 (which takes place ten months earlier to denounce terrorism after the attack on the editorial staff). of Charlie Hebdo and the hostage-taking in a kosher supermarket) on November 13, “notes Francis Eustache. “The November 13 memory will grow stronger as it diminishes the emotional power of other memories.” The neuropsychologist reminds us, “memory is a construction”.

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