Ah-Ha Moments and Flash-Bulb Memories

Where were you when you first heard about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?
What were you doing when you learned about John F. Kennedy’s assassination?

Research psychology has identified what are called flash-bulb memories, memories formed in moments of extremely strong emotion that remain vivid long after. What’s especially interesting about flash-bulb moments is that while an individual will insist as to the accuracy of the memories, the memories are often very inaccurate. The reasons for the formation of flashbulb memories are covered on Wikipedia and the reasons behind this inaccuracy disparity I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader. What I’m going to explore today is the usefulness – regardless of accuracy – of this sort of memory-formation for the enhancement of physical and metal performance.

Your memories of Sept. 11, 2001 are probably inaccurate.

Though people remember flash-bulb memories with a high degree of clarity, the accuracy of those memories are usually flawed. I’m curious to explore whether, flawed or not, we can use those memories to jump-start the learning process to improve performance.

Ah-Ha Moment

Today, during a private ballet lesson I had an ah-ha moment. It occurred in the deepest part of my plié, when my teacher/coach corrected a minor misalignment of my pelvis and thighs. All of a sudden the position made much more sense, was profoundly more functional, and required less effort. Had I gotten nothing else out of the 45 minute lesson, that moment of clarity would have been sufficient. The reason being: if I can retain and use that new-found clarity, or even just a part of it, my ballet and physical functioning in general will be vastly improved.

Moments of Clarity

I aim to have a moment of clarity like this within any given training interval – be it language learning, my work with children, or ballet. But I’ve also seen – time and again – that those moments may be fleeting or have a long-lasting impact. What creates this difference? What can we do to ensure that such profound, positive experiences have a lasting impact on productivity and performance?


Since that moment in ballet I’ve repeatedly visualized doing the exact movement with my new-found alignment. I haven’t attempted the movement in action yet, but the act of briefly visualizing helps me retain the difference and change.

Pause and Reflect

I have also learned to take a moment just after such profound shifts in my understanding to pause and reflect on the lesson learned. I’ve found that teachers – excited for a student’s quick response to direction – will enthusiastically continue on without considering what might be the most useful to solidify the learning for their pupil. By taking just 5 seconds to reflect on changes, a student is better able to internalize the physical feeling of change.

Stop There

Sometime when a light goes off and I ascend to a new level of understanding I stop the lesson there. I share our cultural myth that more time spent practicing is usually better. If I’m taking a private lesson from an instructor it should last for an hour, right? Certainly a 15-minute lesson is insufficient! But what if there is just one flash-bulb moment during a learning interval or lesson? Might it not be more efficient to end on that extremely positive note, rather than run the risk that the student will continue, and never return to that peak of high performance. Shouldn’t we end well?

I don’t know for sure that ah-ha moments in the learning process are formed similarly to flash-bulb memories. But just as flash-bulb memories have a profound emotion tied to an experience, we do experience profound moments within the learning process and our memories are form accordingly. If the goal is to improve performance, emphasizing memories of those peak performance ah-ha moments is an extremely efficient addition to the learning process.

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