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What is a Flashback?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “flashback” is used in both the arts and psychology, with very different meanings. In literature, film, and television, a flashback is a break from the regular narrative in which characters are taken back in time to an event which occurred before the present date in the narrative. In psychology, flashbacks are vivid remembrances of traumatic events or recurrent hallucinations experienced as an after-effect of taking hallucinogenic drugs.

When referring to flashbacks in the arts, the technique can appear in a variety of settings and guises. Flashbacks are used to fill in plot, to provide more information about characters, and to present scenes in a different light. The technique, also known as analepsis, may reveal new ties between characters and events. Flashbacks can also confuse and muddle the plot, planting red herrings which will mislead readers or viewers. The flashback effect is particularly popular in stories which are meant to be complex explorations of groups of people, with readers and viewers being thrust into the heart of the story and then picking up supporting details in the form of flashbacks.

Flashforwards, in which characters are taken forward in time, are also utilized in the arts. Depending on the genre, a flashforward may depict events which will happen, or events which could happen unless the characters take action. The famous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol, for example, paints a vivid picture of what will happen in the future of Ebenezer Scrooge if he does not mend his ways.

In psychology, flashbacks occur to people who have experienced traumatic events like car accidents, war, or intense physical violence. They may be triggered by the surrounding environment or they can appear randomly. Flashbacks usually are accompanied with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they can be debilitating and frustrating. The only way to deal with flashbacks is to engage in a long term therapy plan to address the event, and to help the patient identify and attempt to work past triggers which can stimulate flashbacks, such as loud bangs which disturb soldiers.

A flashback effect can also occur in some people who have used hallucinogenic drugs, especially if they have used such drugs heavily over a long period of time. These individuals may experience brief hallucinogenic effects when they are entirely sober, such as auditory or visual hallucinations. A flashback experience of this kind can be unnerving, and a sober reminder of someone's past.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon80924 — On Apr 29, 2010

i am suffering from intrusive thoughts, and have been for some years. The worst part of this whole scenario is getting involved with NHS mental Health in the early 80s, where they diagnosed me as a schizophrenic..and proceeded to emotionally blackmail with it for the next 30 years, forcing me to stay on neuroleptics, on the grounds of this sort of report i have recently seen in my medical records. It said: dresses badly, arrived at my office sweating and looking dishevelled. Remarked to him he could be sectioned if the medicine doesn't work, etc. This was when i was bringing up my daughter from three months, with a totally psychotic father.

Now the nhs is trying to tell me i am still psychotic, determined to force me onto medication through the if you bite the hand that feeds game, and i am obsessed with intrusive thoughts about how society deliberately alienates people if they don't seem to fit in.

They are obsessively looking for evidence and finding it. To hell with the Hippocratic oath. The nhs is a political party akin to BNP. See what I mean, and I know it's bonkers, but they might well have caused this!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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