If you were to think about your life, what period would you remember best? If you said your teens and 20s, you’re not alone. There’s even a name for the phenomenon. It’s called the reminiscence bump and researchers have been studying why our adolescence and young adulthood is so memorable for more than 30 years.
The basic idea of the reminiscence bump is that people over the age of 40 remember more memories from the age of between 10 or 15 to 30 than any other time in their life. Studies have been replicated across cultures using different types of cues, recalling vivid, the most important, autobiographical, and stories they would put in a book about their life.
Theories on why this is true have varied. Some believe we remember these times because youth have younger minds that are better at remembering. As we age, we simply cannot remember as much because our cognitive function declines.
Other theories say it is because of the number of new and novel experiences that are occurring during this period of time. One 1998 study showed that 98 percent of recalled experiences were related to new or novel experiences. Since we are experiences so many “firsts” during this time, the idea is that the brain remembers them more clearly.
But this doesn’t explain the reminiscence bump entirely. If you think back to the experiences you remember from this period in your life you are likely to have many that are unique or new, but you will also have many that are related to everyday experiences. If the reminiscence bump were related only to the high experiences we wouldn’t remember the more mundane details during this time.
One other theory on the reminiscence bump looks at our desire to make sense of who we are instead of how the brain processes memory. The life script theory says we remember these events because they are part of a story line of events that is culturally conditioned into us. Examples of some of the benchmark events that may make up the skeleton of a story line include marriage, having a child, or getting your first job.
These moments are usually happy and occur with greater frequency during our adolescence and early 20s. Except often we do remember sad or unexpected memories that fall outside the life script.
That’s because these experiences come at a time when we are forming our identity and so become “self-defining episodes.” Just as we create our self-image in our adolescence and 20s the memories we choose to remember from this time support our self-image throughout our life.
Memoir and the Reminiscence Bump
As a memoir writer and reader, I find the reminiscence bump interesting because so many authors have told shared their own memories of this time through their own coming-of-age narrative. Here are a few that remembered this period of these authors lives:
- This Boy’s Life — Tobias Wolff
- Townie — Andre Dubus III
- Half a Life — Darin Straus
- I’m Down — Mishna Wolf
- Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard — Liz Murray
- When We Were the Kennedys — Monica Wood
- Men We Reaped — Jessmyn Ward
- The Late Homecomer — Kao Kalia Yang
My own memoir tells my story starting at about age 14 when when I had my first seizure, follows me as I hid those seizures from my family for eight years, to discovering the cause — a benign brain tumor — and then losing my father from his own brain injury when I was 29.
I have no doubt these years will always be influential to me, but looking at the reminiscence bump, I view it in different ways as if through the eyes of each scientist.
What are some of your favorite coming-of-age memoirs, books, and television shows?
Originally published at https://catherinelanser.com on July 3, 2019.