Mind & Body

The Reminiscence Bump is Why You Pine for the Days of Your Youth

Quick, name three important milestones that happen in a person's life. Got your answers? We're no psychics, but we bet retirement and having grandkids weren't on your list. Most likely, the milestones you imagined happened in a person's teens and 20s. Why is it that we put so much stock in the things that happen in our youth? Scientists aren't sure, but they at least have a name for this phenomenon. It's called the reminiscence bump.

The Way We Were

In the 1970s, psychology researchers asked undergraduate students to do something a little strange: They presented the students with random words, one at a time, and asked them to record whatever memory occurred to them in relation to the word. Afterward, they came back to the list of memories they had collected and added details about when they occurred.

When the researchers charted this on a graph, they found that students recalled more memories of recent events than memories of events long past, forming a scatterplot starting very high at the beginning of the graph, marking the most recent events, and sloping down as time went on.

Scatterplot of how many memories undergraduates could recall by quantity of time passed. As the time since the event got longer, the volunteers were less likely to remember it.

That's predictable enough. But in the 80s, a graduate student named Scott Wetzler wondered if the same thing would happen with older adults. He collected data from other researchers who had done the same experiment with older people, then crunched the numbers.

The results were surprising: Instead of a gradual decline in memories as the events got more distant, older adults showed a "bump" in the number of memories they recalled right around their 20s. Researchers repeated this experiment using different cue words and memories with different levels of emotion, and the results were the same. For some reason, everyone has more memories of early adulthood than of any other time in their lives.

The distribution of memories over the lifespan for older adults. There's a pronounced "bump" around the teens and 20s.

Since then, research into the reminiscence bump has discovered some fascinating things. A 1999 study found that people are more likely to remember important public events from their teens and 20s than from other decades. A 2007 study found that people asked to recall when they encountered their favorite books and movies disproportionately name years from early adulthood. And when researchers asked people in a 2014 study to think about when important world events might happen in a fictional person's life, they still selected more years in that person's youth. Weirder still, when grade-school children were asked to write their future life stories for a 2010 study, most of the events they pictured still happened around their 20s.

Related Video: Why Are You So Nostalgic for Your Teen Years?

Remember When?

Why might that happen? Scientists aren't quite sure. It could be that those decades are when you experience most of your firsts: first love, first job, first car, first heartbreak. Those memories are likely to stick out more in your mind than the second and third times they happen. It could also be the fact that your teens and 20s have the most diversity of experience. It's when most people move across the country to college, backpack across Europe, and otherwise sow their wild oats. In your 40s and 50s, you're more likely to have settled down with a house and a job.

What could be the most convincing theory, however, is that the era of the reminiscence bump is also the era that psychologists say is one of identity formation, when we figure out who we are. If something happened at the same time you were becoming, well, you, it's likely to have a pretty significant influence on your memory. It could explain why that album that came out in 10th grade and the crush you always saw in the university cafeteria have such an important place in your mind.

There's nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, it's good to realize that those memories are subjective. The world probably wasn't the best it's ever been when you were in high school and college. You just remember it that way.

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For a thorough debunking of 1950s nostalgia, check out "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 20, 2017

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