The Mysteriously Memorable 20s
Why do we remember more from young adulthood than from any other time of our lives?
Twentysomethings are having a moment. They’re inspiring self-help guides (see Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How To Make the Most of Them Now), hit television shows, Tumblrs-turned-handbooks, and lyrical New Yorker think pieces. What is it about twentysomethings? Robin Henig asked in the New York Times Magazine not too long ago. In part, she was talking about the current crop of young adults. They are dreamy—they have their own fairy tales!—but also deflated and recession-squeezed; peculiarly savvy and adrift, connected and lonely, knowing and naïve. But she was also voicing a perennial obsession. What is it about twentysomethings in general? Why are we so fixated on the no-man’s-land between childhood and stable adulthood?
A little-known but robust line of research shows that there really is something deeply, weirdly meaningful about this period. It plays an outsize role in how we structure our expectations, stories, and memories. The basic finding is this: We remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives. This phenomenon is called the reminiscence bump.
Memory researchers have been wrestling with the reminiscence bump since at least the 1980s, when studies began turning up evidence that memory has a peculiar affinity for events that happen during the third decade of life. They still aren’t completely sure what causes us to drench those years with special import, whether it’s the intrinsic qualities of events that happen within that time frame, a consequence of the way our 20-year-old brains encode information, or a recall strategy that arbitrarily favors milestones from our salad days.
Autobiographical memories are not distributed equally across the lifespan. Instead, people tend to experience a period of childhood amnesia between birth and age 5, a reminiscence bump between age 10 and age 30 (with a particular concentration of memories in the early 20s), and at any age, a vivid period of recency from the present waning back to the end of the reminiscence bump.
At first, researchers proposed that the reminiscence bump coincided with a phase of developing mental firepower. Young adults encoded more information about the world because they were using state-of-the-art biological equipment, the theory went—relatively fresh and agile minds. As cognitive function declined with age, the flood of recorded memories would naturally slow to a trickle, though recent experiences would remain accessible.
Going deeper into the mechanisms of recall, scientists also noted that the brain transcribes novel experiences more readily than mundane ones. For instance, a 1988 study found that 93 percent of vivid life memories concern unique or first-time events. Might the reminiscence bump reflect the fact that late adolescence and early adulthood are suffused with “firsts” (first relationship, first time leaving home, first job, first marriage, first child)?
I called up Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, for his take. The effect “does seem related to how adulthood is structured,” he allowed. One’s 20s form “the period that’s the most varied and exciting; that’s when you’re hitchhiking across the country, going on lots of dates, having interesting encounters and learning about things for the first time.”
“You’re going to remember your trip hiking across Peru,” Foer continued, “more than the year you spent sitting in your office doing the same job you’d been doing for the past five years.”
Yet the cognitive account of the reminiscence bump leaves many questions unanswered. It doesn’t explain why only a small portion of the memories that constitute the bump relate to novel experiences. Nor can a hypothesis grounded in mnemonic processes say much about the results of a 2010 study by Annette Bohn and Dorthe Berntsen, who created a form of reminiscence bump in schoolchildren without asking them to remember a thing. They asked a large group of students, aged 10 to 14, to write their life stories. Most of the future events the kids dreamed up clustered around young adulthood. If the reminiscence bump were merely an offshoot of how our brains store memories, the researchers argued, the children wouldn’t have also privileged their 20s when projecting ahead.
Such findings lend credence to an alternate theory about the bump, one soaked in what’s become known as the “narrative perspective.” This approach focuses not on the mechanics of memory but on its underlying motivational factors. It suggests that we organize remembered events in ways that help us understand who we are.
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.