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Why you’ll form your best memories before you’re 30

Sometimes it can be hard to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday. Yet somehow you remember the first book you ever fell in love with, what you were doing the first time your favourite song played, or where you were when something traumatic happened. Surprisingly, for most people, these most memorable moments happened between the ages of 10 and 30.

‘The reminiscence bump’ is the name given to this phenomenon, and psychologists around the world are kind of stumped as to why it happens. ‘The reminiscence bump refers to the higher than expected number of memories that adults over the age of 40 recall about their lives from between the ages of about 10 to 30 years,’ says Dr. Stefanie Sharman, Senior Lecturer at Deakin’s School of Psychology.

Research has shown that when asked to rate how much they like particular songs, people preferred songs that were popular when they were about 24 years of age. Earlier and later music was not liked as much. In another piece of research, when asked to name their favourite three books, movies, and records, people were also much more likely to report those that they encountered during the period of the reminiscence bump.

But why does this happen?

‘There are at least four explanations as to why this bump occurs,’ says Dr. Sharman. ‘These explanations are not mutually exclusive and it is possible that two or more factors contribute to the bump,’ she adds.

Theory 1: identity formation

If you think back on your teenage years, you’re sure to recall some memories which have helped shape the person you are today. ‘The period during one’s teenage years and early adulthood is a time for identity formation. Therefore, we may remember the events from the bump period best as these contribute the most to our identities,’ Dr. Sharman says.

Theory 2: physiological development

Secondly, the reminiscence bump may be explained by the physiological changes that occur to us during this time.

‘We experience a peak in neurobiological processes during this time period. People’s cognitive abilities are optimal during the period of 10-30 years of age; therefore, memories of events that occur during this time might be better encoded and stored for later retrieval,’ says Dr. Sharman.

'The reminiscence bump refers to the higher than expected number of memories that adults over the age of 40 recall about their lives from between the ages of about 10 to 30 years.'

Dr. Stefanie Sharman,
Deakin University

Theory 3: a time of firsts

‘During the ages of 10-30, we experience many events for the first time (e.g. first day at high school, first day at a job, first girlfriend or boyfriend, first child born). Such novel events may require extra effort during the encoding process in which memories are formed. In addition, because these events were novel, they may also be retrieved and rehearsed more often, which contributes to their later availability,’ Dr. Sharman explains.

Theory 4: life scripts

‘People develop “life scripts” that contain the major positive experiences that they expect to go through during their lives, such as marriage and having children. Many of these events occur during the period of 10-30 years; therefore, life scripts may help to structure people’s recall of these events,’ Dr. Sharman adds.

In each of these scenarios, experiences that we feel are not relevant to the identities we are forming are discarded. Our taste in music, movies, fashion – everything that we feel makes us us – is encoded deep within us for the rest of our lives during this key stage of emotional and physiological development. This might explain your parents’ taste in music, but it’s also an important reminder to make the most of this time, as you’re likely to remember it for the rest of your life.

Interested in learning more about the mind and how it works? Check out Deakin’s range of psychology courses.

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Dr. Stefanie Sharman
Dr. Stefanie Sharman

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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