If you’re a teenager or older, you’ve probably experienced your parents recalling something along the lines of “when I was a teenager….”. This story usually ends with an account of how they were not as picky, or messy, or spoilt as the current generation of youth. At times, they seem to go through bouts of nostalgia, where they paint a vivid picture of certain chapters of their life, as though that particular memory is somehow imprinted on their mind. The intricate details that you probably can’t visualize seem almost exaggerated by them, perfectly entombed somehow in memory.
But is your mom bluffing when she tells you what song she danced to during a particular wedding when she was younger? Is it possible for people to recall certain events of their life with such startling clarity?
Research suggests that older adults do have increased recollection of events in their lives between the ages of 10 and 30. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘reminiscence bump’.
Memory: Remembering and Forgetting
The Information Processing model of memory is one of the accepted models of memory. It can also help us understand basic memory functions. This model puts forth the three types of memory: sensory, short-term and long-term memory.
Think of the three memory systems as being a sort of enclosure with a maze inside. The periphery, or the entranceway, with signboards to guide you further, would be your sensory memory. This memory system accepts information from the sensory organs and is very brief in its capacity.
When you pay attention to specific essential parts of that periphery, like the signs, you may navigate your way further ahead into the enclosure, eventually finding yourself in the short-term memory space. Memorizing certain routes and repeating the details might aid you in the process. Short-term memory involves retaining around 7 items of information for up to 30 seconds.
After a certain point, you would be unable to rehearse all the routes by repetition, so you would try to form certain associations to help you connect the dots and successfully wade deeper through the maze. This final part of the maze would be the long-term memory space. This memory component is relatively infinite in its capacity. The way you process information, i.e. encode it, will determine the ease with which you retain it. As mentioned above, making associations with previously held information and making it salient will likely help you make sense of the maze more quickly. Making your way out would encapsulate the stage of information retention.
Of course, retrieving information from a sea of facts and figures includes all sorts of obstacles, such as forgetting. However, contrary to popular belief, the ability to forget information is incredibly important. Imagine not being able to forget even the most inconsequential piece of knowledge. How would you access the important parts of your memory or knowledge if they were buried beneath a never-ending downpour of new information? Dumping and recycling are integral in long-term memory logistics to keep our brains from getting rusty.
Our long-term memory is very similar to a maze. It safeguards memories about facts, figures and events from a person’s life. Then there are some everyday activities that are deeply ingrained in our memory, so much so that it feels like instinct. The fact that we can tie our shoelaces with our eyes closed or sign our name without having to think twice are good reminders of this type of memory.
The sequential presentation of information influences its recall. In a series of information chunks encoded from a list, the ones at the beginning and the end are better recalled than those in the middle. The former is due to the ‘primacy’ effect, while the latter is due to the ‘recency effect’. How is it, then, that the ‘reminiscence bump’ basically defies the influence of these effects?
Why don’t you have clear memories of your early childhood?
As it turns out, the primacy effect applies to a sequence of information pieces processed together. When it comes to memories ranging across a lifespan, however, ‘infantile amnesia’ seems to kick in. We generally seem incapable of clearly recalling early childhood memories (between the ages of 0 to about 8 years). The age of the first actual memory differs from person to person, but generally abides by this pattern. If you seem to ‘remember’ the party celebrating your 2nd birthday, it’s probably because you have been provided with an account of it, along with photographs. Your memory that far back is really a construction of narratives that were supplied to you as you grew up.
However, this does not explain how or why the reminiscence bump occurs!
The Reminiscence Bump: Strong nostalgia, or is there more to it?
The word ‘nostalgia’ indicates a certain longing for past events, a fond musing on ‘the way things used to be’. However, ‘used to be’ does not seem to specify a particular time. How is it that one’s inkling for the past generally refers to an individual’s youth or early adulthood?
The reminiscence bump may explain this selective nostalgia. Memory researchers have found that older people remember more events from their lives between their youth and early adulthood. When your parents recall the first house they moved to in such vivid detail, they may be able to picture all of it, crystal clear, even though they may be unable to recall what they had for lunch the day before.
This finding contradicts the accepted model of forgetting, which notes an instant decay of information after being encoded at a rapid rate, and then a slow decline in the percentage retained.
Why does the Reminiscence Bump affect recall the way it does? Why is it that adults, after their 40s, are able to more clearly recall events from their adolescence and early adulthood?
Different accounts for why the Reminiscence Bump boosts everyone
Numerous explanations have been offered as to why older adults experience the ‘Reminiscence Bump’ phenomenon. Differential encoding can untangle the dilemma posed by the bump. Four different accounts postulate how memories from certain prescribed ages are better processed and encoded.
The improved encoding of memories during adolescence can be ascribed to a biological or cognitive abilities account for the phenomenon. According to this, cognitive and neural mechanisms function better during one’s youth, enabling better processing and storage of input data and memories.
A cognitive account argues that the increased proportion and clarity of memories is due to the novelty of events experienced at that time. When we experience something entirely outside our field of comprehension, we try to keep it in mind as a future frame of reference. There are alleviated efforts at encoding and an increased rehearsal of events from that specified period, so they are more easily retrieved later.
The later retention of memories also depends on how accessible those memories are. Therefore, if they are more salient to the individual than others, sifting through the hordes of other recollections becomes a cakewalk. Memories from adolescence and early adulthood are considered to be a vital part of the self. These years play a significant role in identity formation, both personal and generational. The identity formation account of the reminiscence bump pertains to this aspect. Consider an era when a major band came into prominence, say ‘Queen’. Wouldn’t their music and its trendsetting attributes potentially affect the identity of an entire generation of adolescents?
Finally, the life script account considers culturally prescribed norms. According to this account, the early adulthood period consists of most of the memories that largely figure in the expected sequence of life events, which is affected by cultural appropriation. Graduation, marriage, buying a house, and having children form a part of the expected course of life and are retained prominently later in life. The word ‘reminisce’ has positive implications. In line with this, the events that are part of the reminiscence bump are believed to be positive, expected memories, rather than the negative, unexpected ones.
Is encoding all that matters in making a certain stage of life more relevant in those late-age memories? Do we only encounter the bump with personal memories in this particular timespan?
Is there just a single Reminiscence Bump associated with personal events?
Some studies have presented findings that public event memories may also form a bump, not just autobiographical memories. Of course, the magnitude of the event and the emotional reaction it elicited in a person is a decisive factor in its recollection, but since public happenings form a part of our identity, those from early adulthood may be part of a Reminiscence Bump.
Other research suggests that there are clusters of increased recollection, not just a single period. The retrieval cues that are used and the hints that jog the memory may also affect the bump you experience, not just the memory encoding. If asked to recall significant life events, people typically experience the Reminiscence Bump within the ages of 10 or 15 to 30 years. However, if they’re provided with certain words and asked to form associations with memories, the bump is pushed back in age, as it is no longer limited to culturally prescribed ‘important’ events. Similarly, olfactory cues, i.e., certain smells, may provide a larger playing field and include earlier memories that haven’t been verbally encoded.
The human memory functions in surprising ways. There are no patterns to follow or calculations to calibrate that can accurately predict what we remember and forget. Similarly, no law or theory can accurately postulate what and why we retain and discard from our memory. The ‘Reminiscence Bump’ phenomenon is just one of the many deviations and enigmatic areas in memory research. It is certainly not a set pattern limited to predictable norms. We must consider it simply as it is—a bump in the walk down memory lane!
- Psychology Fifth Edition, Kindle Edition by Girishwar Misra
- The Guardian
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation
- National Institutes Of Health (NIH) (Link 1)
- National Institutes Of Health (NIH) (Link 2)