Research shows we’re better at recollecting events that occurred during our teens and early twenties than during any other period in our lives – an anomaly that experts call the “reminiscence bump”. One explanation for the bump, according to Steve Janssen and colleagues, is that our memories work more efficiently during our teens and early adulthood relative to other periods in our lives.
The problem with testing that biological account, however, is that it is possible events are more memorable from our teens and early twenties simply because they were more meaningful to us. Just think, your first driving lesson or first kiss will obviously be more memorable than subsequent ones.
As a way round this, Janssen’s team invited over 1000 people aged between 16 and 75 years to complete an internet-based test of events that had occurred in the news between 1950 and 2006. For example, “In which city was US President John F Kennedy assassinated in 1963?”; and “What was the name of the hurricane that flooded New Orleans in 2005?”.
The computer programme that ran the test ensured that each participant answered 30 questions from three periods: from before they were ten years’ old; from the era when they were aged 10 to 25 years; and from when they were older than 25 years. Some questions were multiple-choice, whereas others were free recall.
Among the younger participants, the recency effect (our tendency to better recall more recent events) and the reminiscence bump could be confused, so the researchers removed the influence of the recency effect from the data. Having done that, the researchers found clear evidence that participants of all ages tended to have a better memory for events that occurred during their teens and early twenties than at other times. This was particularly the case for the free-recall questions.
The researchers said their finding backs up the idea that events are stored better in adolescence and early adulthood because the brain works at an optimum during those periods (although they acknowledged this doesn’t mean that other explanations don’t also play a role). The new finding is also consistent with research showing that people tend to recall books, films and music from their teens and early twenties when asked to name their favourites.
What remains unclear is why memory works optimally during adolescence and early adulthood. “Is this effect caused by changing levels of hormones or neurotransmitters?” the researchers asked. “Or does working memory have a larger capacity in adolescence, enabling more memories to be stored? More work, by psychologists as well as neuroscientists, will be required to answer this question.”
Janssen, S., Murre, J., Meeter, M. (2007). Reminiscence bump in memory for public events. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 20(4), 738-764. DOI: 10.1080/09541440701554409