Have you ever—even half-jokingly—considered writing a memoir? In a recent study, researchers put people up to an interesting task: The participants, ages 59 to 92, were each asked to spend 30 minutes telling their life story. Then, once the oral autobiographies had been transcribed, they were told to divide their stories up into chapters however they’d like.
When the researchers took a look at the chapter separations, they found that 23.1 percent of all chapters began when the participants had been ages 17 to 24. Clearly, that period is way less than 23.1 percent of the average lifespan. What’s going on to make it so noteworthy then?
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Previous research shows that people tend to recall memories from ages 15 to 30 the most, says Kristina Steiner, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of New Hampshire. Researchers call it the “reminiscence bump.”
“The idea in the field is that you see this because of something called the ‘cultural life script,’” says Steiner. “We’re all kind of following along with these culturally sanctioned events—that’s things like graduation, getting married, having kids, buying a house, having your first job.” Most of those events do take place when people are teenagers and young adults, especially for the older generation that the researchers considered for this study.
The bump may also have to do with physical transitions, says Steiner. When you go to college, graduate from school, and buy your first house, you’re of course making physical moves. “We think that might, for whatever reason, make those memories and those time periods more memorable,” says Steiner.
(One note on the study: All of the 34 participants self-identified as Caucasian, and 76 percent earned at least an undergraduate degree, so this is not a representative national sample.)
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Interesting results, right? But what happens if you’re older than 24? Does life stop being memorable? Um, definitely not. While the study found that 17 to 24 was overrepresented in terms of memories, that didn’t mean the memories were necessarily joy-filled. “They include positive, negative, expected, unexpected—the whole range of memories,” says Steiner.