“When people look back over their lives and recount their most important memories," explained Kristina Steiner, a doctoral student in psychology at UNH and the study’s lead researcher, "most divide their life stories into chapters defined by important moments that are universal for many: a physical move, attending college, a first job, marriage, military experience, and having children."
UNH researchers asked a nearby retirement community to recall the best memories and to organize their life story into chapters, from beginning to end. The study revealed that a large percentage of recalled memories were mined from experiences between the age of 17 and 30 -- a phenomenon researchers call a "reminiscence bump."
The study -- the subjects of which were all white and well-educated, ages 59 to 92 -- was recently published in the journal Memory.
"Many studies have consistently found that when adults are asked to think about their lives and report memories, remembered events occurring between the ages of 15 to 30 are over-represented," explained Steiner. "I wanted to know why this might be. Why don't adults report more memories from the ages of 30 to 70? What is it about the ages of 15 to 30 that make them so much more memorable?"
Although the answer still isn't entirely clear, Steiner and other psychologists studying memory suggest our long-term memories give preferential treatment to beginnings and ends -- the frame, or bookends, for a life story.
"Our life narratives are our identity," Steiner said.
[University of New Hampshire]