“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”
-William Faulkner, Light in August
Memory is a complex thing. Hours, days and years fly by in our present, but the vast majority of our experience is lost to the past. Our memories are inconsistent. We tend to remember recent events (It rained yesterday morning and I ate at Frida’s last week) but as time passes most of our memories tend to fade.
It’s just not possible to remember most things. If we remembered everything it would likely drive us crazy (some people sort of can and it is a blessing and curse). A rule of thumb for how much we remember over time can be represented by the 100 year-old “Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve.” What each person remembers varies, but the below chart is an interesting representation.
With respect to long-term memories, most of our early memories are lost in the “fog of childhood” or “infantile amnesia.” We have few snippets here and there of events and emotions but we retain very few memories. Paradoxically, our brains are majorly shaped by the experiences that occur in the fog of childhood. Events and occurrences we cannot recall were extremely important in shaping our brains and who we become as people.
Our first solid long-term memories are from about age 8-10. Then the memories from our late teens through our late twenties tend to loom large as we look back from middle or later age.
Studies have found that we tend to remember events from our 20s more vividly than those that occur in our 30s, 40s or 50s. For example, when people in their fifties and later are asked to name their favorite books or movies they tend to name ones from their late teens and early twenties or those they have recently read/watched. When asked to recall and list memories of life events, older adults most vividly recall experiences from their early adult years.
This pattern of having more memories of early adulthood is called the “reminiscence bump.”
There are numerous possible reasons that our late teens and early twenties loom large in our memories.
What memory experts think is most likely is that our late teens and early twenties is when we most shape our identities. It is when we figure out who we are. We tend to remember the experiences and events related to our solving life’s basic issues.
Another theory is that we tend to remember first experiences more vividly than later similar experiences and many more first experiences happen in early adulthood. Going off to college, traveling alone for the first time,first job, renting first apartment or buying first house, etc.
We also tend to remember diversity of experience. There is no reason to look back and remember the details of a year mostly spent at work and doing about the same things every day. However, we tend to remember events like moving homes and making new friends in a new neighborhood, backpacking across Europe, having a child and the like. These types of different and diverse experiences tend to happen more in early adulthood.