quick! name the best years of your life!

I didn’t know the official name was the “reminiscence bump.”  But I did know that psychologists had found that when people reflected on their lives from the vantage point of middle age, the things they remembered most vividly seemed to be the things that happened in their twenties.   I even wrote about the phenomenon (without that evocative term) in an article for The New York Times Magazine about this period of life, a period  some psychologists call “emerging adulthood.”

The 20s are like the stem cell of human development, the pluripotent moment when any of several outcomes is possible. Decisions and actions during this time have lasting ramifications. The 20s are when most people accumulate almost all of their formal education; when most people meet their future spouses and the friends they will keep; when most people start on the careers that they will stay with for many years. This is when adventures, experiments, travels, relationships are embarked on with an abandon that probably will not happen again.

(I actually thought, when I went back to my article to capture that quote, that I would find reference to the actual studies that backed up my statements.  I know I had it in there in an earlier draft.  Alas, like so much of the original 10 or 15 drafts of that article, this little factoid never made it into the published version.  Oh, the trials and tribulations of the freelance writer.)

When psychologists theorize about the reminiscence bump, they explain it partly by suggesting that young adulthood — about ages 15 to 30 — is the period of life when the brain encodes and maintains long-term memories most efficiently.  That’s why they’re called up most often when you’re asked to tell the story of your life; the memories are right there, easily retrieved.

But maybe it’s not about memory at all.  Maybe there’s something about being in your twenties that strikes people, young and old alike, as somehow seminal to the person you are, or were, or will become.

That’s the suggestion of a study by two Danish researchers to be published soon in the journal Psychological Science.  Annette Bohn and Dorthe Berntsen reached this conclusion by studying people for whom the twenties were not a memory, but a projection. They asked adolescents, aged 10 to 14, to tell the future story of their lives.  And, much like their elders, these kids had the most to say about their young adulthoods — the young adulthoods they hadn’t yet experienced.

Memory scientists know that events that occur at times of heightened emotion are the ones you remember best, and young adulthood is nothing if not a time of heightened emotion.  Remember?  So maybe it’s not a “reminiscence bump” at all; maybe it’s something closer to a “salience bump.”  Which gives even more significance to the twenties, a decade that you’re thinking about as you approach it, and reflecting on for the rest of your life.

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