Memory, Protests, and Pandemic

How aging is related to memory for self-identity shifts.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

The final installment on the hidden upsides of aging examines the way that we reflect on the past. Specifically, with age, we have better memory for events that shape us as individuals. We are often concerned to find that we cannot remember the details of our personal past as vividly and as accurately as we once could. Although this struggle can be frustrating, we often recall events that are most important for preserving self-identity.

This idea is especially important as the United States is simultaneously experiencing nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Andrew "Donovan" Valdivia/Unsplash
Source: Andrew "Donovan" Valdivia/Unsplash

Both of these events place individuals at crossroads that could shift self-identity. First, George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests require us all to take a hard look at how we speak, think, and most importantly act toward and for people of color in our communities. 

Second, as many states within the U.S. are beginning to slowly re-open during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us who are straddling the line between middle-age and older adulthood are having to consider how quickly (or slowly) we should reintegrate.

Both of these events will likely shift the self-identities of individuals across the adult lifespan in many important ways. Here we will unpack some of the memory research that points to why this may be the case.

When asked to remember important personal or public events, we are more likely to report memories from when we were between the ages of 10 and 30 (Rubin & Wenzel, 1996; Koppel & Berntsen, 2015). This “Reminiscence Bump,” or memory boost for our adolescence and young adulthood, can be experienced well into our 80s and 90s. It is even observed in individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (Kirk & Berntsen, 2018), suggesting these memories are some of the last to be forgotten.

To help us understand the Reminiscence Bump, it is important to think about the type of life events that occur during these formative years: we may move away from home, meet our future spouse, or establish a career. Memories surrounding these events are vital to the development and construction of life goals, self-identity, and personal beliefs (Fitzgerald, 1996). They reflect key milestones in the expected “life path” that many of us share within a culture, allowing us to structure personal memories using similar scripts (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004). 

Events that inform identity can also emerge outside young adulthood, and memory for the time-period around these events can remain strong across the lifespan (Rathbone, Moulin, & Conway, 2008). For example, individuals who voluntarily immigrate to a new country exhibit a reminiscence bump for the time-period when they established roots in a new home (Schrauf & Rubin, 2001).

 Clay Banks/Unsplash
Source: Clay Banks/Unsplash

We are all living through a unique moment in modern history, and the events of the past weeks and months have caused many of us to re-evaluate aspects of our own self-identity and how we view our interconnectedness with others in society. It is likely that this time period will be one that we will remember well for years to come.

The preservation of self-relevant information can even be harnessed to assist learning. At all ages, focusing on the self-relevance of information that may not have inherent importance to us, increases the likelihood of memory success in daily life. When we process information in relation to ourselves, it is remembered with greater success than if we passively process information (Gutchess et al., 2007). 

Prioritizing memories that shape personal identity is one more way that the brain optimizes its capacity as we grow older. Yes, it can be frustrating to lose the details of some memories, but remembering events that shape who we are appears to be far more important. 

We hope this series informed you about the number of ways that our brains and cognition grow and expand with age, resulting in what can often be more meaningful and more developed views of ourselves and social networks. When we began this series, we could not have anticipated the way the past months would have unfolded. We hope it has been worthwhile for you to view these topics through the lens of the effects of the current pandemic. We will delve more specifically into the psychology of re-emerging from the pandemic in our next post, before launching a new series to explore behavioral changes that can help to enhance cognition throughout the lifespan.


Berntsen, D. & Rubin, D.C. (2004). Cultural life scripts structure recall from autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition, 32, 427–442

Fitzgerald J.M. (1996) The distribution of self-narrative memories in younger and older adults: Elaborating the self-narrative hypothesis. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 3(3), 229–236

Gutchess, A. H., Kensinger, E. A., Yoon, C., & Schacter, D. L. (2007). Ageing and the self-reference effect in memory. Memory, 15(8), 822-837.

Kim, M. & Berntsen, D. (2018). The life span distribution of autobiographical memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychology, 32, 906-919.

Kirk, M., & Berntsen, D. (2018). The life span distribution of autobiographical memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychology, 32(8), 906.

Koppel, J. & Berntsen, D. (2015). The peaks of life: The differential temporal locations of the reminiscence bump across disparate cueing methods. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4, 66–80.

Rathbone, C.J., Moulin, C.J.A., & Conway, M.A. (2008). Self-centered memories: The reminiscence bump and the self. Memory & Cognition, 36, 1403-1414.

Rubin, D.C. & Wenzel, A.E. (1996). One hundred years of forgetting: A quantitative description of retention. Psychological review, 103, 734-760.

Schrauf, R.W. & Rubin, D.C. (2001). Effects of voluntary immigration on the distribution of autobiographical memory over the lifespan. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, S75-S88.