Memories and Identity: Why We Love Looking Back

Our memories are a patchwork that tell us who we are and what we can be.

There was a haunting public service announcement in 1980s Great Britain where I grew up, an anti-smoking TV commercial that caused a nationwide stir. For 30 years it has existed in my brain as a vague memory save for a few striking details. Decades later, to my delight, I would find the ad on Youtube.

A pallid bald man in a bathrobe – a future “Natural Born Smoker” – is sitting in a Blade Runner-inspired apartment, bathed in lights and shadows, puffing a cigarette and staring into space. As the man sucks in air, a voice describes his natural ability to filter smoke, his “highly developed index/middle finger” to flick ash, and his small, recessed ears because he “doesn’t listen”.

He looks like a crack addicted orc from Middle Earth.

It was mesmerizing to watch, even 30 years later, and I relived it with a great sense of familiarity and comfort. Which are weird things to say about an anti-smoking ad that terrified me as a little boy.

Why did I remember this ad among a sea of others? The key perhaps lies both in its imagery and the time that I saw it too.

The Rocking 80s

Max Headroom - good memories

If Max Headroom, Vivienne Westwood, and the cast of Labyrinth had a cocaine party, the 80s would be its aftermath. You know: big hair, padded shoulders, rockers in spandex, and synthesized drums. Star Wars. New Wave, He-Man, Atari, and the Cabbage Patch Kids. VHS vs Betamax. Robocop vs ED209. BMX bikes, E.T. phone home. The Cold War, Communist Russia, and Roger Moore’s cheeky James Bond “keeping the British end up.” Neon green, loud pink, and Smurf blue.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 80s (definitely not of neon green, loud pink, and Smurf blue). But now I’m pushing 40, I find myself looking back with a peculiar affection.

Last year I created a Spotify playlist of 80s hits, including The Final CountdownRock Me AmadeusShattered Dreams, and a slew of other 80s one-hit-wonders. I re-watch 80s movies, stuff I haven’t seen in ages, and find myself remembering scenes and snippets of dialogue. I search for TV shows on Youtube and hum along to their theme tunes with sprightly recognition. I fondly lock into 1980s culture like it were some golden age of humanity, the best years to have been a kid.

Stranger Things, 80s nostalgia

Then along comes Stranger Things, the recent 80s-inspired supernatural thriller by Netflix. All the trappings of that era were effectively realized in the show, from the fashion, tech, right down to the fanciful title sequence, with its faux imperfections and evocative, electrospheric soundtrack. I ate it all up.

The 80s may be over but they’re alive and well in the hearts of pre-millennials everywhere.

Weird memories

The Reminiscence Bump

There’s a reason for this. It turns out that many of our strongest autobiographical memories are formed between the ages 10 to 30. Psychologists call this the “reminiscence bump”, a collection of memories that fit like an incomplete jigsaw into something that resembles our adolescence and early adulthood. As we age into our 40s and beyond, we look back with warm-fuzzy feelings on these disparate fragments of yesteryear, the way we’d perhaps flit through a photo album of faded snapshots, nostalgic for a time that once was. We then spend the rest of our days remembering, cherishing (and gradually forgetting) these key moments.

It’s not clear why the 10s-30s is a prominent memory-building period. Some scientists believe this is when our brains are at their healthiest, creating and storing memories at an optimized rate. Others say that novel memories are filed more efficiently during this time of rapid change (puberty and early adulthood) and subsequent recall is easy because of the stability of adult life that follows.

The theory I like most is the narrative/identity account, which says that the reminiscence bump is a combination of memories that have most deeply affected us – key moments that helped shape who we are or had profound effects on our identity.

Half-forgotten memories

In a study titled Self-Centered Memories: The Reminiscence Bump And The Self, researchers at the University of Leeds, UK reported that, “Image formation occurs most frequently during adolescence and early adulthood… the standard reminiscence bump is most plausibly due to the clustering of memories around several self images that are crucial to the self.”

In other words, many of the loudest memories from our childhood are those that explain who we are. The “natural born smoker” ad? It was provocative and thought-provoking. I’ve always loved the power of images and words to sell an idea; perhaps it was an early and decisive influence on me as a writer and artist?

I have several other vivid memories from the late 80s. Certainly the clearest of these are ones of personal growth and discovery. Like when I realized, with unusual clarity, that I had outgrown whining and crying as a response to situations where I didn’t get my way. Or the time when I forced myself to stay up on Christmas Eve to prove that Santa Claus wasn’t real and it was my parents who were responsible for stuffing our stockings. I can remember my mother and aunt creeping into my room, placing gifts, whispering, trying not to wake me. I recall playing along, vindicated in my suspicions, but unwilling to spoil the magic.

Some of these memories are particularly strong and detailed. Psychologists call them “flashbulb memories” because of the intensity of the moment. They sear themselves onto our brains and affect us in distinct and powerful ways.

I once had to leave class early to visit the dentist. My teacher, upon learning the appointment was at 2:30, replied, “Ah, tooth-hurty!” The play on words must have lit up my brain something silly because I’ve always remembered that joke and have tried to repeat it throughout my life, whenever I’m talking about dentist appointments. Perhaps this was also a key moment in my development as a writer, when I realized that language was pliable and fun; I’ve been toying with words and puns ever since.

According to the narrative/identity theory, it’s memories like these that collectively swirl in our consciousness, forming a childhood-to-adulthood narrative that becomes our “official” story. They are positive recollections of how we came to be.

The Power of the Dark Side

The dark side of past memories

Not all memories from the reminiscence bump are happy ones. Adolescence is often a mixed bag of nuts; some handle it well, others leave behind a trail of angry diaries filled with dark thoughts and crappy poetry. While I had a fairly cheerful childhood in a stable, loving family, there was one incident outside the home that shook me for life.

When I was 10, I was bullied by a boy named David, the resident tough guy from a rival school. I had never met David before nor done him any wrong but my neighborhood friends (schoolmates of his) would relay his threats to me. This sudden, uncertain aggression rocked my world.

We eventually crossed paths during a visit to our future high school, when all the kids from our district convened on one campus for a simultaneous tour. David somehow found me through the crowds. He walked up to me and punched me in the stomach. Then he disappeared. I spent the rest of the day nervously looking over my shoulder, filled with dread that he’d do a surprise follow up.

The unprovoked suckerpunch deeply affected me. It was a flashbulb moment of singular force – my personal Chernobyl. Someone had decided they didn’t like me, for no apparent reason, and wanted to do me harm. I didn’t know how to process that.

When I discovered that David didn’t live too far from me, I was convinced he’d find me and beat me up. So I refused to leave the house alone. I stopped playing outside altogether. I kept to myself. Nuclear winter had settled on my soul.

It took a while to get over this and I’m sure several of my teenage neuroses can be traced to that one incident. I also think this memory, along with several other bleak experiences from this period, tainted my recollection of the 80s, like an invisible blanket of residual nuclear radiation.

Choosing a Path

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” said Kierkegaard. That’s what maturity is: accepting life as it is, both the good and bad, and always deciding on a course forward. The reminiscence bump is a welcome way to look back, to better understand what came before so we can decide what’ll come next. Our narratives, then, become more than just interesting stories. They are backdrops to how we choose to proceed in life.

A path beyond your memories

Ruth E. Ray, an English professor at Wayne State University, writes in her book Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-story Writing, “In order to maintain a positive sense of identity, people telling their life stories either deny events that are inconsistent with their sense of self (assimilation), or they report the events, particularly those with high negative content, and perhaps change the self-concept as a result of them (accommodation).”

In other words, distressing memories are either ignored completely or accepted as crucial moments in our life stories, events that we acknowledge are essential to who we are today. Some people live in denial, angry at the cards they’ve been dealt, always blaming everyone and everything else for the way they are and the way things are going to be. Others look back and say, “OK, that happened. I choose now to move on.”

In this regard, the reminiscence bump is less a photo album of half-remembered snapshots and more like a mismatched blanket – a giant patched quilt. It looks great in places and sometimes the patterns and colors really line up well. But there are also some ugly spots, pieces that feel awkward and out of place.

Me? I enjoy my mismatched blanket for the warmth it gives. Over time, I’ve even learned to love its maddening imperfections.

Even the patches of neon green, loud pink, and Smurf blue.

Check out the Natural Born Smoker ad.

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