Published on Psychology Today
“Alexa, play 90’s rock” is a sentence that comes out of my mouth almost daily. My husband (who happens to be a musician) tells me day after day that there is a ton of new music out there that he’s sure I would love. But when it comes to music that makes me the happiest, I always default to the music I loved when I was a teenager in the mid-1990’s. These are my “golden oldies,” or how my parents referred to their favorite music from the 1960’s, which also happened to be the music that was popular during the time when they were teenagers. I always thought my love for 90’s grunge was just the nostalgia of being middle-aged and looking back fondly on a time when I was younger. Or maybe it’s the fact that middle age makes us more set in our ways. But new research suggests that there might be more to it than that.
According to neuroscientists, music can actually be a really powerful memory cue. Think about it: Have you ever heard a song that suddenly took you back to a day or time that holds some kind of special significance to you? I’m guessing yes, and that the instance was most likely in your younger days. In fact, researchers have called the ages of 10 to 30 the “reminiscence bump,” because it is a period of time when we recall a disproportionate number of memories compared to other times in our lives. In one fairly recent study, researchers asked over 400 people ranging from 18 to 82 years in age to rate songs featured on the charts between 1950 and 2015. They consistently found that people best remembered songs that were popular while they were between 10 and 30 years of age. On top of that, they also reported that these songs evoked the most memories (Jakubowski et al, 2020).
Why? Some researchers think it’s because we experience a lot of important moments in these years that helps define who we are. Indeed, the teenage years are really important for developing our own sense of independence and personal identity. Further, it’s a time where a lot of changes are happening both in the body and in the brain. It starts with puberty, which is everyone’s favorite time, and ends with the transition from high school student to college-aged adult. So you can imagine that memories from this period might be particularly salient because they represent important moments in life that make us who we are—our first date, our first kiss, our high school graduation, the first day of college, and even our first job.
However, others have pointed out that this doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon, as even mundane, everyday events are remembered better during this time—not just life defining moments. Some researchers have instead suggested that adolescence is a sensitive period for rapid brain development, especially in the domain of memory, where the brain is particularly susceptible to taking in new information (Fuhrmann et al., 2015). This can include the day you graduated from high school, or all the lyrics to every Weezer song on the Blue Album despite its lack of importance to any practical life skill. Researchers found evidence to support this theory in a study where they looked at the brains of teenagers and adults who were asked to play a simple game. They were later asked to remember details about that game while their brains were being scanned using fMRI. Not only did teenagers remember more details about the game than did adults, but the part of the brain called the hippocampus—which is most involved in the formation of memories—was also particularly active in teenage brains during the study, but not in the brains of adults. This suggests that the hippocampus might be reinforcing learning experiences in the teenage years, and possibly making them especially memorable (Davidow et al., 2016).
So the next time you tell Spotify to play 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins for the 8th time this week, don’t feel old and lame: That’s just your brain’s remarkable memory for the music we loved so much in our youth. It also means that our kids are going to become adults that love the music of their youths. According to researchers, for some kids, that could very well be the music their parents played for them, which explains why my kids’ favorite bands right now include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Pearl Jam.
What can I say, my teenage brain still loves the 90’s.
Photo by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget
Davidow, J. Y., Foerde, K., Galván, A., & Shohamy, D. (2016). An upside to reward sensitivity: the hippocampus supports enhanced reinforcement learning in adolescence. Neuron, 92(1), 93-99.
Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., & Blakemore, S. J. (2015). Adolescence as a sensitive period of brain development. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(10), 558-566.
Jakubowski, K., Eerola, T., Tillmann, B., Perrin, F., & Heine, L. (2020). A cross-sectional study of reminiscence bumps for music-related memories in adulthood. Music & Science, 3, 2059204320965058.