Why High School Memories Often "Loom So Large" In Our Minds
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for www.SixWise.com


In the June 11, 2006 issue of Parade Magazine, a curious reader of Marilyn vos Savant's "Ask Marilyn" column asks the following thought-provoking question: "Why do our high school experiences occupy such a prominent place in our memories?"

Marilyn's response is accurate and clever, but it is also a bit too brief (at least in my opinion). She writes: "During high school, we develop the most vigorous adult bodies we will ever have. At the same time, we possess the least amount of sense we will ever have. This combination produces many memorable moments!"

The main intention of this article is to explore Marilyn vos Savant's interesting-but-too-brief response to her reader at a more in-depth level.

For starters, she is absolutely right about teenagers being at their peak in terms of physical health and strength, while at the same time not possessing a whole lot of common sense.

High School Marks a Time of Many "Firsts"

However, I would like to add to her concise reply that high school is also a time for many "firsts"-first kiss, first love, first car, first everything-and most of us tend to remember (with astonishing clarity and vividness) the first time that we reached just about any important milestone in our lives. This is yet another reason that thoughts of high school can sometimes preoccupy us long after our high school days have ended.


Furthermore, for a long time, the conventional wisdom held that most teenagers' overall lack of common sense-along with their rather haphazard judgment and decision-making skills-could be almost exclusively chalked up to their "raging hormones."

And indeed, as any current teenager, current parent of a teenager-or anyone who has ever been a teenager- can tell you, adolescents have what Ronald Dahl, MD, refers to in his informative article, "Beyond Raging Hormones: The Tinderbox in the Teenage Brain" a "natural proclivity toward high intensity feelings."

In other words, nearly all teenagers have the innate capacity to act like "drama queens" or "drama kings" on any given day.

Relatively Recent Findings about The Brain Development of Teenagers

And yet, while raging pubescent hormones certainly do play a role in the emotional ups and downs that all teenagers experience, we now also have scientific proof (in the form of an extensive MRI brain scan study conducted by UCLA researchers, among other studies), that teenagers' brains do not reach full development until early adulthood.

And notably, it is the prefrontal cortex, located right behind the forehead-also known as the part of the brain that governs the "executive functions," such as logic, reasoning, decision-making, and the exercise of sound judgment-which develops last.

Moreover, when teenagers are around their peers, even the most thoughtful and intelligent among them can succumb to excitement, peer pressure, self-consciousness, and the nearly universal teenage desire to "fit in," which can in turn cause many of them to make some memorably-and alas, sometimes even tragically-bad decisions along the often rocky, and for some people, downright treacherous, road to adulthood.

What do I mean by "tragically bad" decisions?

Well, for one thing, it may be these relatively recent discoveries about adolescent brain development-along with what we've long known about raging hormones and the role of peer pressure-that explain why more teenagers are involved in car accidents every year, and why more of them are actually killed in car accidents, than any other age group, a sad fact which has caused some understandably anxious parents and lawmakers in states like mine (Massachusetts) to lobby for an increase in the driving age from the current age of 16 to 17 .

Why Certain Memories of High School are Particularly Vivid and Palpable

So, it would appear that these scientific brain studies-as well as the often questionable nature of teen driving and other teen behaviors-confirm what Marilyn vos Savant writes in her column; namely, that as teenagers, we "possess the least amount of sense we will ever have," which often leads to what she calls "memorable moments."


But why exactly do these particular memories-our high school memories-have such a powerful hold on us? Why do they so often seem as vivid (and in the case of negative memories, just as cringe-inducing) today as they did years ago?

Well, for starters, many, if not most, adolescents are deeply self-conscious, and also very hard on themselves about the ways that they imagine they come across to others, and about all of the dramatic changes that are occurring in their skin, bodies, voices, and so forth.

In addition, many of the experiences that they have feel extremely heightened and exaggerated, particularly at the sensory level. (The sensory level here refers to the way we absorb and process certain important and/or difficult experiences with all five of our senses, and also to how we incorporate those complicated sensory experiences into our lives.)

And of course, when ultra-heightened sensory experiences are revisited in hindsight, they tend to become ultra-vivid memories, often resonating in our hearts and minds for a very long time after high school graduation day.

A Classic Example of A Vivid High School Memory

For an example of what I am talking about, if a teenage boy-let's call him Jack-finally works up the courage to ask out the girl of his dreams after months of thinking about it, and if she then rather unceremoniously turns him down flat, chances are that every detail about that painful moment will be burned into his memory forever.

And Jack's sensory perceptions of that fateful event will play an important role in keeping this painful memory alive in his mind.

For years to come, he will recall exactly what the girl who rejected him looked like, every nuance in her facial expression as she turned him down. And if there happened to be music on in the background, he will probably remember exactly which song was playing. He may even recall (with upsetting precision) the scent of her perfume.

And, chances are, Jack will still physically cringe every single time he recalls that painful moment from his youth.

However, if something similar were to happen to him now, as an adult, he might be upset about it for a while, but not in quite the same way. He would likely not feel so deeply mortified that he would want to crawl into a hole and die (as his teenage self may have wanted to do under the same circumstances).

After all, upon reaching adulthood, he would have gained the sense of perspective that comes with maturity, which means that while he would certainly not enjoy getting rejected by an attractive woman, having such an experience as an adult would also not strike him it as an emotionally scarring crisis of epic proportions.

By the way, for an excellent radio program about all things "cringe-worthy" or "cringe-inducing" when it comes to being young and struggling mightily to find one's way, you may want to listen online to a full hour devoted to the topic on NPR's "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass.

And for a beautifully written, wonderfully evocative literary example of just how powerful a role our senses can play in our memories, take a look at the famous opening passage from Marcel Proust's classic work of literature, Swann's Way, in which the book's narrator dips his favorite French pastry, called a "madelaine," into a cup of tea, and the experience instantly catapults him back into some extraordinarily vivid (and in his case rather painful) memories of his childhood.

To close on a much happier note, our positive memories of youth can be just as vivid, just as palpable, and just as powerful in our hearts and minds as our negative, cringe-inducing ones.

So, whenever you find yourself strolling down memory lane, don't forget to think about that time you scored that winning goal, or that time you and your friends were sitting around laughing so hard that you thought your sides might split.

Memory is a powerful force, after all, and while we can't always control which memories pop into our minds and when, we can make a deliberate effort to zero in on as many of our happier youthful memories as we can recall.