Augsburg College held back-to-back Commencement ceremonies May 2-3. The College welcomed nearly 4,000 people to campus who celebrated the achievements of the Class of 2015, gathered as family and friends, and participated in Augsburg’s unique approach to the centuries-old tradition of graduation.
As one of life’s “big days” alongside events like a wedding or the birth of a child, it’s common for a commencement to be a memorable experience that people can recall for years—and even decades—afterward. Yet, of the thousands of attendees at this year’s ceremonies, it is unlikely that any two people will retain exactly the same event details in the same way.
Why is that? Naturally, it’s due to the fact that each person’s process of making and recalling memories is complex. Augsburg College professor and cognitive psychologist Bridget Robinson-Riegler helped illuminate how and why people remember the standout days in their lives in accurate—and inaccurate—ways.
What makes a commencement day memorable?
Cognitive psychologists have found that the most distinctive life events also are the most likely to be remembered. For many people, participating in a commencement ceremony is the type of occasion that only happens a few times over the course of their lives, such as when they complete high school, college, a graduate program, or attend a graduation event for a child or loved one. The event as a whole is unique and so are particular elements of the day.
For instance, contemporary Augsburg graduates process to the commencement ceremonies by walking down 7 ½ Street, which is lined with faculty members applauding the graduates’ achievements. This type of event is so unique that the experience likely will form a memory that persists over time, according to Robinson-Riegler.
Just as distinctive events are more likely to be remembered, occasions that are laden with emotion also make their mark. The two parts of the brain that serve in memory-making include the amygdala, which is responsible for the emotion of a memory, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for creating the coherent story of a memory. People are likely to remember many of the feelings they experienced on a commencement day because it’s a time of high emotion and maybe even some stress.
While graduation is not stressful in a traumatic sense, there’s a lot of excitement associated with the event, which accentuates the activation of the amygdala. Then, because the amygdala is functioning at a relatively high level, a person remembers much of the emotion of a commencement.
“Ten or 20 years into the future, you remember some of the day’s details—some of the big things about it—but it may be easier to remember how you felt,” Robinson-Riegler said.
When an event occurs also affects a person’s ability to remember it. For many traditional undergraduates, graduation falls at a time in life known as the “reminiscence bump,” the period that spans approximately from age 10 to age 30 when things are most remembered.
“As we age, things become more routine, so what stands out are things that are distinctive in your life,” Robinson-Riegler said. “The things that you talked about, that you spent a lot of time rehearsing or explaining—the events like graduations and weddings—those are things that are better remembered.”
Despite the memorability of unique and emotional moments, the accuracy of our memories is not always reliable. One of the reasons memories change over time is that people come into contact with new situations that shape their recollection of the past.
“None of us really should trust our memories as much as most of us do; the gist of our memories is often accurate, but the details of exactly what happened are often inaccurate,” Robinson-Riegler said.
Graduation is an interesting event to recall because there’s not a lot of “cross-contamination” of memory from the event happening repeatedly, but there are disturbances in memory caused by outside influences.
For instance, people have what’s known as “schematic knowledge” about what graduations entail. Due to popular culture, a person who has never attended a graduation may be able to explain what happens at the celebration because the event typically follows a formulaic structure that includes listening to speeches, watching graduates walk across a stage, and so on. In addition, people’s memories about past events can become skewed by the individuals they interact with later and the discussions that follow. Graduations might spur conversations with friends and family that help a person “fill in the gaps” where their own memories have faded, according to Robinson-Riegler.
“Think about how easy it would be for someone to infuse a memory from what someone else said about graduation, and suddenly it becomes your memory so you have no idea what the reality is,” she said.
In addition to pulling outside comments into your memory pool, commencement recollections can be influenced by the photos and other artifacts from the day that a person comes across later.
“If you see pictures of the graduation ceremony, those things get into your head, so to speak, as you reconstruct your memory based on several different components,” Robinson-Riegler said.
Ultimately, when Auggies of all ages think back on their commencement experiences, those memories are shaped by myriad factors, but it’s the outcome of the education that persists over time and can be counted upon for the remainder of their lives.
And, while college memories may fade and change over time, they still serve several purposes—one of the best being to make us smile.