Sarah and Jim, 1988 & 2011.
For the past three years, Argentine photographer Irina Werning has been staging reenactments of old snapshots. The project, “Back to the Future,” includes 270 photographs made in 29 countries.
by Jennifer Senior
“…Not everyone feels the sustained, melancholic presence of a high-school shadow self. There are some people who simply put in their four years, graduate, and that’s that. But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the “reminiscence bump”—and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained. (Which perhaps explains Ralph Keyes’s observation in his 1976 classic, Is There Life After High School?: “Somehow those three or four years can in retrospect feel like 30.”)
To most human beings, the significance of the adolescent years is pretty intuitive. Writers from Shakespeare to Salinger have done their most iconic work about them; and Hollywood, certainly, has long understood the operatic potential of proms, first dates, and the malfeasance of the cafeteria goon squad. “I feel like most of the stuff I draw on, even today, is based on stuff that happened back then,” says Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, which had about ten glorious minutes on NBC’s 1999–2000 lineup before the network canceled it. “Inside, I still feel like I’m 15 to 18 years old, and I feel like I still cope with losing control of the world around me in the same ways.” (By being funny, mainly.)
Yet there’s one class of professionals who seem, rather oddly, to have underrated the significance of those years, and it just happens to be the group that studies how we change over the course of our lives: developmental neuroscientists and psychologists. “I cannot emphasize enough the amount of skewing there is,” says Pat Levitt, the scientific director for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “in terms of the number of studies that focus on the early years as opposed to adolescence. For years, we had almost a religious belief that all systems developed in the same way, which meant that what happened from zero to 3 really mattered, but whatever happened thereafter was merely tweaking.”
Zero to 3. For ages, this window dominated the field, and it still does today, in part for reasons of convenience: Birth is the easiest time to capture a large population to study, and, as Levitt points out, “it’s easier to understand something as it’s being put together”—meaning the brain—“than something that’s complex but already formed.” There are good scientific reasons to focus on this time period, too: The sensory systems, like hearing and eyesight, develop very early on. “But the error we made,” says Levitt, “was to say, ‘Oh, that’s how all functions develop, even those that are very complex. Executive function, emotional regulation—all of it must develop in the same way.’ ” That is not turning out to be the case. “If you’re interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it,” says Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence. “But if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”
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