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Many people’s earliest ‘memories’ are fictional, study finds

What many people are really recalling is “an episodic-memory-like mental representation consisting of remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy/childhood,” write the authors of the study.

A large percentage of us insist that we remember things that happened to us during our first two years of life, including the extremely unlikely — or “fictional” — memory of saying our first word or taking our first step.
Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash

For a long time I thought my earliest memory stretched back to when I was about a year-and-a-half old and my mother held me in a steamed-up bathroom to help ease my symptoms of a bad case of croup.

The memory is vague, however, and is interwoven with my remembrances of my mother telling me about that night. It’s not anywhere near as clear as my next-earliest memory, which was meeting the little girl who would become my childhood best friend. My family was moving into our new home, and she was on a nearby front lawn in a wooden swan that rocked back and forth. I thought it was the most amazing toy I had ever seen.

I was three-and-half years old at that time. My age, along with the fact that my remembrance of meeting my friend has not been enhanced by the storytelling of others, makes that particular memory almost undoubtedly my earliest. Researchers who have investigated the topic of early memories have generally concluded that any memories from before age 2 are highly improbable because of the way our brains — and our ability to form lasting memories — develop in early childhood.

Yet, according to a fascinating study published last year in the journal Psychological Science, a large percentage of us insist that we remember things that happened to us during our first two years of life, including the extremely unlikely — or “fictional”  — memory of saying our first word or taking our first step.

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What the person is really recalling is “an episodic-memory-like mental representation consisting of remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy/childhood,” write the authors of the study.

With the passing years, details may be non-consciously attached to the memory, making it seem even more real.

“Such episodic memory-like mental representations come, over time, to be recollectively experienced when they come to mind, and so, for the individual, they quite simply are ‘memories’ which particularly point to infancy,” they explain.

How the study was done

For the study, researchers from three British universities surveyed 6,441 people about their first memory, including the age they believed they were when the event in the memory occurred. People were recruited through a BBC radio program, and they filled out the survey at a BBC memory website.

Most of the participants (82 percent) were British, and well over half (64 percent) were women. They ranged in age from 11 to 90-plus, although their mean age was around 42.

The survey asked about first memories, not early memories, a factor that differentiates this study from most other ones, according to the researchers. Participants were also told that the memory had to be a single event that lasted no longer than minutes or hours. And it had to be a memory they were certain they remembered — not one based on family lore or photographs or any other indirect source.

The researchers divided the memories into three categories: “probable” (ones that the respondent said happened between the ages of 2 and 5), “improbably early” (before age 2), and “improbably late” (at age 6 or later).

About 52 percent of the people who took the survey reported probable memories. But a remarkably large proportion of the respondents — 39 percent — reported improbably early memories, ones that they said occurred before their second birthday. In fact, 13 percent of that group — 893 individuals — said their memories stretched back to before they were a year old. That was more than the 9 percent that reported improbably late first memories.

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The overall mean age at which the respondents said their first memory occurred was 3.2 years, “which compares favorably with previous findings of the mean age of the earliest memory,” the researchers write.

‘Imagined rather than experienced’

The unexpected finding that a large percentage of people had improbably early memories posed what the researchers call “a major conundrum.”

The possibility that the respondents had simply incorrectly dated their first memories could be ruled out because the events described were related to being an infant (such as riding in a baby pram), not to being an older child. That left the researchers to conclude that the improbably early memories cited by the survey’s respondents were “imagined rather than experienced events.”

Here’s how they came to that conclusion:

We found that accounts dating to 2 years and earlier contained details relating to infancy. Under the three broad categories of pram, family relationships, and feeling sad, these were details such as “an image of my pram,” “being in my cot,” “in my push chair,” “having my nappy changed,” and, even more implausibly, “the first time I walked,” “wanting to tell my mother something before I could talk,” “the first word I spoke,” and so on. On the basis of these descriptions, we suggest that what people often have in mind when “recalling” these improbably early memories is an image (often visual) of an object or action possibly dating to very early childhood. This might be based on experience or derived from a photograph or a description (the rememberer may not be aware of the source of the image or images). Other sources of details for improbably early memories may derive from family stories or history, for example, “the first word you spoke was ‘X,’” “all you ever wanted to do when you were little was walk,” and so on. These facts of infancy, possibly along with some visual fragments form the basis of remember infancy: Their source is believed to be or even experienced as being from these very early ages, and, according, dated to those times.”

“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional,” says Martin Conway, one of the authors of the study and director of the Centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London, in a released statement. “In fact, when people are told that their memories are false they often don’t believe it. This is partly due to the fact that the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex, and it’s not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world.”

For more information: You’ll find an abstract of the study on Psychological Science’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall. The journal is published by the Association for Psychological Science.