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Creative Memory: Scientists Think Adults’ First Memories Are Made Up

Before age three, scientists are fairly certain that we are incapable of forming long-term memories. So why do so many of us claim to have them?

Most of our early childhood memories are fictional. This isn’t our fault. Scientists are fairly certain that we are incapable of forming long-term memories before age three. This doesn’t, however, stop us from conjuring mental snapshots of infancy. A new study analyzes why so many of us think we have such memories. Researchers asked more than 6,000 volunteers to describe their earliest memories and found that nearly 40 percent claimed to remember events from age two or younger. Interestingly, all of these memories fall into a handful of predictable categories.

“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional,” said co-author on the study Martin Conway of the University of London, in a statement. “In fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don’t believe it…This type of memory could have resulted from someone saying something like ‘mother had a large green pram.’ The person then imagines what it would have looked like. Over time these fragments then become a memory and often the person will start to add things in such as a string of toys along the top.”

Several studies have demonstrated that first memories before age three are essentially impossible. But researchers always seem to identify a few resolute souls who maintain that they remember events that occurred even earlier. In extraordinary cases, limited evidence suggests this may be true. One 1998 study suggested that distinctive family events, such as the birth of a first sibling, may lead to the formation and long-term retention of an unusually early memory (although subsequent work in 2013 cast serious doubt on this conclusion). It is, however, scientific consensus that memories formed before age two are not real.

So, how do these fictional memories solidify and what do they say about our early experiences? This is the question Conway and his colleagues set out to answer. For the study, they collected responses from 6,400 participants via an online survey. Participants described their earliest memories and reported their ages at the time. Nearly 40 percent of respondents claimed that they had memories from age two or younger, and 100 percent of these memories fell into three categories: a baby carriage (“I was lying in my pram…”), family relationships (“My parents were going on a vacation…”), and feeling sad (“I remember feeling very sad, because…”).

The authors did not entertain the possibility that these memories were true, which left them befuddled. “The present findings pose a major conundrum,” the authors write. “Earliest memories cannot exist below about the age of two years…yet the main finding of the present survey of earliest memories, the largest such survey ever conducted, is that 2,487 of the earliest memories dated to when respondents were two years of age or younger.”

Conway and colleagues raise the possibility that we are simply misremembering our ages, and not the event itself. “It is possible that some of the dates given for first memories in the present study are incorrect estimates,” according to the study. “Indeed, it would be remarkable were they not.” They also suggest that self-selection may have played a role in the results. The sort of people who answer an online survey about their earliest memories tend to have rehearsed a specific memory in their minds, and may be more likely to claim an improbable early memory. These variables, largely due to study design, can account for some of the fictional memories.

But not all. So the authors suggest a third theory — that we cobble together memories from photographs, snippets of conversation, and inference, and then mold them into fictional memories to cover the periods in our lives that we simply cannot remember. Improbably early memories consist of “remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy or childhood,” said co-author on the study Shazia Akhtar of the University of Bradford, in the statement. “Details may be non-consciously inferred or added, e.g. that one was wearing nappy when standing in the cot.” (This was a very British study).

So your earliest memories are a lie. Take heart. Akhtar, Conway, and colleagues maintain that your autobiographical fiction is not only normal — it’s healthy. Studies have shown that having a positive, and consistent self-narrative helps us maintain our self-esteem. We thrive when we think that we know ourselves and our histories, even if the details are ultimately untrue.

“Fictional memories are then part of the life story,” the study concludes. “And may play a central, and positive, role in defining periods of life or lifetime periods.”