If life is but a tapestry, then memory is the thread. But some of those threads may simply be imagined: A new study out today in Psychological Science suggests that our earliest memories often couldn’t have happened the way we remember them.
In 2007, the UK’s BBC Radio broadcast a series of programs centered around memory. As part of one program, listeners were prodded to take a survey on the BBC website. The survey asked them to recall various types of memories in as much detail as they could, such as what they were doing during a widely experienced event (known as a flashbulb memory) or a particularly self-defining moment in their lives. They were also asked about the earliest distinctive recollection they were certain they had.
The researchers behind this new paper studied the responses from more than 6,000 volunteers who filled out that latter portion of the survey. They found that nearly 40 percent of these volunteers swore they remembered something before the age of two; nearly 15 percent said their first memory happened before the age of one. That might not seem like a big deal, in of itself, except for the fact these memories probably aren’t real.
The vast majority of scientific research, for decades, has found that our brains simply don’t have the ability to process and encode life experiences into long-term memories before the age of three-and-a-half (we might have some memories of those early years when we’re kids, but they fade away by the time we reach third grade). That’s the lowest floor, too; some studies suggest we can’t really remember autobiographical events until as late as age seven once we’re adults. But that reality doesn’t stop people from believing otherwise.
“Memory is fallible and open to distortions,” lead author Shazia Akhtar, a senior research associate at the University of Bradford in the UK, told Gizmodo via email.
Other studies have found that people regularly remember things at too young an age to be plausible—some even claim to remember their own birth. But the authors say theirs is the largest-scale survey to examine how just frequently this happens. It’s also one of the few to ask people about their first memory across most every age group, young and old.
That last bit provided some interesting insights for the researchers. It was older people who had these implausible first memories more often, they found, with nearly 40 percent of volunteers over the age of 25 having memories of infancy.
You might think that’s because the older we get, the more we misremember a detail or two, such as the exact age we were when something happened. But that’s not what’s going on, the researchers say. The implausible early memories (those before age three) were noticeably different than “real” later memories, usually because they were age-appropriate and boring. A typical example of an implausible early memory would be getting tucked into a crib or walking on two feet, while a later memory would involve playing with toys, experiencing a holiday, or seeing your newly born sibling for the first time.
Instead, it’s more likely these implausible memories are an unconscious attempt to narrate our life story. We take bits and pieces of our early life from different sources—a familiar story of our first walk told by our parents or a picture of our crib seen on a family photo—then slowly replace the retelling of these details in our mind with an actual, if fictional memory that intuitively feels right, without ever being aware of it. And the older we get, the researchers suggest, the greater the need we have to remember our lives from beginning to end in a neat, emotionally significant narrative.
Of course, the creepiest part of all this is these implausible childhood memories are only the clearest example of self-editing. Every memory we have is, at least in some small way, fictional. And the more we recall a memory, the more that memory changes from the original version we first formed, like taking a picture of a picture.
These fictional memories aren’t inherently a bad thing, the authors point out. Having a consistent concept of ourselves is a crucial aspect of staying optimistic about life. And if we fudge a detail or two to better reflect our identities as we grow up, it’s usually harmless. Sometimes, though, our unreliable memory can definitely be destructive to ourselves and others.
That’s something worth remembering the next time you get into an argument with your parents about that awful Christmas gift Santa got for you when you were two.