Our Earliest Childhood Memories Are Probably False, Said Psychology Study

Let's hope they're comforting lies, at least.

Few things are more tender that your first childhood memory. Maybe it was a walk in the park, a moment with a beloved childhood pet, or the sheer bliss of yodeling in a Walmart. But this year, psychologists ripped away these security blankets and replaced them with some harsh, peer-reviewed truth in Psychological Science: Those early memories are probably fake.

As Sarah Sloat reported for Inverse in July, Martin Conway, Ph.D., a psychology professor at City University London and Shazia Akhtar, Ph.D., a research associate at University of Bradford began their work by reviewing 6,641 “first memories” gleaned from BBC Radio Four listeners. But when they looked at how old the listeners were when they made these memories, they noticed something strange: 2,487 of these listeners said these memories encoded experiences from when they were about 2 years old. 893 of the listeners claimed they originated when they were around 1 or even younger.

This is #18 on Inverse‘s 25 Most Surprising Human Discoveries Made in 2018..

The problem with this pattern, the researchers noted, is that at least neurologically speaking, it’s not possible to have a completely bonafide memory until the age of 3-and-a-half. When this paper was released, Conway explained that forming an adult-like memory requires you to have an adult-like experience of the world. Exactly how these memories form on a cellular level is the subject of ongoing research. However, these study authors point out that forming autobiographical memories require a type of neurological processing that most 2-year-olds haven’t developed yet.

“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,” Conway said.

Speaking very generally, memories are reinforced connections between neurons in the brain, which learn over time to fire together in ensembles. However, exactly where in the brain those neurons reside depends on the type of memory they encode. This paper specifically investigated how people recall autobiographical memories or “explicit memories” that involve themselves, which are stored in the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala.

This kid probably won't remember how much fun he had with these good boys.


These scientists indicate that people aren’t really able to encode explicit autobiographical memories until around the age of 3-and-a-half, though there is something that might extend that period a bit. They write that “other factors, including sociolinguistic development, may further lengthen the period in which full autobiographical memories form,” suggesting that part of encoding a complicated, adult-like memory is related to your ability to actually process and, at least try to, communicate about the world around you.

If a memory pre-dates that age, the authors add it’s likely that it’s simply a fragment supplemented by photos, stories or even misremembered facts that help form a more complete picture.

In a sense, these memories are a a bit like security blankets that help us create a narrative about ourselves — even if they’re not entirely factual. It’s hard to say if that’s comforting or not, but at least this year we learned the truth.

As 2018 winds down, Inverse is highlighting 25 surprising things we learned about humans this year. These stories told us weird stuff about our bodies and brains, uncovered insights into our social lives, and generally illuminated why we’re such complicated, wonderful, and weird animals. This story was number 18. Read the original here.

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