Scientists Think Your First Memory Probably Never Happened

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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 coauthor 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.

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