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.