Researchers say your first memory is likely to be a fiction

Mother and baby cooking

Results of a recent study has suggested that many of our early memories may never have happened – and that our brains have created them.

A team of researchers from UK Universities asked over 6,000 people of various ages to tell them their first autobiographical memory.

They were asked how old they were, how vivid the memory was and from what perspective the memory was ‘seen’ from.

On average our earliest memories are formed at around 3.24 years of age. However, 40% of respondents claimed to have memories from age two or below – and 14% reported memories from age one or below.

This doesn’t sit right with previous research into memory development which has shown that the parts of the brain responsible for forming memories have not developed until children reach 3-4 years of age.

The team questioned how so many people (2,487 out of 6,000) were able to report vivid memories from aged two or below when this wouldn’t be possible due to the necessary neurological processes not having developed yet.

They looked into the possibility that the respondents had simply underestimated their age at the time the memories were formed.

However, this didn’t ring true as the memories reported were specific to children aged two or under – such as being in a pushchair or a cot.

The early memories reported by the respondents who could remember from age three or over had recollections of childhood items or events such as toys or holidays.

The memories of each group were qualitatively different enough to rule out simple misdating.

The team concluded that the memories were likely to be fictional. It could be that respondents had taken in imagery from photographs, home movies or stories from relatives and then linked them to some fragmentary visual imagery and combined them to form a fictitious – but sometimes vivid – memory.

The fact that 40% of respondents reported having such early memories shows what a common occurrence this is.

Other studies have shown that no memories are ‘records’ of events – but rather ‘psychological representations of the self in the past’.

Useful links

Fictional First Memories study 

When autobiographical memory begins 

The construction of autobiographical memories in the self-memory system