Last updated August 14, 2018 at 3:06 pm
Survey finds 40% of people’s first memories may be fictional.
Think back to your first memory. Maybe it’s sitting in a pram, or the house where your parents lived. There’s a good chance that memory may be fictional, according to the findings of a new survey.
The study, conducted by researchers from City University of London, the University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University found that nearly 40% of what people claim to be their first memory is from when they were aged two or younger.
The problem is, current understanding of memories indicates that an average person’s earliest memories date from around three to three-and-a-half years of age. Memories that occurred before that age tend to fade out at around the age of 7.
Around 14% of the responses in the survey claimed to have memories from age one or younger.
The researchers believe that the memories are a combination of fragments of early experiences and knowledge about their infancy – essentially creating a false memory subconsciously based on prior knowledge.
Delving into people’s memories
To investigate people’s first memories the researchers asked 6641 participants to describe their first memory along with their age at the time. The participants were asked to be careful it was a memory and not a story based on a photograph or some other source.
The researchers found that 38.6 per cent of the group claimed to have memories from age two or younger, with around 13.4% claiming memories from one or younger.
From these descriptions the researchers then examined the content, language, nature and descriptive detail of respondents’ earliest memory descriptions, and from these evaluated the likely reasons why people claim memories from an age that research indicates they cannot be formed.
When the researchers looked at the memories, they found that they were different to later memories. In essence, they were far more mundane.
For example, earlier memories revolved around events such as the pram, or getting tucked into a crib. Later memories however, which are more likely to be real, were more specific such as playing with toys or holidays.
“When we looked through the responses from participants we found that a lot of these first ‘memories’ were frequently related to infancy, and a typical example would be a memory based around a pram,” said Martin Conway from City University of London.
The researchers suggest that these fictional memories are based on remembered fragments of early experience – such as a pram, family relationships and feeling sad – and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy or childhood which may have been derived from photographs or family conversations.
“For this person, 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 becomes a memory and often the person will start to add things in such as a string of toys along the top,” said Conway.
Over time, we begin to unconsciously build a narrative of our life by combining all these fragments of acquired information, editing and constructing stories that we eventually recall as a memory.
“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional. In fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don’t believe it,” added Conway.
In particular, fictional very early memories were seen to be more common in middle-aged and older adults and about 4 in 10 of this group have fictional memories for infancy.
The research has been published in the journal Psychological Science.