Your earliest memory might never have happened

Researchers say it's unlikely that people can have full "autobiographical" memories from before age two.

One respondent in study on childhood memories claimed to remember the inside of baby carriage

Authors of a new study say people are unlikely to remember events from their childhood that happened before they were old enough to talk. (Katya Shut/Shutterstock)

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We all suffer from a mysterious phenomenon known as "childhood amnesia" — the inability to remember our earliest experiences. It's a universal forgetting that researchers cannot fully explain.

Still, most adults are able to rummage around in their brain's dusty attic and retrieve a few fragments of very early memories.

But are those memories real?

This week a group of U.K. scientists said probably not, at least not if you think the memory dates back to the years before you could talk.

"We don't believe you can recall a memory from your pre-verbal stages," said study co-author Shazia Akhtar, a senior research associate at the University of Bradford, England.

"Many first memories are memories that are formed from stories that have been told by relatives, or they could be formed from piecing information together from photographs or [be] just completely fictional."

Akhtar and her team conducted the study using an online questionnaire linked to a BBC radio series about memory. Listeners were invited to log on and complete the questionnaire describing the first thing they can remember from their childhood.

Memory of being in the pram

More than 7,000 people answered, with stories like this one from a respondent who claimed a first memory at age one, recalling how the baby carriage looked from the inside.

"I can still see the pattern of the hood trim from the inside, the toy strung across with yellow, pink and blue plastic lambs that rattled when I hit them, and the inside of the sun shade that was clamped to the pram when the sun was shining green lining and a tiny abstract/flower pattern," the respondent wrote.

But at age one it's unlikely anyone can recall anything, according to the paper, published this week in the journal Psychological Science.

"The overwhelming evidence and theory is then that full earliest autobiographical memories do not emerge before about the age of about 24 to 36 months, and, if anything, the onset of full autobiographical memories may not be until later than this," the authors wrote.

The study concluded that nearly 40 per cent of the first memories people described must be fictional, because they happened too early in life.

"Some of the memories were of the first step. Now that could be a respondent believing that was actually a memory. But it could be a story that was told by a parent which then formed it," said Akhtar.

Some people even said they could recall being born.

Aktar said she believes reliable memories start in about the third year of life.

Too early to say at what age memory begins

Canadian psychologist Carole Peterson, a professor at Memorial University who has been studying childhood memories for years, agreed that no one can remember being born. She said it's likely that some early memories are fictional.

Memorial University professor Carole Peterson said memory may be influenced by social variables, such as how parents speak to their children. (Submitted/Michael Bruce-Lockhart.)

"Absolutely. Our memory processes are reconstructive. You're going to have some fictional ones for adults and I'm sure you're going to have some fictional ones for very, very young memories."

But she said it's too early to say with certainty at what age memory begins.

"I don't think we know enough to [say] 'Oh, here is the absolute line. Children cannot remember before this age.' We just don't know enough to be able to say that."

"For some children, particularly bright and verbally capable children, [ability to remember] might go down to 18 months or 20 months."

Dr. Peterson's big take-home message is that most people who claim to recall their first memory can remember from that age.

  "Memory systems are functional and two-year-olds can talk about past events, and can remember them for long periods of time. Lots of research has shown that."

Both Akhtar and Peterson said it is important to know when children begin to form reliable memories of events, especially in cases where children are victims of abuse or are witnesses to violent crime.

"That has all sorts of consequences for memory and the law," said Akhtar. "We need to be able to age a memory."

Peterson said: "It is important to take these memories seriously, not dismiss them as 'fictional.' If you wholesalely dismiss any possible memory from a child who's under three years of age, then what you're really saying is no child under three years of age can possibly have anything but fictional memories, so any abuse they report or any other evidence they report forensically has to be nonsense. That's important."

Researchers are also learning that childhood memory can be influenced by parents and other social interactions.

"If [parents] do a lot of elaborative talking about experiences on a day-to-day basis, children are much more likely to acquire the habit of memory," said Peterson.

"We know that memory is influenceable by social variables. And we also know there is a lot of variation between individuals."

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Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a health and science reporter, who previously spent more than 30 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs for CBC News.