ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland — Many people complain they can’t remember what happened last week, let alone last year. Surprisingly, a new study reports most people on average can actually recall memories dating all the way back to the age of just two-and-a-half years old. These findings are quite noteworthy as they dispute the long-agreed upon estimation that humans’ earliest memories begin around the age of three-and-a-half.
Now, this research doesn’t necessarily mean that you should immediately remember the color of your crib or what kind of cake was served at your third birthday party. Study authors explain that very early memories formed as a toddler aren’t quite as stable as later memories.
“When one’s earliest memory occurs, it is a moving target rather than being a single static memory,” explains childhood amnesia expert and lead study author Dr. Carole Peterson, from Memorial University of Newfoundland, in a press release. “Thus, what many people provide when asked for their earliest memory is not a boundary or watershed beginning, before which there are no memories. Rather, there seems to be a pool of potential memories from which both adults and children sample.”
“And, we believe people remember a lot from age two that they don’t realize they do,” she adds.
Researchers cite two main probable explanations for this phenomenon. At the heart of both is the simple fact that memory is a fickle thing. Details and backgrounds often blue together or are misremembered. The correct order of events also frequently becomes jumbled.
“First, it’s very easy to get people to remember earlier memories simply by asking them what their earliest memory is, and then asking them for a few more. Then they start recalling even earlier memories – sometimes up to a full year earlier. It’s like priming a pump; once you get them started its self-prompting,” Dr. Peterson expands. “Secondly, we’ve documented those early memories are systematically misdated. Over and over again we find people think they were older than they actually were in their early memories.”
‘Telescoping’ theory explains how we see our earliest memories
These findings are the culmination of 21 years’ worth of memory research by Dr. Peterson. For this latest project, 10 of Dr. Peterson’s earlier studies focusing on childhood amnesia were reviewed. After that, another series of analyses were performed on both published and unpublished data collected in Dr. Peterson’s laboratory dating all the way back to 1999. In total, 992 individuals were represented within those datasets. The recalled memories of 687 of those participants were also compared to the recollections of their parents.
Including parents into this process was essential. It helped study authors observe that many children’s earliest memories came before when they believe it happened, as confirmed by dear old mom and dad.
For instance, one earlier study reviewed by the team interviewed participating children after two and eight years had passed since their earliest memory. By the time of the second interview, however, the kids reported being older when the earliest memory occurred.
“Eight years later many believed they were a full year older. So, the children, as they age, keep moving how old they thought they were at the time of those early memories,” Dr. Peterson says.
Much of this can be explained by a term used in memory dating called “telescoping.”
“When you look at things that happened long ago, it’s like looking through a lens,” Dr. Peterson explains. “The more remote a memory is, the telescoping effect makes you see it as closer. It turns out they move their earliest memory forward a year to about three-and-a-half years of age. But we found that when the child or adult is remembering events from age four and up, this doesn’t happen.”
Peterson believes her team’s work provides compelling evidence that most people remember much more about their early years than they probably realize.
The study is published in Memory.