In Brief

Why your first memories may not be real

Researchers find almost 40% of people have recollection from before the age of three - which is ‘impossible’

The earliest memories that many of us treasure so dearly may never have happened, according to a new scientific study.

 In one of the largest surveys of its kind, 38.6% of 6,641 people claimed to have memories from the age of two or younger. A further 893 claimed to recollect events that took place when they were one or younger, say the researchers, led by academics from City, University of London. 

But the results of previous studies indicate that people’s earliest memories date from around three to three-and-a-half years of age, and that developing any memories before this is highly unlikely or even impossible, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Such “recollections” seem to be “particularly prevalent among middle-aged and older adults”, news site ScienceDaily adds.

According to Medical Daily, “fragments of early experience (such as a stroller, family relationships and feelings of sadness) may be combined with accumulated knowledge about one’s own infancy through conversations or pictures”. The health news site explains: “These aspects come together and form a representation of sorts in our minds, rather than an actual memory.”

Psychology professor Martin Conway, who co-authored the new study, said: “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.

“When we looked through the responses 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.

“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.”

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