One of my earliest memories, and perhaps my first, dates back to 1977. I was riding my silver jubilee Budgie bicycle down our street without stabilisers for the first time. I’d been trying for what seemed an age, but in truth was probably only a few minutes, but kept falling off or putting my feet down until after several failed attempts I was suddenly pedalling and staying upright.
I remember a feeling of excitement and delight as I trundled along the pavement. However, my reverie was broken by the sound of nearby voices and someone shouting to one of our neighbours, ‘the king’s dead’. At which point my concentration was broken and I came off my bike grazing my knee in the process. The ‘king’ in question was Elvis Presley and I was four-and-a-half years old.
It’s one of those early memories that has remained with me and one I can pluck out to this very day. But is it authentic? According to a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, the answer would be probably not.
Researchers have carried out one of the largest surveys of people’s first memories and found that nearly 40 per cent of people had a first memory which is fictional.
Current research indicates that people’s earliest memories date from around three to three-and-a-half years of age.
However, the study from researchers at City, University of London, the University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University found that 38 per cent of those questioned (out of a survey of 6,641 people) claimed to have memories from two or younger.
To challenge people’s first memories the researchers asked participants to give details of their first memory along with their age at the time. In particular, people were told that the memory itself had to be one that they were certain they remembered. It should not be based on, for example a family photograph, family story, or any source other than direct experience.
From these descriptions the researchers then evaluated how accurate they are likely to be. Many of these memories dated before the age of two and younger and the authors suggest that these fictional memories are based on remembered fragments of an early experience – such as being in a pram or family conversations.
As a result, what we perhaps have in mind when recalling these early memories are remembered fragments of early childhood mingled with some facts or knowledge about their own childhood, instead of actual memories.
“In our study we asked people to recall the very first memory that they actually remembered, asking them to be sure that it wasn’t related to a family story or photograph,” says Professor Martin Conway, Director Centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London and co-author of the paper.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“This partly due to the fact that the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex, and it’s not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world.”