Earliest memories begin after the age of two

Perhaps your earliest memory is of a happy time on holiday – or a traumatic event such as a bad fall.

But if that memory is from before the age of two, it’s almost certainly fictional, researchers said yesterday.

For the 40 per cent of us who believe we remember an event from our first two years, we have likely created it falsely after seeing photos or hearing recollections from others.

In the largest ever study on early memory, 6,641 people were questioned about their first recollection. They were told the memory should not be linked to photos of themselves, a family story, or any other source apart from direct experience.

Almost 40 per cent of people claimed to have remembered things from before the age of two

The authors said 60 per cent of first memories were from the average age of 3.24 years – matching research showing this is when we develop the mental faculties to form memories.

But nearly 39 per cent of people – 2,487 – claimed to have memories from between the age of one and two. And 893 claimed their first memory was from their first year – an ‘astonishingly’ high number, the authors said.

These memories included ‘the first time I walked’, ‘wanting to tell my mother something before I could talk’, and ‘the first word I spoke’.

The authors said for older people, impossibly early memories could be explained by a need to ‘complete’ the story of their life to stretch back to their earliest years. Analysing the memories, the authors said 52 per cent of memories from below the age of two were of ‘lying in my pram’.

They said 30 per cent were about family relationships such as ‘my parents were going on holiday’ and a further 18 per cent remembered ‘feeling sad’. For ‘probable memories’ above the age of two, 20 per cent of people remembered toys, 16 per cent recalled the birth of a sibling, 15 per cent remembered school, and 11 per cent remembered holidays.

Professor Martin Conway, of City, University of London and co-author of the paper, said: ‘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.

In one of the largest studies of its kind in recent memory 6,641 people were questioned about their first recollection

In one of the largest studies of its kind in recent memory 6,641 people were questioned about their first recollection

‘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 become 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.’ He added: ‘It’s not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops.’

The study, conducted with BBC Radio 4, was published in the journal Psychological Science.


Under two (probably false)

Riding in a pram: 52 per cent of study participants claim they remembered lying in a pram, cot or pushchair

Family: 30 per cent believe they can recall family memories at this age, starting the recollection with a sentence such as: ‘My parents were going on holiday and me and my elder sister…’

Feeling sad: 18 per cent of respondents recalled an upsetting time

Over two (probably true)

A toy: 20 per cent said they remembered toys, for example saying: ‘My uncle had bought me a Looby Loo doll.’

Birth of a sibling: 16 per cent had memories such as ‘the arrival of my baby brother’.

Home: 16 per cent recalled their childhood home, for example, saying: ‘The front door opened directly into the kitchen.’

School: 15 per cent could recall memories such as their first day at school

Crying: 11 per cent recollected meltdowns – for example, ‘I remember crying hysterically.’

Holidays: 11 per cent had memories such as ‘travelling to a holiday camp in Sussex’.

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