That first memory burned into your brain might be totally made up

18 Jul 2018

Image: Mariia Smeshkova/Shutterstock

Many people claim to have a first memory that dates to their earliest years, but a new study finds it could be a total fabrication.

For some, it is remembering crawling around their cot; for others, it could be travelling around town in a buggy. Either way, there is a considerable number of people who claim to have a first memory that dates back to when they were as young as just a few months old.

Current research states that the earliest possible memories are believed to occur from when we were three years old, and a new study suggests that those who recall an even earlier memory are actually completely making it up.

In a study published to Psychological Science, researchers at City University of London, the University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University conducted a survey of 6,641 people, whereby many claimed to have memories from two or younger, with 893 people saying they have them from when they were one or younger.

As it turned out, the team found that just under 40pc of these individuals were actually recounting a memory they never experienced, no doubt leading some science-fiction enthusiasts to draw comparisons with the androids of Blade Runner being given false memories to think they’re human.

The findings also showed that these fabricated memories were more prevalent in middle-aged and older adults.

The familiar pram

To come to this conclusion, the researchers asked the participants to describe their first memory as well as their age at the time.

So, for example, the memory should not be based on a family photograph, family story or an indirect experience.

As many of the memories are dated from the age of two or younger, the authors of the study suggest that these fictional memories are based on remembered fragments of early experience, tying in with stories from family members. This leads to the manifestations of memories that never happened and, over time, they are recollectively experienced by others and reinforced as memories.

“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,” said Prof Martin Conway, co-author of the paper.

“In fact, when people are told that their memories are false, they often don’t believe it. This is 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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic