Mind & Body

There's a Good Chance Your Earliest Memories Are Fake

What's your earliest memory? Maybe it's learning to ride a bike, or your very first baseball game, or this very morning as you relive a "Groundhog Day"-esque scenario over and over again. Or maybe the earliest memory wedged in your brain is a bit older than that: your first steps, your first solid food, your first set of colorful blocks. A lot of people do have memories from the first two years of their life — or at the very least, a lot of people believe they have those memories.


According to a new study led by Shazia Akhtar of the University of London, 2,487 of 6,641 participants reported that their earliest memories dated back to age two or younger. That's a full 40 percent of respondents, which is pretty noteworthy. That's because, according to all known research (including some by the team that carried out this study), it's most likely impossible for the human brain to retain memories from so far back.

Now, wait a minute, you might be saying — if 40 percent of people claim to have memories from the first couple years of life, it's clearly possible to have them. Right? Well, there are a lot of good reasons to doubt that, not least of which is that we've seen how the mature brain encodes memories and we've seen how toddler brains don't. The secret lies in the differences between various memories, and where they're all stored.

The first category of memories are known as "nondeclarative" or "implicit" — things like motor or language skills. They live in various parts of the brain and exist as something that you can demonstrate as an ability rather than state as a fact. Then there are the "declarative" or "explicit" memories — these are the facts that we learned or stories of things that happened in our lives. These are stored in the hippocampus. Sometimes, a person who has sustained an injury to their hippocampus will lose memories from their past or lose the ability to create new memories (like in the movie "Memento"). But even people with anterograde amnesia caused by such damage will be able to remember how to ride a bicycle or tie a shoelace.

The thing about toddlers' hippocampi is that they're growing — fast. Memories may be written on them, but they're also quickly written over and pushed to the side. It's a process that's constantly ongoing, and it's reflected by the notoriously poor memories of growing children. According to one study, babies of up to two months can hang onto a memory for up to one day, and by the time they've reached 18 months, that period has grown to about 13 weeks. Even after two, kids have a harder time hanging on to declarative memories — four-year-olds are better at it than two-year-olds, eight-year-olds are better than four-year-olds, and adults are best of all. So if these pre-pre-school memories aren't real, then where are they coming from?

Borrowed Brainpower

It's a fact: You don't remember your earliest years on the planet. You know who does? The people who watched you grow up. Chances are, they have a few "hilarious" stories of adorable mispronunciations you made, or the time you freaked out around a clown, or the time you learned some exciting new words from your older cousins. We've told you once about how disturbingly easy it is to implant a memory into a person's head — well, children's brains are notably easy to influence. According to the study's authors, this plague of false memories is likely due to people hearing stories of their early, early childhood repeated ad nauseam for the entire time that they grew up. The first time you hear the story, it feels like learning something new — by the 12th time you've heard it, you might feel like you remember the event itself and not the perpetual re-telling.

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You might encounter memory issues on the other end of your life's journey as well. Dr. Daniel G. Amen's "Memory Rescue" helps address the specter of late-life memory loss. It's free if you're trying Audible for the first time. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 3, 2018

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