40% people have fictional "first memory", finds UK study

Leslie Hanson
July 20, 2018

For the study, researchers asked participants to describe their first memory and the age at which it occurred.

As numerous 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.

In the large-scale survey by Akhtar et al, 6,641 respondents provided descriptions of their first memory and their age when they encoded that memory, and they completed various memory judgments and ratings.

A new study conducted by researchers from City, University of London, the University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University found that many of our earliest memories are actually fake.

This comes despite four in 10 (40 percent) people claiming to have clear memories from the first couple of years of their life.

Then the researchers examined the content, language, nature and details of these earliest memories and evaluated the likely reasons why people would claim to have memories from an age when memories can not be formed.

You may have fond memories of the earliest days spent here on the tiny blue planet we call home.

One possibility is that the memories are actually based on remembered fragments of early experiences, photographs, and family stories that are pieced together to form a mental representation that morphs into a memory through the years. These memories were also based on some facts or knowledge about their own infancy or childhood which may have been derived from photographs or family conversations. This leads to the manifestations of memories that never happened and, over time, they are recollectively experienced by others and reinforced as memories.

The researchers found that these "fictional" memories are particularly prevalent among middle-age and older adults, Akhtar said.

"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.

She takes the example of a person who was once told that their mother had a large, green-colored baby stroller.

They said 30% were about family relationships such as "my parents were going on holiday" and a further 18% remembered "feeling sad".

Professor Martin Conway, of City, University of London and co-author of the paper, said: "It's not until we're five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops". Over time, the person imagines what it would have looked like which may result in their mental representations becoming a memory.

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