The aroma of baking bread, the feel of grass under bare feet, a favorite Christmas carol- these are all powerful triggers for nostalgia and memory. However, new research into how we process information has led some scientists to believe that our earliest memories may not always be correct. There are numerous reasons for this, but some of the most important have to do with how we absorb information and store memories as children.
Most of us have at least one photograph of ourselves when we were babies or toddlers. We’re either being held or doing something extremely adorable. Most of us will have looked at that photo several times, perhaps even with our parents present to help us understand what was going on in the scene. Events like these reinforce what’s happening in the image, regardless of whether we have genuine memories of the day the photograph was taken.
According to experts in autobiographical memory, most of us do not begin forming lasting memories until we are around the age of two. Prior to that time, memories in the infant brain are frequently replaced. Young children’s brains are not yet capable of remembering things. Most infants do not have the need to remember things at that age because there is no attachment to precious memories at that age and the process by which we learn, particularly memory, is still in development.
Simply put, most infants are still learning how to remember and recall information. For most of us, a lack of memory results in infantile amnesia, a term coined by Dr. Sigmund Freud in 1905 but which remains an active area of research even today. Infantile amnesia explains why most adults have few clear memories of their childhood years. Childhood trauma, neglect, and/or genetic mutations can all influence how and when we form our first memories.
According to scientists, four out of every ten adults have a distorted first memory. Researchers discovered that many adults remembered events from before the age of two, a time before the “probable” age for forming strong memories. It is not possible to prove that these memories are false, but it is a theory that many scientists are investigating. All of this implies that you may have a “memory” of something early in life that isn’t necessarily a first memory, but rather a slightly more recent memory gained from family stories and photo albums.
People with hyperthymesia, a rare condition that makes autobiographical memories (from a young age) unforgettable, may experience the opposite effect. Adults with hyperthymesia do not outperform the general population on standard memory tests, indicating that they do not have superior memory. They do, however, have the ability to form and retain correct and meaningful memories from a young age, which they can then easily recount in adulthood.
Whether you have reason to doubt whether your first memory is “real” or not, having a family who shared their childhood memories with you has significant value. Collective memory is very real, and it can be a sign of a happy family with happy memories in this case!