The weird science behind our earliest memories

Which memories do we keep, and which are lost forever? The New Statesman team lend me a helping hand by sharing theirs.

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“What is your earliest memory?” We’ve all been on the receiving end of the dreaded question, whether from dates, annoying children or our very own New Statesman Q&A. It is an impossibly difficult one to answer, and an even more difficult subject to study.

Our ability to form autobiographical memories is the basis of diachronic unity, the psychological concept of our unchanging sense of self. It's the idea that the little boy who once cried when he lost his GameBoy now considers himself to be the same adult writing this very sentence. And our biographies, of course, begin first and foremost with our earliest memory. 

For most people in Western societies, these initial memories are reported as taking place at around the age of three or four. We have something called childhood amnesia for any that may have been created prior to that age. Professor Catriona Morrison of the University of Bradford believes this suggests that autobiographical memories “emerge at the point at which we begin to start telling stories about our lives”. In another words, they're linked to narrative and language. 

Studying a population's earliest memory is a tricky thing to do. For one thing, it can be quite difficult to get someone to think of their earliest memory and, for another, studying them then requires a researcher to place a lot of trust in the subject.

I tested this out by asking staff in the NS office about their earliest memories. Indra, our digital sub-editor, says she thinks she remembers her mum screaming: “Nikki!!!!! Nikki!!!! Diana’s dead!!!!!!!!” Indra was two and a half years old when Princess Diana died. She tells me she texted her mum to check if Nikki (her mum’s friend) was actually in the house when Diana died. Nikki was indeed. Whereas Anoosh, our senior writer, tells me that she remembers watching the news about the Romanian orphanages (though this story would have broken when she was just one years old). Are either of these real memories? Julia, our news editor, openly admits to lying about her earliest memory. These are the types of judgements psychologists in the field constantly have to make.

For those who, like me, are unable to think of a specific earliest memory off the top of their heads, Morrison says she tries to make the task easier by giving the subject a cue beforehand. She asks them to describe their first holiday or Christmas and how emotional the memory is for them. Following this, she will then ask the subject about their earliest memory. 

A study published last year in Memory looked at the earliest memories of Palestinian schoolchildren living in the Gaza Strip. The researchers wanted to find out whether the trauma faced by these children at such a young age would affect their earliest memories. Of the 240 interviewed, who were aged between ten and 12 years old, 28 per cent recalled a traumatic first memory. But, on a slighty more positive note, 43 per cent recalled a pleasant memory – as is typical, according to most studies on the matter. 

Also interesting is that earliest memories differ between cultures. While only 55 per cent of the Palestinian children interviewed said they were centric in their first memories, the same was true of 86 per cent of Canadian children in a similar study. Another study compared the first memories of European children and Taiwanese children, finding the Taiwanese group were more likely to be observers in their first memories, while the Europeans were more likely to be active participants. Scientists think this is likely due to Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures placing more importance on physical closeness and familial ties. 

But which memories do we keep, and which do we lose? Morrison tells me that our early memories are rarely emotionally neutral. They are usually associated with some sort of emotion: good or bad. This is echoed by both Jonn, editor of CityMetric, who tells me he has “very vague memories of being on holiday in an apartment somewhere in the Med, and having a screaming nightmare, until my dad came in to shh me and go to sleep, or possibly pass out, in the other bed in the room” and Anna, our deputy culture editor, whose first memory involves a trapped foot at the age of two and a “feeling of pain, or just intense panic.” 

Dr Tim Wildschut, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, describes a study that he is currently working on, in which he is asking people to keep a diary and to rate each event on a number of dimensions. For example: how meaningful was that event? How much did it make you feel connected? Did it boost your self-esteem? One year later, he will ask the subjects how nostalgic they feel for those events. With the combined data, Wildschut hopes to gain a framework for figuring out which types of memories we keep, which ones we feel nostalgia for, and which are simply lost. 

Morrison, however, notes an interesting quirk in our childhood memories. Recent studies have shown that up until around the age of seven, children seem to be able to remember very early events in their lives. However, after that age, those memories are somehow lost. This experience may be familiar to anyone who has ever introduced a young child to an adult, and witnessed how enthusiastically the child has remembered the adult every time they meet for a year or two until, for some weird reason, they stop remembering the person at all.  

Another fascinating age-related quirk of memory is the concept commonly known as the reminiscence bump, which describes how the memories that we form between the ages of 16 and 25 are, for some reason, remembered more vividly than memories made at any other age. We are still unsure why this is the case. This reminiscence bump may explain much of the nostalgia we feel towards films that explore that era in our lives, such as Lady Bird and Boyhood. 

Nostalgia is a complicated feeling to describe, but its significance cannot be understated. Nostalgia is important for our sense of self. Like any autobiographical memory, it can be elicited by a photo, a particular smell, or a piece of music. Interestingly, studies show that music is rarely present in our earliest memories, but forms a key part of later memories. 

Autobiographical memory allows us reflect, plan for the future and understand we are in the present. It is this loss that leads to a loss of sense of self in Alzheimer's patients. 

Looking at how we form memories through the ages, it is clear how significant who we are is down to what we remember, no matter what the age.