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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.

“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.

Troom Troom via YouTube
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The unnerving, absurd, and surreal videos of Troom Troom

Who – or what – is behind the eerie YouTube channel with five million subscribers? 

The blue-eyed girl is eating a raw sausage. I don’t know her name – and nor do the 69 million other people who have watched this YouTube video. Entitled “14 Weird Ways To Sneak Food Into Class”, the video features two women doing just that. These women are nameless, referred to by their traits (“the blue-eyed girl” and “my friend”) by a faceless narrator, on a channel known only as Troom Troom.

 “I managed to sneak sausages into my art class, how did I do that?” says the narrator in this particular video. The answer is simple and painstakingly documented in the clip. To sneak sausages into art class, simply insert the sausage into a Ziploc bag, and seal this bag with a flame and a knife. Insert the Ziploc-ed sausage into a pack of wet wipes, and then decant some ketchup into a paint pot.

At the time of writing, Troom Troom’s videos total 1,462,673,770 views.

Is this a surrealist comedy channel? Are we all being trolled? Troom Troom describes itself as a channel for “Easy DIY ‘how to’ video tutorials” and its first videos were genuine DIYs. Over the last two years, the channel's constant quest for content means it has devolved into an accidentally-absurdist mess.

Many of its videos are labelled as “life hacks”, but each hack on the channel is a combination of 1) something people have never needed to do, and 2) something incredibly and needlessly difficult to do that 3) could’ve been accomplished in a far simpler manner.

In one video, a woman cuts a lemon in half, glues a zipper onto it, zips up the lemon, and places it into her handbag.

In another video, “22 Life Hacks That Will Save You A Fortune”, the woman in the video melts deodorant into a lipstick tube. In “24 Life Hacks That Work Great”, a presenter cuts off the dispenser from a packet of baby wipes and inserts it onto a bag of crisps. In “20 Banana Life Hacks” – recently mocked by YouTuber Cristine Rotenberg on the site – two Troom Troom presenters make a banana holster, fashion a Viking hat out of bananas, use bananas as dumbbells, and stick bananas in their ears to “protect” from noise.  

Troom Troom has 5 million subscribers, and the channel earns – at the very least – £27,000 a month.

If Troom Troom’s hacks are unnerving, this is nothing compared to the narration that accompanies them. Most nouns are companied with the word “the” so “a pillow” becomes “the pillow” and “nature”, “the nature”. Like a primary school teacher, the narrator uses inclusive pronouns like “us” and “we”, and collectively says “let’s” before embarking on a task. Unlike a primary school teacher, she discusses apartments, finances, and holidays, demonstrating that these videos aren't all aimed at kids. 

Stories are narrated alongside the hacks, so that after Troom Troom’s presenters insert a block of cheese into a glue stick, the narrator says: “My friend needs glue for her paper craft. Don’t take this stick, it won’t help. Smell it, there’s cheese inside!”.

In its “About” section the channel claims to be located in the United States, but there are a few glaring errors in the narration – golf balls have been referred to as tennis balls, lemons as limes.

Troom Troom hit a billion video views on 15 January 2018. The channel has an official Android app, Troom Troom DIY.

Alongside the narration, Troom Troom’s YouTube thumbnails are endlessly surreal. The thumbnail for “24 Life Hacks To Make Your Life Easier”, for example, is a picture of hot glue being poured onto a toothbrush. For “15 Back To School Life Hacks”, cold glue poured onto a lipstick. Unusually (and perhaps sexually?) a video entitled “17 Easter Life Hacks And Craft Ideas” is illustrated by a fried egg atop a cactus.

Troom Troom’s creators did not respond to a request for comment, and the three-year-old channel’s origins remain mysterious. Alongside the original Troom Troom channel, there are also German, Dutch, French, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese Troom Troom-affiliated channels. There are some rumours online that Troom Troom’s creators are Russian, but there is little concrete evidence for this.

Troom Troom is surreal, but is it sinister? In November 2017, the “Elsagate” scandal saw commenters express outrage at YouTube content featuring children’s characters in violent, sexual, and scatological situations. The scandal got its name because multiple videos featured Disney’s character Elsa (from the Frozen franchise) getting pregnant, giving birth, or being kidnapped. These videos were thought to have been generated in an attempt to best YouTube’s algorithms by including popular character names and keywords.

Troom Troom’s titles seem similarly algorithmically generated (“life hacks”, “food hacks”, and “funny pranks” are repeatedly used keywords, as well as the idea of recreating something in miniature, or extra large sizes) but its video content is far less sinister and far more stupid. In one Troom Troom video, a woman melts white chocolate and places a lemon wedge in the centre. This is a prank, meant to trick a girl known only as “red head” into believing she is eating an egg.

Instead, then, Troom Troom perhaps illustrates the pitfalls of allowing algorithms to rule our life. Rather than original, creative videos reaching the top of YouTube, the unnerving, absurd, and surreal videos of Troom Troom trend on the site. The thumbnails promise the impossible but are appealing with bright colours, pictures of women’s lips, and physics-defying tricks. Despite being clickbait, Troom Troom videos are still clicked, and comments sections show fans satisfied with the clips.

In “15 Funny Pranks! Prank Wars!” a Troom Troom presenter crumbles a chocolate cake until it looks like soil, then eats it out of a plant pot. Another woman sticks a beetroot inside of her friend’s box of cornflakes. “What do you think about a pineapple with a weird filling?” begins the next prank, in which a presenter scoops out a pineapple and fills it with French fries.

“Is it a pineapple? No! It isn’t! It’s French fries!” the narrator says.

Photos via Troom Troom

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.