Research and impact | By Chris Lines

City Research: Fictional first memories

What is your first memory; and did it really happen? Perhaps not, according to a study by academics including City’s Professor Martin Conway.

What is the first moment in your life that you remember? How old are you at the time? Is it a positive or negative memory? Is it vivid or vague? Are you re-experiencing the memory as it originally happened, through your own eyes, or are you watching yourself ‘acting’ in the memory?


A recent study by academics from City, the University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University has found that many first memories did not actually happen. The study, published in the Psychological Science journal surveyed 6,641 people and 38.6 per cent claimed to have memories from age two or younger, with around 14 per cent claiming memories from age one or younger. This was particularly prevalent among middle-aged and older adults.


However, psychological research suggests that memories occurring below the age of three are not only highly unusual but also highly improbable.


The academics asked people to detail their first memories along with their age at the time. Participants were told that the memory itself had to be one that they were certain they remembered. It should not be based on, for instance, a story, family photograph or any source other than direct experience.


The team then examined the content, language, nature and descriptive detail of respondents’ earliest memory descriptions and evaluated the likely reasons why people claim memories from an age that research indicates they cannot be formed.


The authors suggest that fictional memories from age two and younger are based on remembered fragments of early experience, such as family relationships, along with knowledge about their infancy or childhood which may have been derived from photographs or family conversations.


Consequently, what a ‘rememberer’ has in mind when recalling such early memories is a mental representation consisting of remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own childhood, instead of actual memories. The mental representations are really ‘recollective experience’ over time, when they come to mind. Thus, for the individual, they are quite simply ‘memories’ with content strongly tied to a particular time.


Fictional early memories were seen to be more common in middle-aged and older adults and approximately four in ten have fictional memories of infancy.


“When we looked through the responses from participants, we found that a lot of such first ‘memories’ were frequently related to infancy, a typical example would be a memory based around a pram,” says Professor Martin Conway, Director of City’s Centre for Memory and Law and co-author of the paper.


“For this person, this type of memory could have resulted from someone saying something like ‘mother had a large green pram’. The person then imagines what it would have looked like.


“Over time these fragments then become a ‘memory’ and often the person will start to add things in, such as a string of toys along the top of the pram.


“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional. In fact, when people are told that their memories are false, they often do not believe it. This is partly because the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex.


“It is not until we are five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world.”


Although many of us cherish what we perceive to be our earliest memories, for a significant minority of people, the truth is that they never really happened.