Sometimes, our memory plays tricks on us… We often fall victim to the wiles of our neurones, which, as researchers discovered during a study published in the journal Psychological Science, can completely fool us. According to this research, our earliest memories are often completely false!
In order to reach this more than slightly disconcerting finding, the scientists questioned over 6,600 people about their earliest memories. Within this panel, approximately 39% of participants claimed to be able to remember as far back as age two onwards. Better still, out of these people, 900 were certain that they could accurately recall events before their first birthday. Unbelievable, right? Certainly amazing, but it seems as though it just can’t be true…!
In actual fact, human beings acquire their capacities of ‘Verbally Accessible Memory’, or VAM, generally between the ages of three and three and a half years old. The brain of a younger child is therefore, in theory, incapable of remembering this type of information. In order to explain the shockingly high number of participants convinced of the contrary, the researchers carried out an in-depth analysis of the early memories recalled by participants, or rather, in many cases, an analysis of their ‘pseudo-memories’.
Analysis of large amounts of data
The scientific team notably analysed the language used by participants to formulate their responses. They also studied the content of the memories recalled by members of the panel, taking into account the nature of the memory, and the age to which the participants attributed the origins of the early events engraved into their memory.
First observation of the researchers: the older a person is, the greater the probability that they are describing a false memory. Another surprising fact: the memories described by the participants of the study were typical of the period of childhood which the participants situated them in, notably describing stories to do with cots, nappies, prams, or relating their first steps.
A familial influence
With the intention of tracing the origins of these false memories, the scientists are developing a hypothesis: that of familial influence later in childhood. For example, the influence of photos shown to the child by his parents, or of stories told to young children by family members.
'We would suggest that what somebody is really remembering in their mind when they recall unlikely early fictional memories, is a mental representation that can be compared to episodic memory, this consists of fragments of remembered early memories and of certain facts or information about their own early childhood,' explains Shazia Akthar, a psychologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
According to the specialist, a number of details are also added unconsciously, and common or universal aspects - such as nappies or cots - contribute towards the ‘memory’ being considered to be a genuine childhood memory in our mind.
A mechanism that can have a positive influence
Even if they essentially fool our mind, the researchers claim that these false early memories also play an important role in maintaining a good quality of life. By writing the first happy pages of the story of our lives, they contribute towards adults forging a positive image of themselves.
In any event, the surprising results of the study highlight once again the subjective nature of our memory. They therefore spread a little more uncertainty upon the reliability of the memories that we have accumulated since early childhood.
'In fact, when people learn that their memories are false, they often don’t believe it. It is partly due to the fact that the mechanisms which allow us to remember things are very complex, and it isn’t before we reach the age of five or six that we form memories like adults do. This is caused by the way in which the brain develops and by our increasingly mature understanding of the world,' concludes Martin Conway, a psychologist at the University of London.
So our brain sometimes plays tricks on us, even right back to our earliest memories.