What is your first memory? A vivid scene may come to mind, seen from toddler eyes. Unfortunately, that scene may be a work of fiction, a new study finds.
That's because scientific literature suggests that it's not possible to have a memory from before the age of 2, said lead study author Shazia Akhtar, a senior research associate at the University of Bradford in England. Despite this, nearly 40 percent of the people in the new study claimed that their first memory occurred at age 2 years or younger, with most of the first memories falling between ages 9 months to 12 months.
This time period is actually part of the "preverbal stage" of human life, when the ability to form memories has not yet developed, Akhtar told Live Science. Because of this, scientists refer to memories from these years as "fictional," Akhtar said. [Why You Forget: 5 Strange Facts About Memory]
In the study, published July 17 in the journal Psychological Science, more than 6,600 participants ages 11 to 100 years old were asked to detail their first memories and the age at which the memories occurred. The researchers emphasized, however, that the participants had to be absolutely certain that the memories were their own. In other words, the memories had to be based on direct experience and could not be gleaned from photographs or family stories.
This was important to emphasize, as some people may form their first memories solely from "a story told by a relative" or "information pieced together from a photo," Akhtar said. Indeed, the study authors suggested that some fictional memories could simply be based on remembered fragments of an early experience, rather than an actual first memory.
In the online survey — the first of its kind, the study said — nearly 2,500 people had somehow fabricated their first memories. But according to Akhtar, these memories can be so ingrained that some people refuse to believe that the recollections are fictitious, even when informed of the science behind memory.
The researchers found that these "fictional" memories are particularly prevalent among middle-age and older adults, Akhtar said. However, the scientists are unsure which age group is most susceptible to these fabricated first memories, she added.
First memories have long been thought to influence people throughout their lives, specifically their personalities. For example, a 1965 study published in the journal formerly known as Archives of General Psychiatry (now JAMA Psychiatry), stated that first-memory recall can profoundly affect "a person’s view of reality and the self."
Whatever the implications of our first memories are, their existence is certainly deeply ingrained as the first recognition of our consciousness. Thus, the possibility that those memories could be fabricated may be an unsettling thought.
Originally published on Live Science.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.