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Are Your First Childhood Memories, and Ultimately Your Life Story, Fabricated?

By: Amanda Ornstein

Imagine a shattered picture frame, a captured moment distorted by broken glass. My first memory is like this: a distorted, fragmentized image. I remember being denied the right to ride the largest twisty slide I had ever seen. However, this memory, which was captured from before the age of four, is likely fictional. Given that I have many childhood memories, does that mean my life story is fictional? Am I unique in this phenomenon?

Having a fictional childhood memory is more common than you would think. Liora Wittle, an Elon sophomore biochemistry major, has an early memory of her grandmother’s yellow shoes and a bubble bath. Carly DeSesa, an Elon sophomore psychology major, has a memory of sitting by the door crying when her parents dropped her off at her grandmothers for the weekend. Each of these memories adds to their life story narrative created by their mind. Understanding childhood memories such as these, helps researchers to understand how all memories are remembered.

Often, people believe that the more vivid a memory, the more accurate it must be. Let’s burst that bubble.

Memories are not a perfect picture, and no matter the vividness, they hold inaccuracies. Instead, accessing a memory is like building a puzzle. Memories are built as each piece is added to the overall picture.

Memories from before the age of four are typically pieced together from a relative’s description of an event and/or pictures of the event. This phenomenon, or inability for adults to remember event memories from this age range, is known as childhood amnesia. The probability then of having accurate memories during this period is very slim.

In a large-scale survey, 6,641 respondents were asked to report their first memories, including the specific age of that memory as well as their confidence level in that memory. Researchers found that nearly 40% of adults have a fictional first memories, and they tend to depict events that involve the person’s home or family. Interestingly, participants held a fair amount of confidence in their memories even though they described them as fragmentized.

Researchers also found that the typical age range of first memories is from two to five years old. These findings seem to contradict the psychological theory that adults have an inability to remember childhood memories. The authors of the fictional first memory study attribute their findings to one of three things: misdating of memories, unique aspects of the sample such as “self-selection”, or fictional life narratives.

Misdating a memory is a misinterpretation of the age at which the event took place. Elon students, not unlike the participants in the study, used qualifying words to describe their age at the time of the memory, which leaves open the possibility that these memories may be a misinterpretation.

I believe that my age at the time of my own memory was around preschool, but that could mean I was anywhere between three and five years old.

Similarly, Liora reported that “[she was] honestly not positive of how old [she] was.”, and that her memory is extremely fragmentized.

Self-selection is another reason that memories may be fabrications. Self-selection may mean that the participants and the students had thought more about each of the memories and remembered them more often, resulting in higher confidence levels. The problem with self-selection is that every time a memory is remembered it is easily altered. The mind can either add or subtract from the story. By changing even one small aspect of the memory, this in turn changes how different memories fit together into a life story.

The most likely explanation of childhood memories is they are simply a likely narrative. Childhood memories either contain discrepancies mixed in with reality or they may be entirely filled with error. My memory of being denied the fun-filled adventure of a twisty slide is probably filled with distortions. However, this memory adds to my childhood narrative and my overall life story. Each time the memory is recalled, small discrepancies get built-in, drawn from outside forces, such as family discussions or pictures.

Carly reports that “[she] has probably brought it up with [her] dad sometime recently.” Comparably, Liora says that she has, “discussed this with her family, and that [she] regularly went to [her] grandmother’s house when [she was] younger.” These memories fit into their story during that time of life.

Based on the survey, the researchers concluded that any memory before the age of three is likely entirely pieced together with imagined content, and memories after three have more realistic elements, but still are intermixed with fictional elements.

Like pieces of a puzzle, these elements are re-assembled piece by piece each time we think of them, sometimes getting bent, scratched, or discolored in the process, which changes the memory.

So, when it comes to examining our childhood memory’s accuracy, there are three main takeaways to remember. First, knowing a distinct age that memories are from can point to its veracity. Second, if the memory is fuzzy when recalling details, then it may be filled with imagined content. The third, and best indicator of a fictional memory, is if family members have discussed it, or if there are pictures of the event. Research on these childhood memories add to the theory that, instead of a being a picture-perfect moment, memory is a narrative of the account. Whether fictional or real, memories play an important role in creating what will come to be known as a person’s life story.

References

Akhtar, S., Justice, L. V., Morrison, C. M., & Conway, M. A. (2018). Fictional First Memories. Psychological Science, 29(10), 1612–1619. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618778831

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