Earliest Memories Can Start From the Age of Two-and-a-Half

Summary: A new study reveals people are able to recall memories from events that occurred when they were two-and-a-half years old. The findings counter previous research, which reported the earliest memories usually form after the age of three and a half.

Source: Taylor and Francis Group

On average the earliest memories that people can recall point back to when they were just two-and-a-half years old, a new study suggests.

The findings, published in peer-reviewed journal Memory, pushes back the previous conclusions of the average age of earliest memories by a whole year.

They are presented in a new 21-year study, which followed on from a review of already-existing data.

“When one’s earliest memory occurs, it is a moving target rather than being a single static memory,” explains childhood amnesia expert and lead author Dr. Carole Peterson, from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“Thus, what many people provide when asked for their earliest memory is not a boundary or watershed beginning, before which there are no memories. Rather, there seems to be a pool of potential memories from which both adults and children sample.

“And, we believe people remember a lot from age two that they don’t realize they do.

“That’s for two reasons. First, it’s very easy to get people to remember earlier memories simply by asking them what their earliest memory is, and then asking them for a few more. Then they start recalling even earlier memories—sometimes up to a full year earlier. It’s like priming a pump; once you get them started its self-prompting.

“Secondly, we’ve documented those early memories are systematically misdated. Over and over again we find people think they were older than they actually were in their early memories.”

For more than 20 years Dr. Peterson has conducted studies on memory, with a particular focus on the ability of children and adults to recall their earliest years.

This latest research reviewed 10 of her research articles on childhood amnesia followed by analyses of both published and unpublished data collected in Dr. Peterson’s laboratory since 1999. It featured a total of 992 participants, and memories of 697 participants were then compared to the recollections of their parents.

Overall, it shows that children’s earliest memories come before when they think it happened, as confirmed by their parents.

In some of the research reviewed by Peterson, the evidence to move our potential memory clock is “compelling.” For example, when reviewing a study which interviewed children after two and eight years had passed since their earliest memory they were able to recall the same memory, however in the subsequent interviews gave a later age as to when they occurred.

“Eight years later many believed they were a full year older. So, the children, as they age, keep moving how old they thought they were at the time of those early memories,” says Dr. Peterson, from the Department of Psychology at Memorial University.

And she believes that the finding is due to something in memory dating called ‘telescoping.”

This shows an adorable little girl
Overall, it shows that children’s earliest memories come before when they think it happened, as confirmed by their parents. Image is in the public domain

“When you look at things that happened long ago, it’s like looking through a lens.

“The more remote a memory is, the telescoping effect makes you see it as closer. It turns out they move their earliest memory forward a year to about three and a half years of age. But we found that when the child or adult is remembering events from age four and up, this doesn’t happen.”

She says, after combing through all of the data, it clearly demonstrates people remember a lot more of their early childhood and a lot farther back than they think they do, and it’s relatively easy to help them access those memories.

“When you look at one study, sometimes things don’t become clear, but when you start putting together study after study and they all come up with the same conclusions, it becomes pretty convincing.”

It’s this lack of clarity which Dr. Peterson states is a limitation of the research and, indeed, all research done to-date in the subject area.

“What is needed now in childhood amnesia research are independently confirmed or documented external dates against which personally derived dates can be compared, as this would prevent telescoping errors and potential dating errors by parents,” Dr. Peterson says.

Such research—using verified dating—is currently ongoing both in her laboratory and elsewhere to further confirm the answer to this long-debated question.

About this memory research news

Source: Taylor and Francis Group
Contact: Press Office – Taylor and Francis Group
Image: The image in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
What is your earliest memory? It depends” by Carole Peterson. Memory


What is your earliest memory? It depends

This article is a selective review of the literature on childhood amnesia, followed by new analyses of both published and unpublished data that has been collected in my laboratory over two decades.

Analyses point to the fluidity of people’s earliest memories; furthermore, methodological variation leads to individuals recalling memories from substantially earlier in their lives.

How early one’s “earliest” memory is depends on whether you have multiple interviews, how many early memories were requested within an interview, the type of interview, participation in prior tasks, etc.

As well, people often provide chronologically earlier memories within the same interview in which they later identify a chronologically older memory as their “earliest”. There may also be systematic mis-dating to older ages of very early memories.

Overall, people may have a lot more memories from their preschool years than is widely believed, and be able to recall events from earlier in their lives than has been historically documented.

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  1. My earliest memory is from about 1 1/2 years old. I was standing in my crib at night, looking out the window at the moon. My mom confirmed the way the room was positioned and that the window was behind my crib, when I told her about this memory as an adult. We moved from this house when I was 2.

  2. I have astonished and proven to family members memories that actually occurred when I was 1 year old, and 1 1/2 years old, and have provided them with plentiful of details that leaves their mouths open and asking me how is that possible… so wouldn’t be surprised this limitation gets pushed further and further ??‍♂️

  3. I remember like it was yesterday I was lying down on this wide black couch next to my mother. I turned and saw her breastfeeding my little sister. The thought came to me that I should not be looking at that and I turned away. She only breastfed my sister when I was between two years two months and two years six months of age. I remember it as being a new thought to me, not something that I had been told or fashioned to believe from society. Years later when I told my mother of it she even said, “Why would you think something like that?” Well, it is because God has given us a conscience.

  4. I’m not sure of my exact age of my earliest memories but the earliest one that I was able to confirm through my parents and older siblings is a traumatic experience where I was beaten with a stick when I was 11 months old.. my family and I moved from to a new house when I was about two and a half. I have many memories from that house. I remember every room and where the furniture was placed . I remember toys, eating animal crackers, looking through the keyhole of my bedroom door seeing my family watching TV while my older siblings were eating animal crackers. I remember wanting to come out and watch TV and eat animal crackers but it was my bed time. I remember eating powdered doughnuts on my parents bed with my older brother on a sunday while our parents were at church and getting in trouble for making a mess on their bed . I remember the 10 year old mentality handicapped boy that beat me with the stick and remember that he lived 4 or 5 houses to the right and the girl that lived a few houses to the left. She was about 2 or 3 years older than me and she had a tricycle that I liked but she would never let me ride it. When we moved we never went back to the neighborhood, never kept in contact with anyone,we have very few pictures from the house we lived in and I’ve described the rooms in detail where we have no pictures of to my family and I’ve talked with them about days they can recall like the day my uncle stopped by and showed us his cool new car ect.. there’s no way my brain fabricated these memories and they all happened in the first 2 and a half years of my life

    1. My earliest memory was teething on my wood high which still has the “scars”. Able to recall the taste, feel of scraping bottom teeth. Also, memory of being spoon fed food too fast to swallow without being able to convey that scary feeling.

  5. I once told my mother about a memory I had of riding on my aunt’s lap in the car, and her dog needed to get out. My dad was driving, and when he stopped, the dog jumped out and ran out into a field. My dad cussed and drove away without it, but then went back and got it. My mom said I couldn’t possibly remember that, because I was 13 months old. But I can still clearly see the dog running away, and hear my dad cussing, and remember how my aunt and I cried. I can describe the house we lived in when I was 15 months old in detail, and also the one we moved to when I was two. I believe I could write a book with just my memories from age one to age four.

  6. My earliest memories are from apx 1yr 10mo.

    Because it was a vacation where I was being taught to swim. It is very clear.
    I also could diagram our first house, that we moved out of at 2y 4m

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