Think way back — way, way back — to your earliest memory. What is it?
Researchers in Canada think the earlier in life you ask that question, the further back you’d be able to recall — even back to infancy.
In a study published in the journal Child Development, researchers with the Memorial University of Newfoundland reported on their findings after speaking with 140 kids between the ages of four and 13, and asking them to describe three of their earliest memories. The kids were also asked to estimate how old they were when the memory occurred. The children’s parents confirmed the events and timing.
Scientists had thought, based on previous studies of adults, that young children under the age of three or four didn’t have the cognitive skills necessary to form memories, but this study found that the youngest participants could cite reliable memories from before age two.
So what happens to all of those memories from early on in life? Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says they seem to be over-written with newer memories.
“Younger children’s earliest memories seemed to change, with memories from younger ages being replaced by memories from older ages,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s research supports her theory. Two years after the first interviews, researchers spoke with the same kids and asked them the same questions. On average, children who were seven or younger for the first round of interviews didn’t remember the same moments in the second round. Instead they talked about different, more recent memories..
About 1/3 of the kids ages 10-13 recalled the same earliest memories, suggesting that around age 10 those early memories are “set” – less fragile and fleeting.
In cases where the children didn’t describe the same memories at the two-year mark, researchers attempted to jog their memories by describing the memories they reported in the first interviews. For older kids, it worked and they immediately recalled the event. For the younger group (age four to seven), the children said they had never had an experience like that in their lives.
Another interesting point of the study was what the kids remembered. You might think emotionally-charged events would stick out, but researchers found the children’s earliest key memories were fairly mundane.
Memories reported included a child waiting for the bus with her mom and seeing a flower growing up through a crack in the sidewalk, a child who would hide the new family puppy so others had to look for it, and a child playing peek-a-boo with her grandfather around her mother’s pregnant belly.