Earliest Childhood Memories Can Go Back Even Further

Aug. 2, 2021 — Most people probably have more early childhood memories than they are fully aware of, and retrieving those early experiences is easier to prompt than previously thought, according to Carole Peterson, MD, of Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada.

Most people have more memories from their preschool years than is widely believed, says Peterson, who has been studying childhood amnesia — the total or relative lack of early memory — for more than 20 years.

“We had this model that there was one memory that essentially is the beginning, the watershed, the boundary, and that’s the start of your event memory,” explains Peterson. But most people likely have more childhood memories than they are currently recalling and could go back even further, says Peterson, who recently wrote a review of research into early memory.

When people are asked to recall more memories, they often start self-cueing and are able retrieve even earlier events. In fact, Peterson’s research has shown that a person’s earliest memories — confirmed by parents — often occurred a year earlier than reported, so at an average of 2-and-a-half years of age, rather than 3-and-a-half.

Memories from Age 2-and-a-Half

Mental error with inaccurate perceptions of time is called the telescope effect and happens when people recall the timing of an event differently than when it actually happened, Peterson explains.

“People develop a life story that gives their life meaning,” says Peterson. “It’s who they are, what they are. Their early events go into that life story.”

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If memories play an important role in our sense of self, then understanding memory is important, too, she adds.

Besides helping to construct a life narrative, memories — especially early ones — can be helpful when criminal investigation is necessary.

“If, for example,a someone comes forward as a teenager or an adult and talks about having been abused at the age of 2, what happens with the public very often now is, ‘Oh, that can’t possibly be; people can’t possibly remember that age.’ So, it’s not taken seriously,” Peterson explains.

“At the very least,” though, such memories should be “taken seriously enough to be investigated, seriously enough to be not just totally dismissed,” she says.

And that is beginning to happen.

Until recently, accounts from children younger than 7 were often thought to be unreliable because it was not clear that they were able to distinguish fact from fantasy. “Now children as young as 3 are seen as credible witnesses in court,” Peterson says.

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