Can you trust your earliest childhood memories?
The moments we remember from the first few years of our lives are often our most treasured because we carried them the longest. Chances are, they're completely made up too.
I dance around at a party in a garden with incredibly manicured flower beds on a scorching summer day, enjoying the attention of my grandmother and older children in billowing pastel dresses. I was about two years old then. My memory of it is fuzzy and indistinct, but nonetheless it feels authentic and I cherish it as one of my earliest memories.
There's just one problem: I'm not sure if it's real. According to my parents, I made up many of the details from a photo of a party at a neighbor's house in the 1980s.
About four out of ten of us have itfabricated our first memory, according to the researchers. This is probably because our brains don't develop the ability to store autobiographical memories, at least until we're two years old.
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"Infants can make memories, but they don't last long," says Catherine Loveday, an autobiographical memory expert at the University of Westminster. It is believed that a flood of new cells forms in the brain of young childrendisrupt the connections needed to store information long-term. Because of this, most of us in adulthood have few memories of our childhood. Other studies have shown that a form of "childhood amnesia" seems to set in all at oncewe reach the age of seven. (Read more about why we can't remember being a baby)
Researchers have found it's possible to "implant" adults with all sorts of false childhood memories, including one involving having tea with a prince (Credit: Getty Images)
Still, surprisingly many of us have a glimmer of memories from before that age. A study led by Martin Conway, director of the Center for Memory and Law at the City University of London, examined the first memories of 6,641 people. The scientists found that 2,487 of the memories were shared, such as sitting in a strollerfrom before the participants reached the age of two, with 14% of participants saying they remembered an event before their first birthday, and some even before their own birth.
Conway and his team concluded that these memories were unlikely to be from real events, given the age at which they were recorded. If true, it suggests that many of us are carrying around memories from early chapters of our lives that never happened.
We crave a coherent narrative of our own existence and will even invent stories to give us a more complete picture
The reason may tap into something much deeper in human existence - we crave a coherent narrative of our own existence and will even invent stories to give us a fuller picture.
“People have a life story, especially as they get older, and for some people it has to go back to early life,” explains Conway.
The dominant account of how we come to believe and remember things is based on the concept of source monitoring. "Every time a thought enters our mind, we have to make a decision - did we experience it [an event], did we imagine it, or did we talk about it with other people," says Kimberley Wade, a psychologist, which researches memory and laws of the University of Warwick. Most of the time we make this decision correctly and can see where these mental experiences are coming from, but sometimes we are wrong.
Even those of us who should know better can fall into the trap. Wade admits she spent a lot of time reminiscing about an event that was actually more likely her brother's experience than herself, but it's still rich in detail and provoking emotion. "All of those things make it feel really plausible like a real memory and something I experienced while it's something I've just talked about a lot," she says.
Memories that seem too lucid or movie-like are most likely fictional events rather than real ones (Image credit: Getty Images)
There is a clue as to how these false memories can become lodged in our minds. Other people, even strangers, can rewrite our history.
Memory researchers have shown that it is possible to induce fictional autobiographical memories in volunteers, including reports ofget lost in a malland even drink with teaa member of the royal family.Julia Shaw, a psychologist at University College London, has even shown that it is possible to persuade peoplecommitted a violent crimethat never happened. Using memory retrieval techniques, participants were asked leading questions in three interviews, resulting in 70% of them generating a false memory of a crime they committed when they were younger, with some even believing they had attacked someone with a gun to have. Almost three quarters with these false memories could even provide vivid descriptions of what police officers look like.
Based on my research, anyone is capable of forming complex false memories under the right circumstances - Julia Shaw
It shows that people can quite easily generate disturbingly rich false memories in a highly suggestive interview.
"According to my research, anyone is capable of forming complex false memories under the right circumstances," says Shaw.
But how susceptible someone is to having these types of implanted memories can vary. A recent scientific review found that 47% of people involved in such studies tend to have some kind of induced memory of a fictitious memory, but only15% create full memories.
In some situations, e.g. B. after viewing pictures or videos,Children are more vulnerableforming false memories as adults. People with certain personality types are also considered to be more susceptible.
"If you're the kind of person who reads a book and is so self-absorbed that you don't notice what's going on around you, you may be more prone to memory distortions," says Wade.
It may be possible to change people's diets by using their malleable memories to tinker with which foods they like and which they don't (Credit: Getty Images)
But carrying around false memories from your childhood could have a much bigger impact on you than you might think. The events, emotions, and experiences we remember from our early years can help shape who we are as adults and determine our likes, dislikes, fears, and even our behavior.
Eating doesn't seem like an obvious choice to test the effects of fictitious memories, but about 20 experiments have shown how planting false memories of a tasty or disgusting meal can change people's eating habits in the long term. In one study, 180 volunteers were told that eating egg salad made them sick as children, and while this was not true, a "significant minority" came to believe itthey had been ill, and as a result immediately began avoiding egg sandwiches and continued to do so four months after the experiment.
Experts have managed to dissuade people from all sorts of foods by convincing them they made them sick as a child
In fact, experts have managed to turn people away from all sorts of foods by convincing them they made them sick as kids, including, ambitiously, strawberry ice cream. In a review of such experiments, the researchers said that infrequently eaten foods, even when they're sugary treats like ice cream, "appear to be more prone to false memories of illness' while people are less likely to believe that ordinary snacks like cookies will make them sick.
Just as people can be discouraged from drinking if they spend the morning feeling queasy after a night of drinking, false memories can also lead to itinfluence people's attitudes and behavior towards alcohol consumption. In one experiment, scientists suggested that participants got sick after drinking rum or vodka in the past, and many of the participants believed the false feedback and refrained from choosing tips with those spirits.
Most false childhood memories are benign, but they can also have serious consequences, and there are strict rules about how witnesses to crimes can be questioned (Credit: Alamy)
While this may seem like a bit of fun, many scientists believe the "false memory diet" could be used to fight obesity and encourage people to reach for healthier options, such as eating fatasparagus, or even help reduce people's alcohol consumption. Interestingly, scientists have also found positive cues such as "You loved asparagus the first time you ate it."more effectivethan negative suggestions like “you got sick drinking vodka”.
But false autobiographical suggestions can also have serious consequences, especially in court.
Kevin Felstead of the British False Memory Society says the effects of such false memories can be "catastrophic" in the real world.
"There is miscarriage of justice, imprisonment, loss of reputation, loss of jobs and status, and family breakdown," says Felstead, who noted that he was aware of a high-profile case in which the complainant had killed himself.
One of the main problems with false memory litigation is that it is currently impossible to distinguish between true and fictitious memories
One of the main problems with false memory litigation is that it is currently impossible to distinguish between true and fictitious memories. Efforts have been made to analyze smaller false memories in a brain scanner (fMRI) and detect various neurological patterns, but there is still no evidence that this technology can be used to detect if memories are distorted.
Perhaps the most extreme case of memory implantation concernsa controversial technique called "regression therapy",where patients are confronted with childhood trauma supposedly buried in their subconscious. The method istend to evoke false childhood memories, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and aims tosatanic panic' of the 1980s and 1990s, during which some people were imprisoned for heinous crimes such as child burying alive and ritual sexual abuse that are now thought to be based on false memories. Arguably one of the most serious cases was a couple of day care centers spending money21 years in prisonafter being accused of cutting out a baby's heart, burying children alive and throwing others into a pool full of sharks before being found innocent in 2017.
Anyone wanting to find out which of their own memories are false should treat any filled with too much detail as suspicious (Credit: Getty Images)
And our memories aren't just susceptible to suggestion. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories as we go through life.
"Memories are malleable and tend to change slightly each time we revisit them, just like spoken stories," says Loveday. They are influenced by our perception, our state of mind, our knowledge and even the society we are in when we recall events, which can give us a new perspective on a familiar life event. "A memory is essentially the activation of neural networks in the brain, which are constantly being modified and changed," she says. "Therefore, new elements can be easily incorporated into each memory, while existing elements can be altered or lost."
This is not to say that all evidence based on memory should be discarded or considered unreliable - it often provides the most persuasive evidence in criminal cases. But it has led to rules and guidelines about ithow witnesses and victims should be interviewedto ensure their memories of an event or perpetrator are not contaminated by investigators or prosecutors.
For those of us just hoping to find out whether or not a cherished childhood memory is true, the best solution is to look for evidence that it really happened -- a photograph, childhood video, or journal entry. But not all of our parents documented every step we took as a child.
"There's no perfect solution for determining whether a memory is real or not, because people can have extremely compelling detailed memories that are full of emotion, and they feel very confident, but they're completely wrong," says Wade.
Any memories that appear very fluid and detailed, like playing a home video, could well be fictional
However, there are some rough rules that can help.
Memories before the age of three are most likely false. Anything that appears very smooth and detailed, like you're playing a home video and experiencing a chronological representation of a memory, could also be fictional. Blurred fragments or snapshots are more likely to be real as long as they didn't happen too early in your life.
It's natural to have gaps and things that you can't remember, Wade says. "We shouldn't expect memories to be as clear and coherent as a movie."
Children are more prone to false memories than adults, especially after viewing photos or film (Credit: Getty Images)
Martin Conway also suggests trying to spot implausible details. One of his earliest memories is of him sitting in a diaper digging dirt out of cracks in the pavement. He concluded that this cherished snap is fictional because he is remembered wearing huggies. "They weren't invented in the 1950s when I was a kid," he says. "So it had to be wrong. If you think about the details in those early memories, you'll often find that they just aren't plausible.”
And we may not want to rid ourselves of those memories. Our memories, fictional or not, can help bring us closer together. Brock Kirwan, director of the MRI research facility at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, explained that the act of remembering can seem like an actsocial glue, so that “shared experiences could help form the basis of your group identity and strengthen group cohesion”.
A memory of a beloved grandparent or family pet can make us happy, whether it's fictional or not.
"I have one of those hitting my grandmother and picking myself up and swinging around," Shaw recalls. "It turns out to be impossible, but for me it's a wonderful memory."
It's certainly worth holding on to such a memory, even if it's not genuine.
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