Your Childhood Memories Are Probably Fake
We’re surprisingly unreliable narrators of our own life story
I’m standing under the porch of our old redbrick house on the outskirts of London, a rickety fence to the left propping up unwieldy roses, and in front of me, my nana crouched down with her hands resting on her knees, smiling encouragingly at me to walk toward her. She’s wearing a red cardigan and tan-rimmed glasses, her light-colored hair curly and neat. The lines on her freckled face are vivid, and they crinkle around her eyes as she beams up at me.
My memory lied to me.
This is one of my earliest and fondest childhood memories, from when I was four, but it’s also tinged with sadness. Years later, after my grandmother died, I was leafing through photos stashed in a box above the fridge. Suddenly, there she was on the glossy paper, with the same joyful expression—the neat curly hair, bright beaming face, those wrinkles, her beautiful smile.
My memory lied to me. My memory told me I saw her face in that moment on our front porch, but actually I had remembered it from this photograph. I felt confused and disappointed, mingled with something that felt like grief — like the moment I realized a boyfriend had been cheating.
This concept of misremembering a moment from youth is a common, calamitous feature in novels, but it turns out that many of us are unreliable narrators of our own life story. Around 40 percent of us have a fictional first memory, according to a new study by the Center for Memory and Law at City, University of London. Scientists asked 6,641 people to describe their first memory, along with their age at the time, and discovered that 2,487 first memories were unlikely to be true because they were captured before the age of two. An astonishing 14 percent said they remembered an event before their first birthday — some even saying they remembered their birth.
It’s scientifically accepted that autobiographical memories are possible only after the age of three. Before this, babies’ brains are physiologically incapable of forming and storing episodic memories, because the parts of the brain involved in these tasks are underdeveloped. In fact, some scientists…