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Forty per cent of people have a fictional first memory, study finds

Nearly 40 per cent of people have a fictional first memory, according to a new study involving Nottingham Trent University.

Nearly 40 per cent of people have a fictional first memory (Getty images)

Current research indicates that people’s earliest memories date from around three years of age.

However the study, which saw one of largest surveys of people’s first memories conducted, found that 38.6 per cent of 6,641 people claimed to have memories from two or younger.

A total of 893 people said they experienced memories from one or younger.

This was particularly prevalent among middle-aged and older adult, with about 4 in 10 of this group experiencing fictional memories.

To investigate people’s first memories, a team of researchers from City, University of London, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Bradford, asked participants to detail their first memory along with their age at the time.

The memory had to be one participants were certain they remembered and not based on a family photograph, family story, or any source other than direct experience.

Using these descriptions researchers examined the content, language, nature and details of respondents’ earliest memory.

They also evaluated the reasons why people claim memories from an age that research indicates they cannot be formed.

As many of these memories dated before the age of two and younger, researchers suggest these fictional memories are based on remembered fragments of early experience - such as a pram, family relationships and feeling sad.

This is along with some facts or knowledge about their own childhood which may have been derived from photographs or family conversations.

As written in Psychological Science,researchers suggest what a person has in mind when recalling these early memories, is a mental representation consisting of remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own childhood, instead of actual memories.

Over time, these mental representations come to be recollectively experienced when they come to mind and so for the individual they quite simply are ‘memories’ with content strongly tied to a particular time.

Many people may not believe that their early memories might not have come from an experienced event, and will reject the idea that they are constructions from photographs, stories or other information.“This is understandable as these mental representations are experienced and feel like other memories we have. Our memories do not work like a video camera and individual events are not stored like files in a computer.“Each time we remember an event we construct it anew in our minds. As such, most of our memories contain at least some details, that are false and this is a side effect of a healthy memory system at work.

Dr Lucy Justice, a lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences

Dr Shazia Akhtar, first author and Senior Research Associate, at the University of Bradford, said: “We suggest that what a rememberer has in mind when recalling fictional improbably early memories is an episodic-memory-like mental representation consisting of remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy/childhood.

“Additionally, further details may be non-consciously inferred or added, e.g. that one was wearing nappy when standing in the cot. Such episodic-memory-like mental representations come, over time, to be recollectively experienced when they come to mind and so for the individual they quite simply are ‘memories’ which particularly point to infancy.”

Professor Martin Conway, director centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London and co-author of the paper, said: “In our study we asked people to recall the very first memory that they actually remembered, asking them to be sure that it wasn’t related to a family story or photograph. When we looked through the responses from participants we found that a lot of these first ‘memories’ were frequently related to infancy, and a typical example would be a memory based around a pram.

“For this person, this type of memory could have resulted from someone saying something like ‘mother had a large green pram’. The person then imagines what it would have looked like. Over time these fragments then becomes a memory and often the person will start to add things in such as a string of toys along the top.

“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional. In fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don’t believe it. This partly due to the fact that the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex, and it’s not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world.”

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    Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University was named University of the Year 2017 at the Times Higher Education Awards and Modern University of the Year in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018. The award recognises NTU for its strong student satisfaction, quality of teaching, overall student experience and engagement with employers.

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) has been awarded the highest, gold, rating in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework for its outstanding teaching and learning.

    NTU is one of the largest UK universities with nearly 28,000 students and more than 3,500 staff across four campuses, contributing £496m to the UK economy every year. It is one of the most environmentally-friendly universities, containing some of the country’s most inspiring and efficient award-winning buildings.

    The University is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable Nottingham Trent to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is the sixth biggest recruiter of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the country and 95.6% of the its graduates go on to employment or further education within six months of leaving.

    NTU is home to world-class research, winning The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 - the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula and combat food fraud.

    With an international student population of approximately 2,600 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    City, University of London

    City, University of London is a global institution committed to academic excellence, with a focus on business and the professions and an enviable central London location.

    It is the top higher education institution in London for student satisfaction (The Complete University Guide), is ranked 18th overall in the United Kingdom (Guardian University Guide) and is among the top five per cent of universities in the world (Times Higher Education World Rankings).

    City has around 19,500 students (46% at postgraduate level) from more than 150 countries and staff from over 75 countries.  More than 130,000 former students from over 180 countries are members of the City Alumni Network. City’s academic range is broadly-based with world-leading strengths in business; law; health sciences; mathematics; computer science; engineering; social sciences; and the arts including journalism and music.

    The University’s history dates from 1894, with the foundation of the Northampton Institute on what is now the main part of City’s campus.  In 1966, City was granted University status by Royal Charter and the Lord Mayor of London became its Chancellor.  In September 2016, City joined the University of London federation and HRH the Princess Royal became City’s Chancellor.  Professor Sir Paul Curran has been Vice-Chancellor and President of City since 2010.

    University of Bradford

    Founded in 1966, the University of Bradford is one of the UK’s traditional universities. It is a research-intensive institution, ranked in the top 50 in the UK for the quality of its research, with three quarters being classed as either world-leading or internationally excellent in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). The University was ranked No 1 in Yorkshire for employed graduates obtaining professional & managerial level jobs.

    Known for its strong emphasis on employability skills and knowledge transfer work with businesses, the University has a truly global make up with over 20 per cent of its student population being international. The University is also a leader in sustainable development and education, and is 8th greenest in the world according to UI GreenMetric World University Rankings 2015.

Published on 20 July 2018
  • Subject area: Psychology, sociology, health and social care
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences