“I can still remember it like it was a day ago,” says Aria, 26. “There was this warm, emotionless feeling, which is difficult to describe. It was like looking at an invisible wall in front of your face. I didn’t feel happy, sad, tired or angry. I just felt like I belonged. All I could see was black, but since that was all I knew, it didn’t really bother me.”
“I remember drifting in and out of consciousness, with the sounds of liquid around me, similar to submerging your head under water,” Aria continues. “The memory ends, and it cuts to me being about two or three, lying on the ground as my mom offered me water. I could remember her face and distinct details about the apartment, which we lived in at the time, all of which have been confirmed by my parents. I can’t remember anything between being born and being two or three, but I can vividly remember being in my mother’s womb.”
Stories like these, where someone distinctly remembers the earliest moments of their life — sometimes prior to what most of us would even consider being alive — litter the internet. Then there are people like me, who can hardly even remember what they had for breakfast, let alone the experience of being a fetus. It’s always bugged me, hearing people talk about their early childhood as if it happened just yesterday, while I try to remember how I got here, right now. So, in an effort to better understand our memories — and if a person can really feasibly remember being a little bean-person inside of their mother — I spoke to a couple of experts about how far back a person is supposed to remember.
“There’s a very robust finding that’s been in the literature for over 100 years — so it’s extremely robust — and that’s, for most adults in Western society, the average age of earliest memory is between three and four years old,” says Patricia Bauer, memory researcher and professor of psychology at Emory College in Atlanta. “So, three-and-a-half years — some studies will be a little closer to three, some studies will be a little closer to four — but that’s the average.”
“That said,” Bauer continues, “within every study where it’s possible to actually evaluate it, there’s huge individual variability. You’ll have some adults who will claim to have memories from, sometimes the first year [she says this skeptically], but more so the second year of life, and you’ll have some adults who say their first memory isn’t until they’re eight or nine years old. It’s really striking. I personally don’t know of any other psychological phenomenon that has such a huge range. It’s a really unique situation in that regard.”
I specifically asked Bauer about stories like Aria’s, where someone remembers extremely early memories, and while she was again skeptical, she wasn’t completely dismissive of the possibility. However, many psychologists who study memory cast doubt on this phenomenon. For instance, as Punit Shah, a researcher of psychology at the University of Bath, explained to VICE regarding people who claim to have such memories, “Not to tarnish their experience, but it’s very unlikely. The main reason is a process called confabulation. For many people, they’ve been told things that they then go on to remember as actually experiencing this. Your parents telling you specific details about your birth — that might lead you to fill in the rest.” Still, more research needs to be done to dig deeper into these tales.
As for why people have such different starting points when it comes to early memories, there are several factors that can have an impact. “Some of the ones that are most commonly examined are gender: It tends to be to the case that women have memories from earlier in life than men, but that’s not found in all studies,” Bauer explains. “It tends to be the case that if you’re a first-born child, you have earlier memories than if you were a later-born child. Then there’s the weird one of, if your family moved before you were about three years of age, you have earlier memories, or if you attended preschool.”
“With those last two — the move and the preschool — we think that probably has more to do with your ability to date the memory,” Bauer continues. “Like, my family moved when I was about three-and-a-half, so if that memory is from the first house that I remember, it has to be from before three-and-a-half, but if it was from the second house that I remember living in, it has to be after three-and-a-half. The same thing with going to preschool: If you were already in preschool, you can kind of mark when that happened.”
Now, while I concede to having a generally mediocre memory, my earliest memories are of cracking a coconut in the middle of the street and of feeding manatees off of a small, wooden pier — both moments that had to have happened when I was living in Florida, which was before I turned six. So being able to mark those memories with a move certainly checks out.
In terms of how gender and whether you have brothers or sisters plays a role, Bauer says, “The explanations for gender and birth order have more to do with a phenomenon that’s very well-documented if you look at children’s memories, and that’s that there tends to be more conversation with girls than with boys and with first-born children than with later-born children. And if you have a lot of conversation, you have a lot of opportunity to think about those memories, to talk about the memories, to maybe put them into a better context — there are lots of ways that talking about something helps you to remember it.”
Being that I’m both a boy and a later-born child, I guess it makes sense that I can’t remember shit.
Interestingly enough, from what we can tell, we actually begin forming memories from about as early as we can (which could possibly lend credence to stories like Aria’s). “What happens with kids is that, as early as we can interview them, and even when we can test them non-verbally before they can be interviewed, they show evidence that they can remember specific past events,” Bauer confirms. “As soon as a kid can start to use the word ‘I’ and any other verb, you’ll get a kid who’ll say, ‘I falled.’ That’s a past event. These very, very brief, very snapshotted kinds of memories, you see in kids — in the second year of life, certainly.”
However, the reason why so many of us have no recollection of these memories prior to being three or four is because we essentially forget that whole period of time, for some unknown reason. “There’s now a growing body of research that tracks those early memories over time and documents the pattern of forgetting them,” Bauer says.
“What you see is that kids will hold on to these memories for a few years. By the time they’re about 10, though — nine to 10, eight to 10 years of age — they start showing the adult pattern of this infantile or childhood amnesia. That is, they’ve forgotten those early events.”
Some studies suggest that childhood amnesia could result from the jumbled, discombobulated ways in which we experience the world as infants. For example, many of our memories are cemented by visual cues — say, you learned how to ride a bike in front of your childhood home, so you remember scraping the hell out of your knees every time you drive by that house. However, as a small child, you experience the world much, much differently than you do now — everything towers over you, people speak in weird tongues, as far as you can tell, and even the food is much different to what you now eat as an adult. In which case, when we grow out of that early stage of life, we experience very few things that are recognizable enough to trigger those very, very early memories.
From the ages of about three or four on, though, unless you develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, both of which can alter your memories, your memories should mostly stay intact. “There’s some interesting work that’s been done by David Rubin, now many, many years ago, where he asked people at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 for their earliest memory. He still got that same distribution, that same age three to three-and-a-half. It seems to be that those memories that do survive that early period of vulnerability, those memories now remain accessible to people even well into their golden years.”
U.S. Memory Champion (where memory athletes compete by memorizing as much information as possible, including lengthy lists of names, faces, cards and randomized numbers) Chester “The International Man of Memory” Santos agrees. “As you get older, your ‘long-term memory’ stays intact,” he says. “People still remember childhood phone numbers, because way back then, they were effectively stored in your long-term memory. What does fade with age, without any sort of memory exercises or training to counteract it, is short-term memory. So new information becomes tougher to get in your long-term memory when you’re older. You can fight this with techniques and training, however, and that’s really my area of expertise.”
Here’s Santos’ suggestion for a quick exercise to essentially train your memory:
“Try to remember this list of words: Monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm, envelope and pencil. Instead of memorizing the list with brute force, try to visualize the story that I describe. Picture a monkey, dancing around and making monkey noises. The monkey picks up an iron. The iron starts to fall, but a rope attaches itself to the iron. You look up at the rope and see the other end attached to a kite. The kite now crashes into a house, which is covered in paper. A shoe appears and starts to walk on the paper. The shoe smells bad, so you look inside to find a worm crawling around. The worm jumps into an envelope, and a pencil starts to write on the envelope.
“Read through the story just one more time while visualizing everything described. See it like a movie or cartoon playing in your head. Now, go ahead and recite all of the random words from memory, simply by going through the story in your mind and recalling each major object that you encounter.”
Admittedly, Bauer is doubtful that brain training and the like work as some kinds of unrivaled memory boosters, but she does concede that it can be a fine way of staying mentally active, which, scientifically speaking, certainly keeps your memory strong. “There’s a fair amount of research on brain training and trying to improve memory — and I’m not an expert in that literature at all — but what I do know is that there isn’t particularly strong evidence, let’s put it that way,” she says. “That’s not to say that it doesn’t help anyone, but what does help is remaining mentally active. So if you want to say that brain training is something that keeps you mentally active, great, it works. But it doesn’t work better than doing crossword puzzles, or playing Scrabble — those kinds of things. The secret is staying mentally active, and if you want to do that with a training routine, more power to you.”
Now, uh, what was I saying again?