420: First Memory

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
420: First Memory

Around what age is your first clear memory?

Show notes and links:
Popular Science

Full episode script

Memory is one of the topics that endlessly fascinates me, because it is so very far removed from the photographic perfect recall that it is often thought of as. In a 2014 Popular Science article, Kate Gammon wrote about a phenomenon called Childhood Amnesia — something that both humans and nonhuman animals seem to exhibit. Generally, as adults, most people don’t have clear memories of their life before the age of somewhere between 5 and 7 years old.


In research published in the journal Memory, Patricia Bauer and her colleague Marina Larkina brought in groups of 3-year olds with a parent. The parent interviewed the child about events that had happened over the prior three months like a visit to a zoo or preschool, while the researchers videotaped.

Over the next 6 years, different groups of children came back at age 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 to the lab and were questioned by the scientists on the events that happened when they were 3.

The result? If the kids were between 5 and 7 at time of second interview, they remembered over 60% of events, Bauer tells KinderLab. But the children who were 8 and 9 remembered 40% or fewer of the events, and they had begun to talk about their memories in a different way.

In a different study discussed in a 2011 WebMD article, researcher Dr Carole Peterson and her colleagues approached the question in a different way. Quote:

In an effort to better understand how children form memories, the researchers asked 140 kids between the ages of 4 and 13 to describe their earliest memories and then asked them to do the same thing two years later.

The researchers found that children between the ages of 4 and 7 during the first interview showed very little overlap between the memories they recalled as “first memories” during the first question session and those they remembered two years later.

“Even when we repeated what they had told us two years before, many of the younger children would tell us that it didn’t happen to them,” Peterson says.

Conversely, a third of the children who were age 10 to 13 during the first interview described the same earliest memory during the second interview. More than half of the memories they recalled were the same at both interviews.

All of this, of course, can be very heavily impacted by emotional events, painful events, or even events that are highlighted in our memory thanks to very happy emotions.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.