NEW DELHI:Â It is generally believed by psychologists that the earliest memories of any person go back to about 3.5 years of age. Now, a new study led by a Cornell University scientist indicates that people may be able to remember even earlier events, but they mistakenly shift the time to later. This shifting starts in childhood and even adults make similar mistakes.
The study also found that girls had better memories and could go back further in time than boys, on an average.
The researchers asked a group of kids aged 4-13 years to remember the earliest event in their lives and also their age at the time.
But the children who originally answered, for example, “I think I was 3 years old when my dog fell through the ice,” postdated that same earliest memory by as much as nine months when asked – in follow-up interviews a year or two years later – to recall again. In other words, as time went by, children thought the same memory event occurred at an older age than they had thought previously.
“The age estimates of earliest childhood memories are not as accurate as what has been generally assumed,” report Qi Wang of Cornell University and Carole Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland in the March 2014 online issue of Developmental Psychology.
Childhood amnesia refers to our inability to remember events from our first years of life. Until now, cognitive psychologists estimated the so-called childhood amnesia cutoff at 3.5 years – the average age of our very earliest memory, the authors noted in their report. But the research on kids has prompted Wang and Peterson to question the 3.5-year cutoff for childhood amnesia.
“This can happen to adults’ earliest childhood memories, too,” says Wang, professor of human development and director of the Social Cognition Development Laboratory in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “We all remember some events from our childhood. When we try to reconstruct the time of these events, we may postdate them to be more recent than they actually were, as if we are looking at the events through a telescope. Although none of us can recall events on the day of our birth – childhood amnesia may end somewhat earlier than the generally accepted 3.5 years.”
Parents might help because they have more clues (e.g., where they lived, what their children looked like at the time of events) to put their children’s experiences along a timeline. When asked, for example, “How old was Evan when Poochie fell through the ice?” they erred less than Evan had. Still, they are not free from errors in their time estimates.
The only way to settle that, Wang and Peterson mused, would be to look for documented evidence – a parent’s diary, for instance, or a newspaper account of Poochie’s memorable rescue.
The study confirmed a finding made by Wang in 2013 that a gender-related difference existed as far as extent of memories goes.
“Females generally, although not always, exhibit superior retention of episodic memories than males,” Wang and Peterson wrote in the 2014 report. The gender differences, according to the researchers, may reflect the development of life narratives in late childhood and early adolescence, where girls often tell lengthier and more coherent life stories than boys.
“The narrative organization of life events,” they speculated, “may allow girls to better remember the events over time, compared with boys.”