Remember when you got your first bike? Or the day when your parents brought your baby sister home from the hospital? These were important events when you were young. What can you remember of them?
If your memory is typical, the answer is, very little.
Our earliest childhood memories tend to be sketchy. A team of British researchers recently conducted a study to find out what details adults can recall with highest confidence from their early childhood memories.
They found that people can generally remember the who, what and where of the events in these memories, but recalling other details, such as the weather and the clothes they were wearing, is extremely rare.
Researchers asked 124 adults, average age 27, to write about four of their earliest memories from childhood — two emotionally positive events and two emotionally negative. They had to be recollections about which the person felt confident of their recall.
People can generally recall the who, what and where of the events in these memories, but recalling other details, such as the weather and the clothes they were wearing, is extremely rare.
Afterwards, participants were also asked nine questions about each memory, ranging from who was present to the weather and time of day.
What people thought they remembered was the point. There was no way the memories could be verified or disproved.
They were even more unlikely to remember details about the time of the event or the clothes they were wearing, with only about 10% claiming they could do so.
There was little difference between their ability to call up details of positive and negative memories. Even in their strongest childhood memories, adults generally recall only a few core details, according to the study.
It's a fairly common belief that the more detailed a memory is, the more likely it is to be true. Yet studies have found that there is no such relationship between the amount of detail in a memory and its accuracy.
So what about people who do claim to recall childhood memories in great detail, as often arises in court testimony? Do these people simply have better-than-average recall or are these memories false?
The researchers think that what is most likely occurring is that people embroider what they remember: they automatically add to the few core details they do remember by filling in the rest with what is likely. For example, if they remember that they often wore a school uniform or had a favorite piece of clothing, they will automatically add in this piece of clothing to their memory. After all, we are clothed in most of our memories, even if we aren't sure exactly what we were wearing.