Tapping into people’s earliest memories

When it comes to psychologists identifying people’s earliest memories, the approach they take matters a lot. That’s according to New Zealand psychologists Fiona Jack and Harlene Hayne who say their finding helps explain some of the mixed opinion in this area of study.

For example, whereas most experiments suggest our earliest memories come from between the ages of three and four, some experts, Freud included, have suggested so-called infantile amnesia extends to the ages of five and six. Yes, people can recall memories from age three and four, these experts argue, but the lack of quantity and quality of people’s memories from before they were aged six suggests fully-fledged autobiographical memory doesn’t kick in until then.

To test this, Jack and Hayne divided 160 undergraduate students into four groups. One group was asked to recall memories from any time in their lives. The earliest memories recalled by this group were from the age of 6 years and seven months, on average. This reflects Freud’s experience with his patients and findings from previous studies which have taken this approach.

Another group was asked to recall childhood memories – the earliest memories they recalled tended to be from the age of 5 years, six months. Finally, two of the groups were specifically asked to recall their earliest childhood memories (either with the help of cue words or not) – their earliest memories tended to be from the age of around three years nine months, whether they were given cue words or not.

The researchers said: “These results add to a growing body of research which suggests that the age of adults’ earliest memories is relatively malleable, and varies as a function of the way in which they are asked to recall their memories”.

The research also revealed that earlier memories tended to be more emotionally positive than later memories and that more emotional memories tended to have more detail.

Jack, F. & Hayne, H. (In Press). Eliciting adults’ earliest memories: Does it matter how we ask the question? Memory.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.