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Early recall

Psychology researcher finds memories can start from age two-and-a-half


By Kelly Foss

What is your earliest memory?

According to Dr. Carole Peterson, a University Research Professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Psychology, the answer is: it depends.

Decades of data

For more than 20 years, Dr. Peterson has been conducting studies on memory, with a particular focus on childhood amnesia — the ability of children and adults to recall the earliest years of their lives.

Her latest findings were published recently in Memory, a Taylor and Francis journal.

Dr. Peterson reviewed decades worth of data to conclude that the commonly held belief that the average age of a person’s earliest memory is three-and-a-half is, in fact, wrong.

She now thinks the average age is two-and-a-half. She also says that people remember a lot more from the age of two than they realize.

“That’s for two reasons,” she said. “First, it’s very easy to get people to remember earlier memories simply by asking them what their earliest memory is, and then asking them for a few more. Then they start recalling even earlier memories — sometimes up to a full year earlier. It’s like priming a pump; once you get them started, it’s self-prompting.

“Secondly, we’ve documented those early memories are systematically mis-dated. Over and over again we find people think they were older than they actually were in their early memories.”

Compelling evidence

Over the years, Dr. Peterson and her students collected information from individuals and then compared it to their parents’ recollections.

“On average, for those very early memories, if the person said the event occurred when they were three, the parents were likely to say that, no, it actually happened when they were two.”

“The children, as they age, keep moving how old they thought they were.” — Dr. Carole Peterson

In other studies where children were interviewed about their earliest memories and then revisited after two and eight years had passed, they were able to recall the same memories. However, they gave a later age as to when they occurred in subsequent interviews.

“That was the most compelling evidence,” Dr. Peterson said. “Eight years later, many believed they were a full year older. So, the children, as they age, keep moving how old they thought they were at the time of those early memories.”

Accessing memories

Dr. Peterson believes that’s due to something in memory dating called telescoping.

Telescoping is “like looking through a lens” when thinking back to something that happened long ago.

A woman with blonde hair and wearing a brown jacket smiles at the camera with the Arts annex building on the St. John's campus in the background.
Dr. Carole Peterson
Photo: Chris Hammond

“The more remote a memory is, the telescoping effect makes you see it as closer. It turns out they move their earliest memory forward a year to about three-and-a half-years of age. But we found that when the child or adult is remembering events from age four and up, this doesn’t happen.”

She says that, after combing through all of her data, it clearly demonstrates people remember a lot more of their early childhood and a lot farther back than they think they do, and that it’s relatively easy to help them access those memories.

“When you look at one study, sometimes things don’t become clear, but when you start putting together study after study and they all come up with the same conclusions, it becomes pretty convincing.”

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