Your Brain Probably Made Up Your First Memory, A New Study Shows

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My very first memory is from when I was three years old — a picture-perfect snapshot of the layout of my family's Disney World hotel room. My mother can corroborate this snapshot, which makes me part of the 61.4 percent of people whose first memory is factual. And yes, you read that right; only 61.4 percent of folks have a first memory that is not fictional, according to a new study that looked at 6,641 people claiming to have first memories from the age of two or younger, and 893 people claiming to have memories from age one or younger. That means nearly 40 percent of us have fictional first memories our brains just made up, and why that happens is wild.

The study, which comes out of City, University of London, the University of Bradford, and Nottingham Trent University, is one of the largest surveys of its kind, according to a statement about the study published by EurekAlert. Researchers dove into the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, knowing that "[c]urrent research indicates that people's earliest memories date from around three to three-and-a-half years of age."

So, they looked at people claiming to have memories from times prior to that threshold, asking their participants to "detail their first memory along with their age at the time." Participants were specifically instructed that "the memory itself had to be one that they were certain they remembered," and that "[i]t should not be based on, for example, a family photograph, family story, or any source other than direct experience," according to the study statement.

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But even with these parameters in place, 38.6 percent of participants turned out to have first memories that were fictional. And despite the memories not being factual, they actually can help researchers with discovering the facts behind why our brains make up these false early memories. Per the study statement, researchers looked at participants' written recollections to examine the "content, language, nature and descriptive detail of respondents' early memory descriptions."

The data collected from these recollections could be key in understanding nonfactual early memories. According to Dr. Shazia Akhtar, senior research associate at the University of Bradford and a lead author on the study, researchers' theory based on the data suggests that when people remember a false first memory, that memory is actually "remembered fragments of early experience and some facts or knowledge about their own infancy/childhood," she said in the study statement. So, for example, if a parent has always told their child that the child was a fishing prodigy at the age of two, and has photos of a red sailboat the child's grandparents own, that child may grow into an adult who has a clear memory of catching fish in a red sailboat at the age of two.

"Such episodic-memory-like mental representations come, over time, to be recollectively experienced when they come to mind," Akhtar explained in the study statement. "[S]o for the individual they quite simply are 'memories' which particularly point to infancy." Part of researchers' data backing up Akhtar's assertion is the fact that false first memories were especially prevalent among middle-aged and older adults, who have had more time to sit with these fictional constructs.

Martin Conway, a professor and the director at the Centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London, said that it's important to remember people who have these fictional first memories are not aware their memory is false. They're not doing it on purpose — and "[i]n fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don't believe it," Conway said in the study statement.

Though the conclusions from this study will likely be tested in further research, there doesn't seem to be a real solution to this. Some of us will just have to live with the fact that our earliest memories are actually our brains telling us a story based on what it knows — or thinks it does — about our childhoods, because brains are weird as heck.