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Are Your Childhood Memories Fake? There is a Greater Chance They Are

by Nabjot Kaur

Are Your Childhood Memories Fake? There is a Greater Chance They Are

June 8, 2021

What exactly are memories? In biological terms, memories are the processes used by our mind to acquire, retain and retrieve information. Human memory can both recover and preserve data that we have experienced and learned. We all have those special memories that we hold dear to our heart. You must have recalled some while reading this.

"Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features."

Primo Levi

So Vivid!

One of my earliest and fondest memories is from the days when I first started going to kindergarten. I was feeding some flowers to the rabbits in a cage, which was kept in the school backyard. It was a lush green garden bordered with bright red poppies and pastel purple hydrangeas. I still remember how those water droplets gleamed through hydrangeas right after the monsoon showers, just like tiny crystal balls.

This memory was one of my fondest memories. I felt perplexed and betrayed when I suddenly came across an episode of my favorite Anime series from childhood. My favorite character was strolling in a park full of hydrangeas that were shining similarly like they were in my memory.

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Research suggests that memories occurring below the age of three are highly unusual

No Real Memories before Two!

So, was my memory fictional or did it never happen? Did my mind produce a fabricated and misinterpreted version of memory? A new study by the Center for Memory and Law at City, University of London found that around 40% of people have a fictional – first memory and our earliest memories are from the time when we were 3- 3.5 years of age.

According to the study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, the University of London conducted one of the most extensive psychological surveys. They surveyed 6641 participants aged between 11-100 who had memories from 2 years of age or younger, out of the total no. of participants, 893 people claimed to have memories from 1 year of age and younger. Surprisingly, 14 per cent of them said that they even remember their birth and some more events before their first birthday. Researchers then asked the participants to provide them with a detailed description of their memories, which should be from a personal experience and shouldn’t be based on a story or family photograph.

Fictional Memories

Researchers then examined the descriptions based on language, content, nature, and detail, including why people claim to have memories even from an age that makes it impossible for them to form memories. Authors suggested that these fictional memories are based on the fragments of our childhood experiences which may have been taken from family photographs, favorite shows or family conversations. So how to detect whether our memories are real or not? Jon Simons, a reader in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, explains that an area of the brain behind the forehead called – anterior prefrontal cortex detects whether a memory is true or false. “It’s quite reliable most of the time, but then there are ‘memories’ based on what someone has told you that are less clear,” he said.

"Every time a thought comes to mind, we have to make a decision – have we experienced it, imagined it or have we talked about it with other people."

Kimberley Wade, a law and memory research psychologist at the University of Warwick.

Fictional memories may seem as accurate as actual memories. Even people who know better about this subject can fall into this trap easily, as fictional memories can secretly be induced with our actual memories. Julia Shaw, a Psychological Scientist at University College London, has shown that it is possible to convince people to remember or recall the events that were made up and never happened, like committing a heinous crime or getting lost in the mall. This can be done using memory retrieval techniques.

“Scientific literature suggests that it’s not possible to have a memory from before the age of 2 “,- said lead study author Shazia Akhtar, a senior research associate at the University of Bradford in England. Akhtar told Live Science that this period is a part of the “preverbal stage” of human life, and at this stage, the ability to form memories has not been formed yet. This is one of the significant reasons why scientists believe that memories before two are mainly fictional.

Scientists don’t exactly know why we implant fictional memories, mainly from our childhood. This raises the question of whether all our memories real or are they mere reconstructions, as memories themselves are experiences from the past. These experiences can be visual or audible, or both. It is also possible that our mind adds its own imagination to an audio memory, fooling us into thinking that it’s an audiovisual experience. Déjà vu is another such feeling that makes us feel that we already lived through a present experience. Déjà vu can also be a fictional memory fabricated through similar experiences, though scientists have no clue why this happens.

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The researchers were also able to remove the false memories without explicitly telling them which story was a lie. In one technique, they would remind participants that memories are not always based on experiments, but can be picked up from stuff like photographs or a family member's story.

“We know something about the circumstances that make it easier, but I don’t think we know what’s going on in the brain exactly,” said Brock Kirwan, a neuroscientist. He studies memory at Brigham Young University. Kirwan explained that having positive memories from early childhood makes you have a positive outlook on life and makes it easy for you to cope up with your life. Fictional memories are also responsible for better social bonding and improved decision making.

We all have such memories, which our consciousness has deeply engrained as real memories, and we hold them close to our heart because they give us a sense of happiness and fulfilment. Whether a memory is false or true, a vivid memory of a long-gone pet or a grandparent can bring us joy. Like most participants from the survey, even I would get furious if someone suggested that my most treasured memory is fictitious or fabricated. I’d refuse to believe it.

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