Photo: Petri Oeschger/Getty Images
It’s not quite accurate to say we never remember the first few years of our lives. For a while, we remember them very well: A 4-year-old can recall things that happened to them at age 3; a 2-year-old may still know what it was like to be a baby. In fact, we carry those earliest memories with us long after we begin walking and talking and get our teeth: Research has shown that most people don’t really lose their earliest memories until around age 7 or so, the beginning of a process known as childhood amnesia. By the time we hit adulthood, it’s rare to remember much from before that point; the very earliest memories that we have tend to start at around age 3 and a half.
Which is what makes the results of a new study on memory so puzzling: From a survey of more than 6,600 people, nearly 40 percent claimed to remember something from when they were 2 or younger, and roughly 13 percent said they remembered something from before their first birthday — both stats that defy the odds to the point of impossibility. The study, appropriately, is titled “Fictional First Memories.”
It’s one thing, though, to hear that most memories before a given age are likely false; it’s another thing entirely to apply that theory to yourself, and to question whether something you’ve long understood as autobiographical fact is just a construction of your imagination. The Cut asked eight women to describe their own first memories — what happened, how old they were, and how certain they are, in light of what we know about the science of long-term memory formation, that they actually took place.
Redwood City, California, used to have this theme park called “Marine World, Africa, USA,” and it had animals. That part’s real, but I was there as a 2- or 3-year-old, so I’m not certain how this next part actually happened. My family and I were at the elephant exhibit, which was more like a show, with a trainer and his elephants. They’d do tricks, and for one of the tricks the trainer would lie down and the elephant would walk over him. And the audience was supposed to be all, Wow, they didn’t get stepped on!, but this time, the elephant stopped over the guy … and pooped … and kept walking. And the guy got up covered in shit, said I quit and swore a lot, and the show went to chaos.
In my head I can see the arena, but also, for years, my parents could make me laugh by telling this story, so I don’t think I would remember it at all if they didn’t repeat it a lot. I’m not even sure my visual memory of it is real. I think it is — I remember where we were sitting in relation to the elephant — but if you showed me a picture of the elephant amphitheater and it was different from what I have in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised.
My earliest memory is from age 4, when my parents dropped me off at pre-K the morning before our annual trip to Florida. I was in a brand new baby blue needlepointed dress, and they asked me to do my best to keep it clean, as we would be racing to the airport after pick-up. But at snack time, a boy named Charlie shoved me down, slamming my face onto the metal leg of the table. As I stood up, I had my four front baby teeth dangling from my mouth, with a stream of blood running down the front of my dress. My parents came racing to pick me up to visit the dentist, who was able to make me a retainer to pop into my mouth with fake baby teeth while my others grew in.
There are some details my parents have caught me up on over the years: My dress, where we were going, the fact that we were going on vacation at all, those were things I didn’t remember. But I think a lot of the vividness of the memory had to do with its physical effects on me — it was so physically painful. It was also one of the first instances when I felt genuine hate. And I still have the baby retainers in my jewelry box, so there’s a physical token of the memory as well.
I remember waking up in my room when I was a baby or toddler, standing up in my crib, and crying. My grandmother came into the room and comforted me and said my parents would be home soon. When I relayed this story to my mother, she said I must have been under 2 years old, because her mother stayed at the house while she and my dad went on vacation for a few days when I was still little enough to be in the crib in my baby room.
One thought is, maybe I wasn’t that young. Maybe I was 2 and a half. It wouldn’t invalidate the memory if it happened later. I know I was young enough to be in my crib, though. And it’s such a small detail that no one would ever describe it otherwise, right? Kid wakes up, stands up in crib, wants parents, grandma calms the kid down. The banality of it, and the fact that my mom was able to independently contextualize memory, made me believe that it’s true. I wonder if it’s possible for these little things to be tucked away — these things are buried in your brain, and somehow that pathway gets reactivated and they come out.
I remember opening my eyes in the kitchen, but not from a nap. It wasn’t like waking up from sleep — more like opening your eyes after a long blink. I think I was about 4. I saw my older sister following my mom into my parents’ bedroom, and then I looked to my father, not knowing who he was, but making sense of it, like, Oh, okay I have a mom, so this must be my dad. I don’t remember anything before that, but from that moment onwards it was like, Okay, I remember this, I know that life is happening.
My earliest memory is from when I was 5 years old, when my father bought a Corvette. It was the early morning, and he hit the garage opener and held open the door for me as he led me out of the house. I saw a shiny white sports car sitting there, and as we neared the car, he said, “This is for you and me, Danielley.” The car had red leather interiors, and sitting inside, I remember feeling like I was in a spaceship. As we drove to school, I didn’t look outside – I looked at him, and we sang “Baby Come to Me.”
I’m positive this is real, because this memory is one of the only ones I have of him. When I was little, I was enamored with my father. He didn’t always take me to school, but that day he did, and just the way he was very attentive — it was like there was nobody else around when it was the two of us together. But not too long after this began a brutal divorce between my parents, and he left town.
Pretty much everything right after the divorce is blank. We moved, but I don’t remember a box or a truck or anything. It’s kind of funny to have such a clear picture of everything that happened that morning with the car and then literally be blank for a large amount of time after that. But I think the idea of entering this dark garage, and the door going up and the light coming in — it was kind of like a movie. At least, that’s how I play it in my head.
I was lying in my crib at night and staring up at the curtain that was blowing in the breeze above me. I don’t know how old I was, but I was definitely a baby because I moved to a different room when I started sleeping in a bed. I think I must have been about 2. In my memory, the windows are open, so I know it must have been summer — it’s possible that it was the summer that I turned 3, but I don’t think it could have been later, because we moved out of that house when I was about 4.
It’s not a story that I would’ve heard from someone else, and there’s not much there to have imagined it. I’m not sure a photograph even exists of that room, so I can’t imagine where I would have gotten it from. I think this is a real memory, because it’s such an otherwise meaningless moment, and yet it’s very vivid. I can remember the shape the curtain was making, the way it sort of made a squiggly line in the breeze. Nothing else happened, and I don’t remember anyone else being there. I’m a visual person, a visual learner, so maybe it would make sense that my first memory is just a visual thing.
I was 5 years old and I was at my father’s new depressing apartment — my parents had just divorced — when I came down with a fever. I was feeling nauseated, and he had me lie in his unmade bed. My father kept tiptoeing into the room to check on me, feel my forehead, and then go back to watching football. I remember staring down the hall at the kitchen tiles, which looked like they were moving, and feeling lonely and afraid.
Everything felt heightened, which is why I’m 100 percent certain this is all my own recollection: I didn’t quite understand what was happening, I was of my comfort zone of my real home, I was at my dad’s weird apartment, and it was just the perfect storm of an unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar feeling, all these different factors coming together to make me super focused in on the fact that I was super uncomfortable.
Hours later, after I had woken up, my older sisters and my father told me about my feverish wild talk about peanut butter and jelly checkers. I remember sitting up in bed and everyone gathering around and telling me what I had said, but I didn’t recall saying anything at all. That blew my mind: How could I say something and have no memory of it? I was fascinated.
I got ear tube surgery when I was 3 years old, and I remember sitting in a toy wagon in a waiting room with my parents, and someone coming to get me. They put me on a bed and put a mask over my nose and mouth and asked me to take a deep breath and smell a cupcake, which is how they got little kids to take in anesthesia.
I actually had this memory as a recurring dream for a long time, and I thought it was just that, a weird dream. But then one morning when I was 12 or so, I told my mom about it, like, Isn’t this a funny dream? and she was like, Um, yeah, that was definitely when you had ear tube surgery. So we put two and two together. It didn’t sound familiar when my mom mentioned that it was real, but then the dream started to make a lot more sense.