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Are childhood memories fake? Our writers take intriguing look back

 

Laurence White

A new study out this week claimed that although 40% of us think our earliest memories happened before we were two years old, these recollections were fictional, as the brain can’t process memories at that age. We asked two writers how far back they can remember.

Laurence White: ‘My first memory is that first day at primary school, now a couple of tasteful apartments’

News that some people swear they can remember things that happened to them when they were two years old - experts say they are just fooling themselves - makes me think I must have been a very late developer.

For the first memory I have is of my first day at primary school.

I can clearly recall part of the walk from my home to the small, two classroom school - now a couple of tasteful apartments - and then entering the room presided over by head teacher Miss Healey.

There seemed an awful lot of children there, but in hindsight there could not have been more than perhaps 30, and the same in the other room where Mrs Minnie O'Hara taught the older boys and girls.

I remember being told not to let myself down by crying when I was left in the classroom and I retained the required stoical demeanour.

The day was enlivened when one of a set of twins took a rather different attitude to his first day in education, bursting into tears and making repeated determined efforts to run out of the classroom, presumably to get home.

If memory serves me right that behaviour may have continued for a couple of days, but then memory is a fickle thing and becomes increasingly so with age.

I have often been amazed at how elderly relatives were able to recount with astonishing accuracy events from their lives six or seven decades previously and yet be unable to retain the name of one of my children.

Now that the years have crept up on me, such vagaries of memory seem entirely natural. On occasion I find myself desperately trying to snatch the name of a work colleague from the memory bank. I can visualise the person perfectly, can recall conversation with them, but find their name is always on the tip of my tongue but refusing to articulate itself.

Another memory difficulty I have is recalling jokes. I have a friend who can rhyme off one-liners or Billy Connolly-esque monologues at the drop of a hat, but I have never acquired that skill.

I need a prompt. Many times someone has said to me 'have you heard the one about …?' but it doesn't strike a chord. It is only when they have said the first couple of lines that the joke springs to the front of the brain and then I have to pretend it is the first time I have heard it, resulting in a somewhat hollow laugh at the punch line.

We all marvel at the internet and the range of Wikipedia, but our memory is so much more sophisticated. No online search engine can recall the taste of a marvellous meal, the feelings when first meeting the love of your life, or the grief as life's vicissitudes intrude, but your memory can transport you back to each of those events, combining the events and the emotions. The loss of memory must be one of the greatest burdens imposed on a person - and their relatives.

How often have we read of someone describing a relative with dementia as being just a shell, not the mother, father, brother or sister they knew all their life, but someone living in a world of their own in which they have no part to play.

What a bitter memory that can leave.

Lindy McDowell: ‘I remember my baptism, I was 3 (it’s a long story), but I didn’t feel comfortable at all’

My first memory is of being christened. Unsurprisingly, this is a bit of a disjointed memory. I remember marble steps and people staring at me. I remember the feeling of something momentous happening and me being central to it.

And not being at all comfortable with any of this.

I was a shy child. I really didn't like all those people looking at me. Which is maybe why the scene stayed in my mind.

When I was about 10 I discussed this odd memory with my mother. What could it be about?

"That would have been you being christened," she told me.

"But aren't you just a baby when you get christened?" I asked.

"You weren't."

It turns out I was about three at the time - which would explain a crucial detail of this flashback.

Unlike most people, I walked to the baptismal font under my own steam. I remember going up the marble steps and kneeling on one of those ornate wee knee cushions they have in churches.

It's a long story.

My originally Presbyterian father basically didn't do church. Ironically, as a stonemason he spent a lifetime working on them. Churches of all denominations - Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Catholic, Methodist...

Even more ironically, for some of the smaller jobs where he helped out in his spare time, they paid him in Bibles.

He attended churches for funerals and weddings (although sometimes under duress when it came to the latter) but that was about the height of it.

He and my mother were living near his own - quite religious - parents in Co Antrim when my older brother was born. So my brother got christened around that time.

But by the time I came along my parents were living in my mother's native south Derry and my da no longer bothered with church.

My mother, originally Church of Ireland, was attending the local Presbyterian church. The cleric in charge there, however, refused to christen me without my father in attendance.

This stand-off rumbled on until the twins were born.

One of my sisters nearly died as a baby and was christened in hospital. My mother now decided it was time to have myself and my other sister attended to as well.

She asked the local Church of Ireland clergyman, who said he'd be happy to perform the service - with or without our father in attendance.

We were duly christened during an evening service when there were fewer people in the congregation. But still, obviously, an intimidating experience for poor, shy me. Which is possibly why it stayed in my memory.

Do I remember it clearly still?

Put it like this, I do remember remembering it. I've still got that hazy sense of the cushion, the marble steps... and all those big people looking at me.

And so I agree, sort of, with the findings of the research that we can't really remember back to before the age of two.

But who knows for sure?

What stays in the mind, you would think, would be a clear recollection of the major milestones in your young life.

But what I recall from my earliest years are lone, jigsaw pieces of scents and scenes and taste and touch.

Short flickering video clips of days long gone, dappled with a sunlight that was maybe never as strong as it seemed then, and a wraparound sense of love that I know was. I remember watching my lovely granny Katie with her white, white hair scraped back in a bun bending over the griddle on the range.

I can clearly see her flicking the hot farls over with her fingers, and hear the hollow echo as she tapped them to check if they were ready. I can smell them. I can almost taste them.

I remember when I was very young my mother taking me out to show me the northern lights. I can remember the glory of the aurora borealis, yes. But more than that, I remember her that night. Her awe and wonder.

She was a great one for astronomical and historical occasion, my mother.

"Look at this. You'll remember this when you're old..."

What I really remember from those early, early years is a cosy sense of love and warmth, occasional wonder and the odd flash of fear.

I remember crying in despair when my cat ran into a bed of nettles. I thought she'd be badly stung.

I can still feel my childish panic - and my anger at adult assurance that she'd be grand, when I knew full well she'd be covered in the same warbles I was when I fell into the same venomous patch of weeds.

Memory is an odd thing. An illogical thing. Yet those flitting fragments of yesterday we carry with us are in some ways more potent than any photograph or recording.

The great thing is, they don't just take us back to a time. They take us back to people. Those we loved who have long since passed on.

But are still there, so vital and so real - and just one fond, flickering memory away.

Study suggests total recall may just be our imagination

A total of 6,641 people were asked about their first recollection in the largest ever study on early memory. Participants were told the memory should not be linked to photos of themselves, a family story, or any other source, only direct experience.

The authors said 60% of first memories were from the average age of 3.24 years - matching research showing this is when we develop the mental faculties to form memories.

But nearly 39% of people - 2,487 - claimed to have memories from between the ages of one and two. And 893 said their first memory was from their first year - an 'astonishingly' high number, say the authors.

These included 'the first time I walked', 'wanting to tell my mother something before I could talk', and 'the first word I spoke'. Researchers say impossibly early memories may result from a need for older people to 'complete' the story of their life.

Professor Martin Conway, of City, University of London and co-author of the paper, said: "When we looked through the responses from participants we found a lot of these first memories were frequently related to infancy, and a typical example would be a memory based around a pram.

"For this person, this type of memory could have resulted from someone saying something like 'mother had a large green pram'. The person then imagines what it would have looked like.

"Crucially, the person remembering them doesn't know this is fictional. In fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don't believe it.

"It's not until we're five or six that we form adult-like memories, due to the way that the brain develops."

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