Karl Sabbagh is a writer and television producer with 25 years of experience describing complex events and subjects for a nonspecialist audience. His latest book is Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us, which explores what science tells us about the nature of memory, and in particular, memories of childhood. In it, he argues strongly for the critical role of scientific evidence in cases involving the memory of witnesses. In the piece below, he talks about the earliest memories of people he interviewed for his book.
When I was researching my new book I asked a number of people on my e-mail list, and a few people I interviewed, for their earliest memories, with a rough estimate of the age they were when the remembered event occurred. The reminiscences I received, about sixty of them, showed a wide range of ages and content. Some memories were said to date back to when the subject was one year old; others claimed to remember nothing before the age of seven or so. Both the content and the dating were suspect. Very few scientists believe there is any evidence for memories retained from before the age of about two and a half, because of a period of infantile amnesia which some connect with the development of language, and yet my sample had about twenty or so that were said to go that far back.
Several of my ‘rememberers’ told me what they believed their earliest memories were and then told me why they could not be correct. One had a vivid memory of his father at the time when his father was serving abroad in the army and never returned; another remembered the happiest day of her life as being when she saw a film which, she later discovered, had not even been released until several years after the date.
And the range of content was bewilderingly wide. When you think how many events, perceptions and insights a child experiences in his or her first five years, why would one woman remember “Being in my bedroom dressed only in a pair of knickers which I had filled with plastic Noddy/Big Ears figures and my mum being really angry with me.” Was this the only time her mother was angry with her? Unlikely. Or “Trying to scoop up the water from a birdbath with a metal jug.” This is such an ordinary event to be retained in memory over someone’s entire adult life. Some earliest memories showed a startlingly philosophical approach to life. One subject, a psychologist interviewed for my book, remembered at the age of two lying in his crib and crying with frustration because he couldn’t communicate with his mother. He described it as thinking “She just didn’t get it.” I suggested that it was as if he was wishing for someone to invent language, and he agreed.
What I discovered when writing the book was that there is a lot of carefully designed research to answer questions to which there were only anecdotal answers before. Controlled experiments in which scientists tried to corroborate alleged earliest memories by going back to parents or siblings confirmed the period of infantile amnesia and fixed its end at about two and a half, where psychologists had previously thought it stretched to three or four.
Other research showed the importance of conversations between parent and child as a factor in determining the content of early memories. Parents consciously or unconsciously reinforce or suppress their children’s memories by the way they react to them. After a trip to the zoo, if the child wants to talk about a bright pebble on the ground and the mother thinks the giraffe is more interesting, the child may soon forget the pebble and remember the giraffe.
I begin the book with one of my own earliest memories, a short poem my mother used to say to me about five ducks on a pond, and then tell how, much later, I discovered that the words I had remembered were different from the original poem. But was it my memory that was at fault or my mother’s, or even the poet’s – perhaps he saw four ducks or six? After describing in the book all the ways in which memory is fallible, I return to the poem at the end and suggest that something true was remembered – that I sat on my mother’s knee while she recited a poem to me. That was too important to forget.