How far back can you remember? Study confirms our earliest childhood memories may form before the age of 3


Most children can recall memories from when they are around 3.5 years of age.

But ask them to remember anything before then, and you’ll probably be greeted with a puzzled expression.  

This is down to something called childhood amnesia, which researchers believe is caused by a lack of language skills as babies.

But a new study suggests this figure has been influenced by incorrect dating – and in fact, we can recall memories far earlier than we think.

Four to 13-year-olds in New York and Newfoundland, Canada, were asked to recall their earliest memories by a team of scientists. 

The researchers returned a year or two later to ask again about earliest memories and at what age the children were when the events occurred. 

‘The age estimates of earliest childhood memories are not as accurate as what has been generally assumed,’ said Qi Wang of Cornell University in Developmental Psychology.  

‘Using children’s own age estimates as the reference, we found that memory dating shifted to later ages as time elapsed.’ 

The children who originally answered, for example, ‘I think I was 3 years old when my dog fell through the ice,’ post-dated that same earliest memory by as much as nine months in follow-up interviews. 

The finding prompted Professor Wang and colleagues to question the 3.5-year offset for childhood amnesia. 

‘This can happen to adults’ earliest childhood memories, too,’ said Professor Wang. ‘We all remember some events from our childhood.  

‘When we try to reconstruct the time of these events, we may postdate them to be more recent than they actually were, as if we are looking at the events through a telescope. 

‘Although none of us can recall events on the day of our birth – childhood amnesia may end somewhat earlier than the generally accepted 3.5 years.’ 

Parents might help because they have more to put their children’s experiences along a timeline.  

When asked, for example, ‘how old was Evan when Poochie fell through the ice?’ they erred less than Evan, but still had errors in their time estimates. 

The gender differences, according to the researchers, may reflect the development of storytelling skills in late childhood and early adolescence, where girls often tell lengthier and more coherent life tales than boys. 

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