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Can you trust your childhood memories?

Do you remember anything when you were a baby? How many details can you remember about those memories? Do you remember your emotions, what you wore, and who was there with you back then? Well, I remember the infant me crawling on the floor to get a favorite toy when my dad walked across and “accidentally” kicked it farther away from me. I also remember being dragged around on the beach by my “loving” older cousin because she walked too fast, ignoring that I just learned how to walk. And, I remember entertaining myself by kicking around my pink with yellow heart pillow after waking up alone one morning. Perhaps you are like me who can recall several interesting episodes with some details. However, how confident can you be regarding those childhood memories? How can you be sure that they are accurate and actual memories?

Always be suspicious. This is the way we should examine our childhood memories. Meme retrieved from https://imgflip.com/i/qv74.

I ask those questions because I know that the three memories I listed above are not accurate recordings of past events as it is rare to impossible for us to remember events that happened before we are three years old. This phenomenon of not being able to recall infancy and early childhood events that took place before the age of 3 for adults and children is called childhood amnesia. The first time I heard this term, I didn’t believe it because I have clear memories before I was three. For example, the self-entertaining memory happened before I could even speak as I remember clearly that it was a hot summer morning and I woke up searching the room to look for mom or my nanny and none of them were within my sight, so I started crying to catch their attention, but no one came. After three trials of crying loudly and whining and no one coming over, I started to entertain myself with my light-yellow pillow that had hearts on it. Given how vivid this is, how do I know it’s not accurate?

I recently heard this self-entertaining story from my grandmother, and I noticed there were differences in terms of the number of cries and the patterns on the pillow. My grandmother said that I cried at least six times, and the pillow I kicked with had kittens on it because she picked out this pattern, and she said I loved it. Clearly, there was something wrong, and I checked with my nanny and noticed that “my memory” matched up perfectly with her accounts, suggesting there’s a high possibility that my memory was a fictitious one that I created based on my nanny’s descriptive story. Plus, my nanny is a great storyteller as she always describes everything in detail which makes it easy to form graphics. Nevertheless, although I know my memories are made up, they still feel real and accurate. These feelings of confidence and accuracy hold true for all kinds of false memories. One explanation of our high confidence is that our memories are reconstructive and malleable meaning that they are not records of past events, but rather our representations of the self in past events. (Wanna learn more about false memories or confabulation? Check out this post.)

Other than being fictitious, our infancy and childhood memories also have another interesting characteristic of unfolding through the viewpoint of a third person in which you can see the full-sized you in your memory. In psychology, those third-person perspective memories are called observer memories; whereas, the other first-person point of view autobiographical memories are termed field memories. My self-entertaining memory is an observer memory because instead of recalling seeing my tiny feet kicking the pillow up and down, I remember seeing the baby-sized me lying on the giant bed kicking my pillow. If you examine the memories by focusing on the perspective, you can probably find that some of your memories, especially the infancy and childhood memories, are observer memories. In fact, psychologists have found that about one-third of our memories are viewed from the third-person perspective with most of them coming from remote childhood memories. 

Through reading people’s descriptions of past events and identifying the number of details given for each memory, psychologists have found that observer memories are often less detailed and less emotionally charged. In addition, we tend to remember remote childhood memories from a third-person perspective and the recent memories from a first-person perspective. For example, I remember that when I was in kindergarten, my cousin and I each grabbed an arm of the teddy bear and pulled it apart like we were in a tug of war competition. And, in this memory, I can see full-sized me and my cousin, like the memory is played from an observer’s point of view. However, my more recent memory of fighting over a t-shirt with my cousin is viewed from a first-person perspective in which I remember seeing my hand cling tight to my t-shirt and my cousin’s ferocious face.

One explanation of the relationship between the age of memory and visual perspective is related to the high likelihood of early childhood memories being fictitious. As mentioned earlier, we often depend on photographs and others’ accounts to generate memories. Given that these sources we rely on when generating imagined memories are often documented from an observer’s point of view, it is very likely for us to create observer memories. For example, my aunt and uncle used to joke about how my cousin was “close” and “kind” to me by telling others how she dragged me around on the beach. After hearing about this event several times, I created the graphics of my cousin dragging the tiny me covered in the sand. Again, this is an observer memory as I can see the full-sized me and my cousin.

It’s important to note that although made-up memories are oftentimes observer memories, it does not necessarily mean that all observer memories are made-up ones. That is because other factors, such as one’s emotion and self-awareness at the time of the event and the purpose of retrieving the memory, all influence the visual perspective of memories. In fact, psychologists have found that we can shift the visual perspectives of certain events when recalling. For example, when asked to recall a moment when they were at a public speaking event, participants often described their memories from both a first-person perspective saying how nervous they were when they saw the crowd, and also from a third-person perspective describing how the audience can tell their nerves through their shaking hands.

Overall, our ability to create fictitious memories and to shift the visual perspective of our memories are all signs indicating that our memories are reconstructive, flexible, and malleable. While psychologists are still trying to figure out why we create memories of infancy and childhood, I think it’s cool that we are like film directors and playwrights who can play around with our memories and switch visual perspectives. In a way, that makes our memories the self-directed autobiography movie with ourselves as the only audience.

Here are your roles and grand titles when playing your childhood memories in movies. Meme retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/750341987906941425/.

References

Crawley, S., & French, C. (2005). Field and observer viewpoint in remember-know memories of personal childhood events. Memory13(7), 673-681.

Eich, E., Handy, T. C., Holmes, E. A., Lerner, J., & Mclsaac, H. K. (2013). Field and observer perspectives in autobiographical memory. In J. P. Forgas, K. Fiedler, & C. Sedikides (Eds.), Social thinking and interpersonal behavior (pp. 163–181). Psychology Press.

Hayne, H., & Jack, F. (2011). Childhood amnesia. WIREs Cognitive Science, 2(2), 136–145. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.107

Nigro, G., & Neisser, U. (1983). Point of view in personal memories. Cognitive Psychology15(4), 467-482.

Strange, D., Wade, K., & Hayne, H. (2008). Creating false memories for events that occurred before versus after the offset of childhood amnesia. Memory, 16(5), 475–484. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210802059049

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