MIND
February 21, 2014

Memory Or Embroidery?

Our memory for childhood events is usually basic and modest. The details we recall are often added later.

Remember when you got your first bike? Or the day when your parents brought your baby sister home from the hospital? These were important events when you were young. What can you remember of them?

If your memory is typical, the answer is, very little.

Our earliest childhood memories tend to be sketchy. A team of British researchers recently conducted a study to find out what details adults can recall with highest confidence from their early childhood memories.

They found that people can generally remember the who, what and where of the events in these memories, but recalling other details, such as the weather and the clothes they were wearing, is extremely rare.

The findings should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in legal proceedings in which the specific details of a childhood event are important evidence, the researchers believe. While they can't prove that such memories are faulty or inaccurate, their work makes a compelling case for the fact that they are unusual.

People can generally recall the who, what and where of the events in these memories, but recalling other details, such as the weather and the clothes they were wearing, is extremely rare.

Researchers asked 124 adults, average age 27, to write about four of their earliest memories from childhood — two emotionally positive events and two emotionally negative. They had to be recollections about which the person felt confident of their recall.

Afterwards, participants were also asked nine questions about each memory, ranging from who was present to the weather and time of day.

What people thought they remembered was the point. There was no way the memories could be verified or disproved.

Participants were most likely to claim to remember details about the activity (what), location (where), and the people (who) involved. They were less likely to remember details about what they were thinking, the weather, their age at the time and the length of the event.

They were even more unlikely to remember details about the time of the event or the clothes they were wearing, with only about 10% claiming they could do so.

There was little difference between their ability to call up details of positive and negative memories. Even in their strongest childhood memories, adults generally recall only a few core details, according to the study.

It's a fairly common belief that the more detailed a memory is, the more likely it is to be true. Yet studies have found that there is no such relationship between the amount of detail in a memory and its accuracy.

So what about people who do claim to recall childhood memories in great detail, as often arises in court testimony? Do these people simply have better-than-average recall or are these memories false?

The study, which appears in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, cannot answer that question, but it did show that such detailed memories are not the norm.

The researchers think that what is most likely occurring is that people embroider what they remember: they automatically add to the few core details they do remember by filling in the rest with what is likely. For example, if they remember that they often wore a school uniform or had a favorite piece of clothing, they will automatically add in this piece of clothing to their memory. After all, we are clothed in most of our memories, even if we aren't sure exactly what we were wearing.

COMMENTS
NOTE: We regret that we cannot answer personal medical questions.
LATEST NEWS
Infections
Bad News, Boomers
 
FOLLOW US
© 2016 interMDnet Corporation.