Your Earliest Memories Are Probably Lies

Many respondents in the study reported remembering events from when they were under the age of 2. leungchopan/Shutterstock

Remember the first time you opened your eyes? There was mommy gazing down into the crib, telling you how she would love and cherish you forever and ever.

And suddenly, you felt a warm, tingling sensation in your diaper.

Yeah, that probably didn't happen. In fact, according to a new study, there's a good chance our earliest memories are complete fiction.

In one of the largest studies of people's first memories, researchers in the United Kingdom surveyed nearly 6,641 people about their earliest recollections.

Nearly 40 percent of them remembered events that happened before they were 2 years old, with many drawing warm, fuzzy memories from those wild days before their first birthday.

The thing is, knowing what we do about brain development, it just doesn't add up. At that age, the human mind doesn't retain memories in a way that can be accessed later in life. There are no remember-whens from those glorious days when you didn’t have to feed yourself and you could go the bathroom any damn time you liked.

So why do so many people claim to have memories of babyhood?

It may have a lot to do with the fact the brain, being the neat freak it is, doesn't like a mess. And there's nothing quite so slovenly as a developing human. Think about it: All those combustible cells, growing and diversifying with every new sensation. At the tender age of 2, there just isn't enough closet space for all those memories. So they end up laying around, disjointed, out of order. What's a mature brain to do with all those cognitive blanks from the early days?

How about filling them in for a little narrative flow? As we get older, the brain starts to ink in a few white lies, based memory fragments and what family members may have told them about their childhood.

Your brain has been lying to you all these years

Drawing of a brain with a puzzle piece missing.
Unhealthy air can chip away at your intelligence. ESB Professional/Shutterstock

"When we looked through the responses from participants, we found that a lot of these first 'memories' were frequently related to infancy, and a typical example would be a memory based around a pram," University of London professor Martin Conway notes in a press release.

"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. Over time these fragments then become a memory, and often the person will start to add things in such as a string of toys along the top."

And because the brain is pretty much in charge of a person's reality, we're none the wiser, buying into its version of events.

"Crucially, the person remembering [an implausible memory] doesn't know this is fictional," Conway adds. "In fact when people are told that their memories are false, they often don't believe it. This is partly due to the fact that the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex, and it's not until we're 5 or 6 that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world."

So when you tell that story about your mom and your diaper, you're probably just repeating the lies your brain fed you.

And that's okay. Because brain knows best.