At what age do your memories begin?
April 19, 2009 6:25 AM   Subscribe

At what age do your memories begin?

I've always been curious about this - how old are people, generally, when they start remembering things?
My first memories are from age 6; I know from family history that we moved that year, and the memory is of walking into the new house and seeing a familiar toy in an unfamiliar room. So maybe our first memory is always of an important, striking event that was big enough to write itself deep in our brain cells; or is there just an age when the brain starts to work that way?
posted by Billegible to Science & Nature (78 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I remember the ceiling falling on me when I was under a year old. Maybe, as you say, because it was so traumatic. Six seems old. An informal poll here (3 people) suggests memories start around age 3 (my next clear memories come from when I was 3). I seem to remember reading that it's connected with verbal ability. It's not that you don't remember things from infancy, you just can't access them because your frame of reference changes dramatically once you can assign language-labels to things and experiences. (No cite, sorry)
posted by nax at 6:30 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have several memories from age 1 and a half or so. They are clear, but fragmentary.
posted by RussHy at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2009

I have one memory from before I was 2... a lot of stuff I think isn't all that clear as far as my memories go, but when I realized I recalled something from that young, I was quite amused. At the same time, I wonder how some memories are so vague, like when my brother was born and I was 4 1/2 at the time, I have no memories of him as a baby.

For the first 2 years of my life, my family lived in an apartment building, and there was a dog across the hall that I apparently used to love to see. Galen was a black and white spaniel. At some point a few years ago, I asked my mother if Galen was black and white, because I had this memory of a black and white dog. The weird thing was, my memory was of this ENORMOUS black and white beast, and Spaniels aren't that big! Then I realized -- they ARE that big when you are only a year or two old. So I realized it was a memory from that age.
posted by davidnc at 6:36 AM on April 19, 2009

I have a memory from when I was two - had a mishap that involved getting 7 stitches on the top of my scalp. I don't remember the accident itself, but I do remember the heavy lead apron they draped across me when they x-ray'd my head (no skull fracture thankfully), and looking at my stitches through a couple of strategically placed mirrors.

I have a lot of vague related memories from around that time, and it's impossible to say whether any of them are earlier than this event. Mostly they are visual/tactile; the different rooms in our house, etc.
posted by Knicke at 6:43 AM on April 19, 2009

My oldest memories are from when I was two years old, and mostly involve getting new toys, or seeing cool stuff in stores.
posted by martinrebas at 6:44 AM on April 19, 2009

It's tricky to be sure, because of course we construct memories to fit in with the things we've been told happened, or the photos we've seen, or the stories we've heard told about our toddler selves (see for example this).

For this reason I'm only counting early memories that wer of non-traumatic, extremely minor events, things that happened when I was on my own and which were not documented. I remember falling into a great big reservoir when I was two and couldn't swim, but that's the sort of thing my mother would definitely have mentioned later on, so who knows whether it's a real memory or not? But I also remember, at around the same age, running into my room and crying into a giant (well, giant to a two-year-old) teddy-bear after being told off; and crawling around under stacked chairs during my mum's aerobics lesson; and it seems less likely that these are just memories I've invented . So, two-ish.
posted by severalbees at 6:47 AM on April 19, 2009

Best answer: The phrase that describes this is infantile amnesia. Here is a good writeup about the research into it.
posted by Houstonian at 6:50 AM on April 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

My first memory is from potty training at age two. I remember looking up from my little-kid potty at my parents, who were praising me because I had just gone number two.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 6:51 AM on April 19, 2009

The first event I remember was little sister being born when I was 3. After that, it's pretty fuzzy until kindergarten at age 5.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:58 AM on April 19, 2009

I don't think it's that our first memories are always significant events, I think it's that without significant events, we have no way of knowing which are our first memories.

I definitely have memories from when I was three years old, because they happened when I was at nursery school and before we moved house.

I also have some early childhood memories which aren't clearly tied to a specific place or time. It's possible that one of these is my real earliest memory, but I have no way of telling.
posted by the latin mouse at 6:59 AM on April 19, 2009

When I was twenty-eight months old, my younger sister was born. I remember when she and my mother came home from the hospital.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:59 AM on April 19, 2009

Tall Telephone: As the comedian said (I forget who): The bad part of growing up is, no one claps when you go poop anymore.

I have a good collection of memories from age 3 and before. They are easy to identify as from that early because we moved when I was 3. There's even a big dog (airdale named Asta) in the memory, and a cuckoo clock (upstairs neighbor owned both. He used to put a lit cigarette into the cuckoo's mouth, then set the time so the bird would come out. He enjoyed entertaining me. It's funny, but most of my memories of that time concern the neighbor's, not my family or our house. And then there are memories of the actual move to our new house.
posted by Goofyy at 7:05 AM on April 19, 2009

My first 'aged' memory would be my first day of school. I know I was 4 then. I have memories before that but I don't know how old I was at the time. For example, I remember going to nursery school so I was definitely younger than 4 then but I don't know how much younger or the chronological order of the memories. Then again, we really can't trust our memories. I remember having an old english sheep dog called Tess, my dad says she died before I was born and that they dog they had then was a different dog (that I don't remember at all). Obviously one of us remembers wrong.
posted by missmagenta at 7:19 AM on April 19, 2009

Best answer: Bear with me, please. My response turned into something much larger than I had intended, but I feel it would be a waste to erase it all.

I can extrapolate the rough dates of the other events based on the first specific event that left a huge psychological imprint. Everything maps to some other piece:

1. July 4, 1976 - block party in Queens, NY. Fireworks. Someone let me taste beer then I rode away on my Big Wheel. I was 3 1/2 - the bottom of my left foot was hard and unusually itchy.

2. I remember stepping on a huge piece of broken glass (left foot) in my mother's bedroom and being rushed to the hospital. There was money, a $20 bill, on Mom's nightstand and a pack of Kent cigarettes. There was also an envelope. I remember easily reading the words - on the money, on the cigarettes, on the envelope. It was cold enough that my mother had to bundle me up before rushing to the hospital, so I estimate this to be the winter prior to July 4, 1976 and I had just turned 3 years old.

3. Jumping up and down because I just finished reading my first book all by myself (Harold and the Purple Crayon). I suddenly realized that I was SURROUNDED by words, and I would read everything around me at all times! I was wearing shorts. It was hot. I was laying on the grass and there were lots of bumblebees. I can assume that this was the summer prior to cutting my foot. I was 2 1/2.

4. This, I believe, is my earliest memory. It was cold. There was snow and I was wearing mittens. My Mom was holding my hand. I was looking at all the signs on the buildings - pretty colors and shapes and whoa! NUMBERS! This is my only memory of seeing shapes on signs without comprehending meaning - I didn't know the alphabet and couldn't read anything other than numbers. I can assume that this was the winter prior to learning to read; I had just turned 2.

From my own experience, true discernible memories begins at a key anchor moment, be it something traumatic or a eureka moment or something random that can be mapped to another memory. So, you could say that I have memories from when I was 2, but my memory didn't begin until I was 3 1/2 and the stuff prior floats in the cerebral ether, waiting to be correlated to confirmed moments.
posted by zerokey at 7:21 AM on April 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Data point: I remember my Mother's Day Out teacher from age 2-3. I have a distinct memory of her red hair and her dress (navy doubleknit with thin white stripes, very typically cut for the late 60s) and her makeup. I have no idea what she was doing or why I found this outfit so striking, but I did.
posted by immlass at 7:25 AM on April 19, 2009

I definitely have quite a few memories from around age three, some possibly earlier. I remember my younger brother being born, and my older brother starting kindergarten, and I remember more mundane things like the names of streets and our babysitter giving us Froot Loops and what my preschool was like. Like people have mentioned above, I have a clear reference point for these memories - we moved across the country when I was four.

I do remember potty training, and I have this weirdly clear memory of walking around in dirty diapers and feeling pretty gross about the situation. That might be my earliest memory.

There are also a handful of "memories" I have that are clearly false, and I am pretty sure they were dreams. Some of them might have been from TV. I once asked my mom about something that I thought I had either heard or dreamed when I was three, and she replied, "oh, I remember that, that was from Sesame Street."
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:31 AM on April 19, 2009

I have memories from when I was a year and a half old, but I really don't know if they are the actual memories, or memories of the memories, or memories of the memories of the memories, or memories of the memories of the memories of the memories (continue ad nauseam).

I'm actually being truthful here. I've thought about, written about and talked with other people about my earliest memories that I really don't know if I truly remember my earliest memories, or just recall the times I was remembering my earliest memories.

That's why I wonder if the recent work on erasing memories can ever really be effective.
posted by ShooBoo at 7:36 AM on April 19, 2009

Best answer: I have one memory I can definitively tie down to age one and a half, because it involves a trip my parents made only once to visit a college friend of my mother's who lived out of state. It is also my only memory of not being able to read, and I listened to a read-along Rainbow Brite book over and over and over until I must have driven my parents completely bonkers. I'm pretty sure it's not a partially-constructed memory, because my parents never brought it up until I asked about a long car trip and a Rainbow Brite cassette and what on earth I could be remembering, but if the circumstances hadn't happened to be unique I couldn't have pinpointed the earliness of the memory.

It's easier for me to construct contextual narrative memories starting with my mother's pregnancy with my little brother, when I was going on three. I can tie these memories to concrete external things like my mom getting bigger and talking to me about the new little brother or sister we were going to have, finishing the basement, including the new blue carpet, in preparation for the baby, the birth itself, when I was three and a half (that "and a half" was very important to me at the time!), and moving out of my first house and my birth town when I was five.

Somewhat conversely, my little brother says he does not remember a single thing about the house we were born in, which we moved out of when he was two, and he will only admit to a handful of extremely fragmentary memories about the house we lived in until he was four, despite any number of photographs and family stories which might serve to construct false memories.

I get the impression that significant memories are more likely to be canonized as first memories, because they can be definitively tied to a specific place and time in family history, and they are apt to be revisted and hence preserved and not lost. My understanding is that an infant's brain is insufficiently developed to lay down what we think of as memories, but that it varies from person to person when these full-fledged memories begin to form, and that dating the memories themselves is yet another complication.
posted by mayhap at 7:43 AM on April 19, 2009

Age 3, I crossed some stepping stones. I rode a tricycle over wood chippings at daycare. I fell slightly behind the group walking through the premises of a secondary school. I looked through a door from the Age 3 room to the Age 4 room. I heard the Ski Sunday theme tune.

I remember making a fairy cake at my next door neighbour's house while my mum was in labour with my sister but I don't actually remember really meeting my sister. Weird.
posted by so_necessary at 7:48 AM on April 19, 2009

My first clear memories are from age 3, although they are memories of brief + specific events.
posted by pemberkins at 7:57 AM on April 19, 2009

I remember a variety of things from around age 3: walking with my mother down a street where half was in shadow from trees and half was in light; going to a farm and having a cow lean over and nuzzle my hair; going to a beach at the Bahamas that my parents had told me was called Pink Sands and crying because the sand was not as pink as I had been hoping and expecting. Yeah, okay, I was a weird kid. It's hard to place them in time but it's definitely at three or a little before that my first memories start. They're fairly linear and continuous after that.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:04 AM on April 19, 2009

I have very clear memories of San Juan, PR, which is where we lived when I was about 2-3. I can remember going to nursery school, seeing the cruise ships coming into the harbor and the street that we lived on. I can even recall certain smells - powerful, green, vegetation-type aromas. Like everyone else, these recollections are fragmented - almost like trying to recall dreams, except that I've been able to confirm certain things with my folks.

Almost 30 years later, we stopped in PR during our honeymoon and took a tour bus up some hill. I looked over my shoulder and said out loud "My God, I've been here before!" - I knew exactly what the view was going to be before I looked. I had suddenly remembered standing up in the backseat and looking out the rear window as a toddler.

Oddly enough, though, I don't recall any of the details of my younger brother being born and coming home, which occurred during the same period.
posted by jquinby at 8:08 AM on April 19, 2009

My third birthday - running down the hallway from my room, going to the living room, and finding a giant thing of GI Joes. I was so excited. I got one of the large vehicles - I think the mobile command center.

I also remember my birthday cake - it looked like Sesame Street, with all of the buildings, and with Oscar the Grouch outside one of them. It was pretty awesome.

Most people that I know have memories somewhere around 3, though I have a friend that claims to have memories as far back as two - she can remember thinking things, and being unable to enunciate them properly.

Just a few more data points.
posted by SNWidget at 8:09 AM on April 19, 2009

Also, beware — kids often hear stories repeated so many times they believe they remember them. They fill in vivid images and, pretty soon, they're sure they remember it even though, as it turns out they weren't there. I've already seen this happen with my six-year-old son.
posted by argybarg at 8:13 AM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

my first memory was when i was 2. my dad left for korea for the airforce. there are other huge parts of this day that i have been told about and have the memory of a memory of the events, but the only on i really feel i have a hold on, the only one i think is the true memory is watching dad's plane fly away. from that same year i have a couple memories - staying at the babysitters watching my mom leave. taking a bath at the same babysitters and seeing my mom come in to get the cigarettes off the washer. then the flood of memories start around 4.
posted by nadawi at 8:19 AM on April 19, 2009

My first memories are from around the age of 18 months. I had eye surgery, and I remember the clown on the hospital staff who was to bring me to the OR (and his Little Red Wagon), the stuffed pink elephant they let me pick out and hold as they put me under, and the gas mask itself as it lowered over my face.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:20 AM on April 19, 2009

Best answer: So psychology has done a bunch of research on this. Wikipedia has a decent page on it Infantile Amnesia . As noted above, the problem with determining this that we are notoriously bad at telling the difference between things we actually remember and things we remember being told over and over again. We tend to adopt those memories as our own. Elizabeth Loftus has done some work on this: Here she is implanting just such a False Memory in a research subject.
posted by katers890 at 8:33 AM on April 19, 2009

I've got nothing before kindergarten.
posted by danb at 8:42 AM on April 19, 2009

Sometimes I think I remember things from when I was only a couple of years old. But I can't tell if I really remember it, or I'm substituting what I saw in old photos and video of myself as actual memories. Sounds like that Infantile Amnesia katers890 mentioned.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:43 AM on April 19, 2009

I can't remember much before age 3. But my dad swears he remembers when he was a year old and his dad came home from the war.
posted by radioamy at 8:50 AM on April 19, 2009

My first memories were from ages 3-4 when I was in nursery school. Nothing traumatic or very impactful happened then, but I have a lot of memories of my day-to-day life - singing "Down by the Bay," fingerpainting, playing with the other kids, playing in a field of flowers, distinct memories of my teacher...
posted by kookaburra at 8:55 AM on April 19, 2009

My family moved when I was one and a half, and then stayed in the same house after that. I wouldn't otherwise have had any idea when these memories were from, but I have correctly described several features of our old house. Where the TV room was relative to my bedroom, a drain in the corner of our backyard that surely had monsters in it, a window seat that faced the driveway where I would wait for my parents to return home, etc. I also rember being woken up and bundled out in the middle of the night to watch the Dinty Moore factory burn down.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:56 AM on April 19, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone - not only for answering my question (average seems to be 2-3 years old, traumatic events notwithstanding), but also for the sharing... I'm loving all the flavors in everyone's memories and could read this stuff all day.
posted by Billegible at 8:57 AM on April 19, 2009

I also remember moving when I was 3. And a very unpleasant and traumatic thing that happened when I was 4. Also at age 4 I started daycare and I definitely remember that.
posted by shmurley at 9:00 AM on April 19, 2009

The other day I mentioned the amber bead curtains we had in a doorway in the house when I was two, and my mom laughed at me - apparently they were in the doorway of my refrigerator-box playhouse, and I was just really small.

My first continuous/extended memories start after we moved, though, when I was about three.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:02 AM on April 19, 2009

My first memory which I can confidently assign an age to occurred very soon after I turned five. Sometime between five years and five years two months.

It's possible that some of my other memories precede it, but I don't know.
posted by Flunkie at 9:05 AM on April 19, 2009

Oh - I've also noticed that up to about age four I'm not always sure whether a lot of the non-signficant memories are of real life or of things and places I dreamt. I guess when we're not too good at differentiating them.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:07 AM on April 19, 2009

The oldest memory that I can pinpoint is on Halloween when I was four. Though sometimes it's difficult with those early memories because my parents took SO much home video of me that I sometimes think I remember things when I'm probably just remembering the video.
posted by thatmadgirl at 9:09 AM on April 19, 2009

I'm always surprised that people claim they can push their earliest memories back so far. I swear I don't remember anything about my life until I was six or so. And I'm not sure what that earliest memory would be. Maybe pushing our Christmas tree down on top of my younger brother (sorry Michael!).
posted by painquale at 9:32 AM on April 19, 2009

I asked my kids. My 6 yr old remembers getting a bee sting when he was 3. He remembers details that his dad and I don't so I'm sure it's a real memory. He also remembers the ice cream they gave him at the hospital when he was 3 1/2 and his brother was born.

I am pretty sure the younger one (almost 3) will have his first memory be his older brother's birthday party at chuck-e-cheese.

Both kids at about age 2 1/2 had some striking incident that they asked me to retell over and over and over at bedtime. For the older one it was a hayride. For the younger one, it is the chuck-e-cheese party. The older one remembers being scared by part of the hayride (he was). But he does not remember me retelling it at bedtime, which is funny, since the retellings went on for months.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:50 AM on April 19, 2009

I have a lot of confusion about the things I really remember versus the stories I've been told. My first conscious memories begin probably around age 4-5. I don't know which memory is first, but I have several memory fragments of the house we lived in at the time.

I had a really weird experience last year that makes me think on some level I may remember things younger, though. I was in Boston, where I lived with my mother around ages 1-2. She told me the name of the park we used to play at, and on a whim I thought I'd stop by. Nothing about the place sparked any conscious memory, but the second it came into view, I just started sobbing. Like, hysterical overwhelming emotion out of nowhere. Everyone around me must have thought I was a crazy person.

I have no idea where that came from, as I don't have any particularly strong feelings about that time in my life, and wasn't thinking of the park visit as anything more than a way to while away an afternoon. It was pretty weird.
posted by Stacey at 9:53 AM on April 19, 2009

I remember walking along the highway with my dad on a really gray, cloudy evening after getting off the bus from the hospital when my brother was being born. I was 5, and (I later learned) my dad and I had just gotten kicked off the bus we were taking home when it unexpectedly went out of service.

I remember being in preschool, when I guess I was about 4. I remember being in daycare and having the lights turned down for naptime, but not being the least bit interested in taking a nap. I had Punky Brewster shoes and a crush on a little boy with dark brown hair named Kevin. I guess I was about 3.

I remember making art (which involved tulips from the yard) outside on the picnic table. Not sure how old I was, could've been anywhere between 3 and 4.

Ohh, and I remember being with my mom at her business and eating Goldfish and getting diarrhea. My playpen was there, too. This would've been when I was about 2, and my parents were (I later learned) separated for a time. That may have also been when I cut my knee on a broken marble, which I still have the scar from to this day.
posted by limeonaire at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2009

I have very specific and verifiable memories from the time I was about 2 years old, give or take.

A few years ago, before my mother passed, she and I spent an evening talking about some odd things I remembered. When I mentioned the unusual railing around the staircase in a garage apartment we lived in, and the balloons that hung from it, she exclaimed "I had forgotten all about that! We hung the balloons because you were afraid of them and it kept you away from the stairs because you were a toddler at the time!" I also remembered a wooden high chair, and a red Scottie dog lamp that was next to my crib. (I didn't remember the crib, but my Mom remembered the lamp and it's placement.)

When I was about 2, we moved out of that apartment into a house on Busey Street in Urbana IL. I remember it because we moved there because my sister was born and the apartment wasn't big enough- so this put the date of that move in the early part of 1956. My sister was born in April.

So I can say, with certainty, that the age of 2 is about where my memory time line begins.
posted by pjern at 10:03 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was probably barely four years old in my first really vivid memory. My great grandma had a friend who was an elderly man with dementia of some sort. She knew he would really love to see some little kids, and my dad took me and my little brother to visit this man and his wife at their small farmhouse. I remember that he had HUGE hands and was, in general, enormous; not obese, just massive. And it doesn't only stand out because I was so little, either; I remember being struck by his size even in relation to other grown ups. And he cried, and blubbered -- but was, nonetheless, happy. It was frightening, except my dad had explained how the man would be to my brother and me before we went in.
It really stuck in my mind because I don't think I'd ever seen a grown man cry before that day, or react so peculiarly to seeing me.
I asked my dad about it and he confirmed the memory, and said the man in question WAS a very large man.
posted by meggie78 at 10:03 AM on April 19, 2009

I think dating memories can be a real problem. As zerokey really brilliantly points out, lots of memories may exist, but unless you have that anchor point to put them in order, it can be difficult to know really when the event you remember occurred.

I can definitely remember things which occurred before I went to school at aged 4, and in fact have so many memories of playschool from aged 3 onwards. I can also remember being with my sister at home while my brothers were at school, and being in the back of the car while my mother learnt to drive; both of which I must have been less than 3 years old. I also have vague memories of my grandmother coming to our house with a food package when my father was out on strike, but the dating of the strike means I must have been less than 2 at the time.

Beyond that, there's nothing obviously dateable partly because there are no outside tags to connect it, and partly because they are too vague. I remember eating rusks, using a potty, and sucking a dummy (I clearly remember the day it was taken from me, which my mum says was about 18 months), but still no clear date. I have an inkling of being held by my great-grandfather who died before my second birthday, but I can't be sure it was him. Most of my earliest memories are unconnected ideas of 'this carpet is rough', 'that thing is soooo red', 'daddy smells nice', and 'mummy is soft and warm'. I'm sure they go back quite far, like into babyhood, but there is no way of knowing. No significant events here, just a slow gradual progression from becoming aware of myself, to the world around me, to others, and so on.

(I used to work with a woman who said her son could remember being in the womb. I have no way of assessing whether that is true, but she said that despite starting out sceptical, she came to believe him.)
posted by Sova at 10:26 AM on April 19, 2009

About the way your question is written, I am sure this is rhetorical, but it does have to do with common misconceptions about memory: you say "So maybe our first memory is always of an important, striking event that was big enough to write itself deep in our brain cells; or is there just an age when the brain starts to work that way?.

Events don't write themselves in a brain, brains alter their own structure as a consequence of events. That the alteration of brain structure happens to serve as a recording of the way things have happened is not something you can take for granted. Nor can you take for granted that a memory has a single source, or that the sources of a memory are from the same time frame. Memories are frequently altered by the very process of remembering. Stories change by being told, and they also change or get lost entirely if they don't get told.

We don't record sequences of events, but rather sequences of internal mental states, we don't retrieve stored past events, but re-enter a sequence of previous internal states. Similar to the way one person can quote a movie, another person quotes the next line, and suddenly they are recreating a scene from the movie, each element leads you to the next in the sequence.

That is why when you are sad enough you can only clearly remember the times that you are sad, and if you always practice your musical instrument drunk, you can only play well if you are drunk. Memories from before you master language will be non-linguistic memories, they will be a series of emotions that lead to each other for seemingly no reason. And they are more likely to come up when you are not using the linguistic parts of your brain, so, basically, you usually won't remember remembering them.
posted by idiopath at 10:34 AM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my above post, I forgot to use the words "I imagine", "my hypothesis is" "I think" "I remember reading somewhere" liberally throughout the post. I also forgot a closing ".
posted by idiopath at 10:40 AM on April 19, 2009

My first memory is very non-traumatic--I was about 2 years old (younger sister not yet born, Mom was pregnant) and my dad asked me to go get the newspaper. I was excited--I knew where the newspapers were! I brought him one from by the fireplace and he laughed and laughed, because of course those were the old papers to use as kindling. I remember him from the knees down and that booming laugh. I am positive this is a real memory--there were no photos or anything of the day, and the details are too mundane for my parents to remember. Interestingly, I have no memories of my sister's birth shortly afterward or her as a baby, but very reliable and consistent memories start at around age 4. Those are more traumatic (parents fighting, divorce).
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:12 AM on April 19, 2009

I have a very large number of disjointed memories from 3-4. Once I tried writing them down in sequence, and that process revealed a large number of new memories. One interesting thing is that I perceived smells and colors much more intensely, it's as if now I perceive a smell with a tiny area in my nose but back then the whole volume of the brain was "nose" and a smell would push out all other perceptions and thoughts. And so it was with colors, too. Everything was the size of the whole world, while everything now is a very small part of the world. Anyway, that's the time you really live in the full sense of the word, everything after 7-8 years old is just picking up the scraps and reorganizing perceptions and so on.
posted by rainy at 11:24 AM on April 19, 2009

I remember details about the place we lived in before I turned five. Square tiles in the corridor at preschool and my little brother crying because of the clown. And the fuzzy grey sofa in the playroom - I remember that one because my older brother and sister used to tease me until I chased them around the chair in hysterics. We had a basement with really steep narrow stairs down into it. Also, sitting outside at my friends house eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with our feet up on a white plastic table - this must have been the summer before I left America, so I had just turned four. Making and reusing Halloween costumes, and fighting over who got to wear which one. A trip to the playground at my brothers primary school where he got sick of pushing me on the swing and taught me how to do it myself. Then I remember riding my new bike over the grass at the end of our dead end street, which I got for my fifth birthday.
posted by jacalata at 11:39 AM on April 19, 2009

I remember when I learned to walk. I don't know how old I was. 1. 2?
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:41 AM on April 19, 2009

I have a lot of pre-6 memories, but they tend to be images.

I can remember looking over at my bassinet from my crib, sometime between when we moved when I was 9mos old and whatever age people outgrow their crib. I also remember not being able to operate the drop-side latch on my crib, to my frustration. Around the same period I remember looking out from the dining table out to our dirt backyard.

Various bits of nursery school and many of going to Hawaii when I was 5, but the latter would probably fall under "significant or traumatic events." 5 was also kindergarten, and I have many memories there.
posted by rhizome at 11:47 AM on April 19, 2009

I have a smattering of memories starting from around age 1.

I can easily hear the babble of my mother's voice before I could recognize words, and there are some distinct memories looking out from my crib in my great-grandparents' house, the still, dark rooms with dust in the sunbeams and the interesting old world things there, mechanical bird in a cage, big green leather chair, Newton's Cradle on great-grandpa's desk. I remember the moment in the back yard (of a house we left when I was about three) when I taught myself to read so I could know what was on TV.

I remember sitting on the kitchen floor while my mother was sorting the pantry contents and stuffing a ball of pearl tapioca up my nose, and being rushed to the emergency room, and them putting me in the straight jacket, and the huge tweezers coming closer and closer to my eyes, but mercifully, I remember nothing after that until the doctor said to my parents, "you know, you could have just put pepper under her nose and she would have sneezed it out."

I also remember reading Joe Brainard for the first time, but I was old when I did that!
posted by Scram at 11:53 AM on April 19, 2009

It's funny--I have the exact same 'anchor point' as zerokey. I'm six months older, so I was 4 at the time. July 4, 1976 (the U.S. bicentennial) was a huge deal, and that is the first memory that I can say with confidence was really mine, rather than based on hearing a story from my parents. Going to the park, eating cake, everything being decorated in red, white and blue.

My son turns two next month, and I've been thinking about the fact that he is about to start having his first long term memories.
posted by umbú at 11:54 AM on April 19, 2009

I was a precocious talker (I started talking well before 1 year of age, way before I could walk (I never crawled)).

My earliest memories are of cooking with my grandfather when I was around 2. At around the same time, I remember cutting my eye while playing with a length of pipe (I was "refueling" my tricycle), the ensuing rush to the pediatrician, and the stitches.
posted by Netzapper at 12:19 PM on April 19, 2009

I have an astonishingly clear memory of a nightmare when I was about 3.
posted by willpie at 12:26 PM on April 19, 2009

My first memories are from just before my second birthday; I very clearly remember the fourth of July (I was 22 mos. old) wandering around on all of the spread out blankets and "talking" to a lot of people. Another memory from the same time: I remember crawling out of my crib during naptime, playing in a cardboard box, and then wandering down to my parents' room where my mother was very surprised to see me.

I think I remember reading that memory formation starts happening around 1 1/2, and that before that our memories aren't able to be processed into retrievable long-term memory, but I could be way off base.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:36 PM on April 19, 2009

I was just talking about this with my brother yesterday. I remember our grandfather's bar, so I must have been younger than three. My father was getting a case of beer from behind the bar and some man stood me up somewhere high, I assume on the bar. I was dressed up in a pinafore and maryjanes so either it was a special day or right after mass. I was very scared to be standing somewhere that I could not get down from and as a shy child was uncomfortable with all the attention the men at the bar were giving me.

Most of the early memories I have, at least those from under the age of 4, involve some kind of apprehension, as if it's part of learning from fear, i.e. "pay attention to this and don't get into this situation again."

I grew to enjoy being in bars with men.
posted by readery at 12:52 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

The only memories I can really date are because they were in a house we only lived in from 1987-1989 (so I was 2-4 years of age). The memories I have are of the roof catching fire, of my dad building a fence all by himself, and of gunk oozing through the walls in my room because there were bees infesting the walls. Those are all tied to the house, and they aren't stories that have been told to me over and over again. I have a few other memories of around the same time, but I don't know when they were. I don't remember my sister coming home from the hospital in 1988, and I don't remember meeting my first friend, and I don't remember my first day of pre-school, although my mom says I cried like I'd been sentenced to death. These are things I wish I did remember, and I know they happened, but they don't exist in my memory. I wish I remembered learning to read. My mom says I could read children's books by the time I was 3 and I wish I could recall what it felt like to go from not-reading to reading for a kid that young. The first books I even remember reading are chapter books.

I don't have any kind of coherent personal narrative until kindergarten. Before that, I have isolated memories of events and images.
posted by crinklebat at 12:58 PM on April 19, 2009

I blogged my parents photo album, which brought up all sorts of "memories" and triggered these thoughts:

Are we real without our memories? If the stories aren't preserved, did they happen?

What does a memory feel like? Is it a photograph or a dream? Is it a movie that I inhabit, or one that I watch? When I say I don't remember, am I simply misunderstanding memory? I remember Valley Forge. I can see in my mind's eye the soldiers' cabins, the Susquehana River, the redoute forts. I can place my child-self in these images. These are actual memories, or what I think a memory must be: snippets of sensation-view, sound, movement, emotion, sense. Perhaps it is best that I cannot post these photos, because then they become like my experience of memory-- I know these, but I cannot produce them. I can only know them.

When I say I do not remember, perhaps I only mean, I do not know, or even I am not there. I think that if you dropped me off at my house on Ellis Road, I could easily walk to Oakmont school or even to the junior high school, more than a mile away. I know how to do that. Does this mean I remember this or only that I know this? Is there a difference?

I always say that I have trouble bringing up an actual "memory," but I remember walking these routes. I could even tell you the name of the two streets to walk down-- Cleveland and Darby. I could point out Diane's house, and Andy's, and Jan's. I might actually be able to find my way to Paula's house on the way to school. Right now, thinking about it, I have "memories:" driving down Darby Road with the chains on the tires. I can hear the whirring sound. Diane stepping off the sidewalk into the snow to let a nun pass. Cutting through the backyard to Jan's house hoping for an invitation to sit in her wading pool. Scaring Jan's baby sister Beth with a bug. Dancing to 45s in Jan's bedroom. The first day of 7th grade, which was the first day I learned that I would have to meet new people and that they would not be universally nice.

So perhaps what "not remembering" means is that I do not bring up these recollections. I think that we use our children and grandchildren for this-- remember me, remember these experiences that I had, because they make me real.
posted by nax at 1:02 PM on April 19, 2009

I have a few memories from ~ 8 or 9 months old. They are memories of being unable to communicate effectively. The clearest memory is of wanting to go outside to see the summer flowers in the evening. It was somewhat chilly (this was late summer/early fall), and my mother wanted to put a sweater on me, but I really didn't want one, and I resisted. She let me sit outside anyway (I couldn't walk at that point), and I got pretty cold right away. But I tried to hide it because I was embarrassed. I remember it felt like an eternity before she took me back inside.

I realize it's highly unusual to have such a memory. I was even skeptical of myself for a while, but as far as I can tell, this memory didn't come from a story or a dream, and there are no pictures of the day. As a child, I had a very photographic memory, and I have an extremely large, totally useless bank of memories of things I saw and did as a very small child. (My memory is still very good - people are often very taken aback, scared even, when I remember the exact words they spoke in some insignificant conversation, or exactly what shirt they were wearing last week, and so on - but not as photographic as it used to be.) Many of my early memories are peoples' houses - I remember the floors, the rugs, the way to the bathroom, essentially the house layout of virtually every house I've ever been in. Oftentimes my memories of the people in the house are much dimmer, especially if we only met them once and they weren't really interested in babies or toddlers, or if all I did while visiting was crawl around and play while the adults did their thing.

I have especially strong memories from the ages of about 1 to 4 of things my parents said about other people. My parents were VERY careful about what they said around me, knowing I was always listening, but even so, they said a few less-than-complimentary things about other people (not horrible things - pretty benign really) that have stuck with me to this day. I often realize that my "gut feeling" about Mr. So-and-So is based entirely on what I overheard as an impressionable toddler. This has actually been a valuable thing to realize - I'm very aware now of what I might have inadvertently learned from my parents.

I feel extremely fortunate to remember lovely dinners and afternoons with my great-grandmother, who died when I was 3. I especially remember one dinner, in a fancy restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, where she let me eat all the peas off her plate. I'm also fortunate to remember my parents taking me to parks, lessons, museums, all over the place - I was a pretty happy kid.

Interestingly, amongst all this - I do NOT remember the birth of my younger sister, when i was 3. I remember my mom's pregnancy, and my sister's infancy, but I'm missing about a month of memories surrounding her birth. My mother is absolutely sure that this is because she was very sick at the time, and according to her, I was terrified that she would die. That's just her hypothesis.

Hope this is helpful!
posted by Cygnet at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2009

Ah, one more (of a different flavor):

When I was about 2, I remember sneaking a chunk of plain butter from the butter dish on the counter. The thought of eating butter sounds absolutely revolting to me now, but when I was a little kid, it tasted amazing. I knew it wasn't healthy food (although for a toddler, who knows, maybe I really needed fat and calories), and I knew I wasn't supposed to be sticking my finger directly in the butter dish, but it was SO GOOD. I felt pretty guilty, but took several more fingerfuls before I climbed down off the counter. Odd memory.

Like some others, I also have some very clear memories of nightmares from that age (in one, a garbage truck ate my dad!).
posted by Cygnet at 1:16 PM on April 19, 2009

I've asked my daughter from time to time what her earliest memory is. I started asking her when she was four. She's now eight. When she was four, her earliest memory was falling off of a hay bale on a hayride when she was 3. These days, she names nonscary events that happened when she was 4 or 5 -- and doesn't remember the hayride at all.

My own is pretty typical -- three years old, waiting with my grandma to hear about the birth of Lucinda.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:37 PM on April 19, 2009

We start to acquire memories when we start to acquire language.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:56 PM on April 19, 2009

My earliest memory is age 2.
posted by fructose at 2:35 PM on April 19, 2009

I just studied this topic in a Cognitive Psychology course last semester.
Here are some papers we ready that were written on the subject:

Usher & Neisser (1993) Childhood amnesia
Loftus (1993) Desperately seeking memories
Belli et al (1998) Recalling more childhood events leads to judgements of poorer memory

You can just skip to the discussion sections (the last part), if you want.
posted by senterstyle at 4:18 PM on April 19, 2009

Reading all these I'm starting to doubt what I feel is my earliest memory. And, it's been so long that I really only have the memory of the memory. But, when I was a teenager I had a discussion with my mom about an orange, wing-backed chair and being held against it and looking at very bright, gauzy curtains in a window. I think I was being held against someone's shoulder or was standing and holding onto the chair. My mom had no idea what chair or place that was but it was so vivid to me at the time -- mostly about brightness and that orange color. She guessed that it was the foster home I was in -- they had a nice house and may have had a wing-backed chair but she doesn't really remember. That would have been prior to nine months old as that's when I was adopted.

I also have a memory of being under something and playing with colored sticks. My mom and I also talked about that and she thinks it was my first xmas with them, sitting under the end table playing with my new older brother's new tinker toys. That would have been about 1 yr-7 months.

My memories are mostly tracked by where we lived (military brat, moved every 3 years) and are definitely a mish-mash of actual memories and stories people have told. As I get older it gets harder to know which are which. I find that pretty sad, actually.
posted by amanda at 4:32 PM on April 19, 2009

My parents were VERY careful about what they said around me, knowing I was always listening, but even so, they said a few less-than-complimentary things about other people (not horrible things - pretty benign really) that have stuck with me to this day.

The first time I ever saw an obese person, I was 2 years old, and I looked at the way she was shaped and asked my mom, "Mom, is her butt in the front?" My mom said yes--or more likely, gave some vaguely affirmative shushing noise while feeling horribly embarrassed and hoping the woman hadn't heard me. I spent the next couple of years quietly wondering how people with backwards butts used the bathroom, before I finally figured out that Mom hadn't been completely straight with me.

My earliest memory would either be that, or Christmas Eve when I was 2. Mom and Dad were wrapping presents, and I walked in the living room, hoping to see what they were. I got a very stern "What are you doing here?" (I presume I'd been told to stay out of the living room for a while), and I said I was there to watch TV. There was some terribly boring grown-up program on, but I stopped trying to see the presents and sat down and watched it anyway, smug in the knowledge that I'd totally fooled them.
posted by tomatofruit at 7:34 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

No body believes me but my oldest memory happened when I was about 9 months old. I was getting my picture taken. I was sitting on a little chair with a lamb under it. I wanted this toy so bad that I would try to bend over to try and reach for it but I never got too it because the grown ups kept telling me to look at the camera. I have no idea why I remember that.
posted by mind2body at 8:57 PM on April 19, 2009

I have patchy recollections of being carried around in the reptile house at the Detroit Zoo, around the age of 3. I also remember my dad carrying me up one of the stone stairwells (ones with the totem poles up the middle) at the Royal Ontario Museum.

...but I always consider my first real memory to be the time I filled a toy watering can at our back garden tap. The water was really bubbly and sparkly. I thought I saw things coming out of the tap in the froth of water and when I looked into my watering can there were bright red ladybirds the size of june bugs swimming around. I think I was about 4.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:44 PM on April 19, 2009

I moved when I was 6, and I have many memories before that moment. That benchmark helps, because for the years afterwards I can't remember if an event happened when I was 7 or 10 or what. But if a memory is in my old house, it's when I was quite young.

The earliest clear memory is learning how to walk. My parents put skittles on chairs that were about my height, and the only way to get to them was to stand up. Children usually learn to walk around 1-2 years old (according to some short google) so that's pretty early, more so than any other memories.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:39 AM on April 20, 2009

I specifically remember events from before I was 2. That's when I moved from Korea to America and so I am able to categorize memories I had as In Korea and In America so anything that specifically has a Korean background must have been before I was two.

Some of them could be attributed to false memories of being told what had happened (being terrified of loud rice cracker popping machine and getting sweaty under the duvet) but some must be my own as we don't really discuss them (the day I said bye to my dad as he left to start a life for us in America. We reunited about a year later (which I don't remember)).

As side note, this particular memory is why I am convinced how important it is for a child to have continuous contact with their guardian(s) during those very early years as I think it's rather sad I remember my dad leaving but not remember him coming back.
posted by like_neon at 5:11 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

At about two, we moved to Houston, and I recall a number of experiences from that part of my life. Most of them are of the bewildered variety, and I think that they stuck with me because they were such disorienting experiences.

- We visited Austin, where I was born. I believe that it was the first time I really became conscious of a change in location. We were at another house! What KIND of a house was this all dressed up in funky 80s neon?! It was strange and exhilarating, and I often thought about it after the fact. Mostly, I wondered if I had imagined it, because experiential memory was so new and different. Other times, when doing more traveling, I would think about it expecting that to be our destination. Now I know that it was my cousin's house in Austin.

- One afternoon in the backyard, I ate a wild mushroom. My mother recalls that I wandered in and announced that "I ate a strange and wild mushroom." I only recall being sick to my stomach, and clutching my Sesame Street booster seat for courage and companionship. The bright yellow booster seat sticks out in my mind as a very strong memory, and I think that is why the memory of being sick stayed with me - because the booster seat did, and it regularly reminded me of the day when I was so sick to my stomach.

- My father took my "camping" in the family station wagon. I lay in the back seat while he drove around and around and around the block, to make me think that we had traveled far away from home. Then we crawled into our sleeping bags in the far back of the car, and I tried to sleep. But I was scared, and I asked to go home. I remember looking out the window at the sky, and counting the street lamps as we went home - since they were the only gauge I had for distance.

When I was three, we moved to Galveston, about an hour away, and that is when more regular memories started forming. But those three are the earliest that I have ever been able to come up with.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:47 AM on April 20, 2009

I remember hearing the television say that the President had been shot. I thought this sounded important but my mom turned it off and I didn't hear anything about it again for a long time. If it was in March 1981 I was 20 months old --- that seems pretty unlikely.

For a long time I remembered my sister coming home when I was nearly three. At some point I decided that had become a "remembered memory."

I remember the first time I let myself out the front door, walked around the house, and knocked on the back door. I was probably two when I did that. My mother was miffed I'd gone out.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:47 AM on April 20, 2009

My earliest memory is of climbing up on a kitchen counter to get a box of Rice Krispies from a cabinet (I wonder if my mom put it up there to keep it out of my reach) and upending it over my head. I've always thought that that happened when I was two, but I can't say for certain now why that is. I do remember wearing plastic training pants when I was toilet training, so my memories definitely date back to when I was about that age, no later than three or so.

My childhood memories are pretty spotty; I was intrigued when Stephen King, in his nonfiction book On Writing, said much the same thing about himself (in contrast to Mary Karr's The Liars' Club); he also said that he and his family moved around quite a bit, and I've wondered if that has something to do with our similarly intermittent memories.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:04 AM on April 20, 2009

It's been a while, but I might as well add to this.

My earliest datable memories:

Playing in the yard of our old house on Fifth Avenue NE, Seattle (aged two or younger)

Riding in a big white car (my dad's? not sure) home to the same house. It was nighttime and the car was headed south on Fifth (aged two or younger)

The day we moved out of that house, running through the empty rooms and finding a small toy (like a Fisher-Price Little People person, or something like that) that was left in a corner, and picking it up and bringing it to my mom to tell her that we had almost forgotten it. (aged just over two)

None of these events were filmed for me to watch later, and none were significant enough that they would have been described to me frequently, so they seem pretty real. In later years I could pretty easily pinpoint where the house on Fifth was, too.

I have quite a few clear, datable memories from when I was three, too. Drawing a picture with a Flair pen while using the footstool as a table, with my legs extending out under the stool. Eating the innards of an apple pie left to cool on the counter instead of the dinner I was supposed to be eating, sitting in the high chair at the counter next to it. (The part I don't remember is that I apparently blamed it on the cat.)

I learned to read at about 2 - 2 1/2, so I've always attributed my early memories to my early reading, and being able to easily categorize my memories. I had something very close to a photographic memory as a child, too, so I was always able to remember places and directions very clearly -- hence my memory of going south on Fifth Ave. NE. Other early memories along those lines that I can't precisely date: a street with a car dealer and a big church that I believe was Broadway near Seattle Central Community College -- both the dealer and the church building are long-gone; Northgate Mall when it was not fully enclosed -- it had a roof, but the roof was open on the sides -- and looking out the upstairs windows at the Bon Marche to the plaza below, in front of Nordstrom's -- the windows no longer exist. These are all late 1960s, before I was 5.

Then there was the time when my parents were watching the evening news and one turned to the other and said with a sign "Well, now the whole world is watching Cambodia." I know I was four because we were in the house in Ocean Shores that we stayed in that year. But I don't know the date other than that. Or what the news story was, exactly. I was usually in the room while they watched the news everyday and saw all the Vietnam War reports, but didn't pay much attention, usually.
posted by litlnemo at 12:38 PM on August 4, 2009

"said with a sigh", not "said with a sign", dammit.

And I just realized I misquoted the Cambodia quote. It should have been "Well, now the whole world revolves around Cambodia." I probably remembered it because I didn't understand the metaphor and thought it was weird.
posted by litlnemo at 12:41 PM on August 4, 2009

I have a very vague memory of longing to be able to walk - of noticing people walking and knowing that I wanted that.
posted by marimeko at 8:02 PM on November 25, 2009

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