Discuss as:

How far back can you remember? When earliest memories occur

Some are as cozy as a lullaby, like the 52-year-old melodic, moving picture inside Scott Rubel’s head of Joan Baez and her sister, Mimi, strumming guitars, “smiling like goddesses,” and personally serenading away his tears. In that moment, he was 3. 

Others are sad, like the 43-year-old desperate pleas that still echo inside Lucy Boyd’s mind: she’s wrapped in her mother's arms as the woman begs her husband — Lucy’s father — not to leave their marriage. On that day, she was not quite 2.

Our first palpable recollections — from vital, early mileposts to seemingly random snapshots of our toddler years — stick for good, on average, when we reach 3 1/2 years old, according to numerous past studies. At that age, the hippocampus, a portion of the brain used to store memories, has adequately matured to handle that task, experts say.

In fact, a fleet of neural-engines are simultaneously revving to life at roughly that same age, including our verbal abilities and the revelation that we are each our own entities, says Julie Gurner, a Philadelphia-based doctor of clinical psychology.

“We know that having language can be very important to memories because in having words for our experiences, we can talk about them, repeat them, and structure them,” says Gurner, who lectures on the brain’s anatomy and functions as assistant professor of psychology at the Community College of Philadelphia. “Around the age of three, we are also developing a distinct sense of self that allows you to distinguish who you are from the outside world.”

Meanwhile, research continues to churn up evidence on how, why and when first memories are recorded.

  • Last year, researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada reported that the earliest recollections of most grade-school children change or "shift" as they mature – and only by about age 10 are they finally cemented into those singular recollections that adults carry through life. That study was published in the journal Child Development.
  • Females seem to form their first permanent memories two to three months earlier than males and, for both genders, inaugural memories tend to be visual and positive rather than verbal or negative, according to a study published in journal Consciousness & Emotion in 2003.

“Strong emotional events truly burn themselves into our memories — both the good and the bad,” Gurner says. “My experience tends to be about half of clients report positive and half report negative experiences. There is likely no one reason we can pinpoint why one person might retain a good memory and another person might retain a bad one. Psychologists are continuing to examine how our predispositions, traits, environment and biology factor into how we frame our own experiences.”

For whatever reason, one lone moment has been selected and stamped in our brains as the first day our life experiences became worthy of mentally filing away and cataloguing. In a sense, they're our cognitive birthday.

For Scott Rubel, that everlasting fragment comes with its own sweet soundtrack – provided by folk singer Joan Baez. That’s the first memory cherished by Rubel, who from age two to four lived on the campus of Redlands University in Redlands, Calif., where his dad was a student.

One night in 1960, a classmate of his father took the family to dinner. En route, they stopped in San Bernardino at the Wigwam Hotel -- which featured an array of 30-foot-tall teepees -- to pick up two more friends: Baez and her sister.

“I probably had seen a couple of John Wayne movies by then and the situation I found myself in seemed like a threat,” says the 55-year-old president of a custom stationery website who lives in Los Angeles. “I began to cry like a baby -- which I guess I was -- and my mother and father held me while the very kind and patient sisters took out their guitars.

“I remember the visual of it clearly as I stopped crying and gazed at these two beautiful women, who [were] dressed almost the same in boots and black skirts with red tops and buckskin jackets," Rubel recounts. "Both had long super-black hair and were true entertainers."

The duo sang and played “until I was calm,” he says, adding that he can mark his age at three years and nine months because he was told Baez had just performed at the Newport Folks Festival.

On the other edge of the emotional spectrum, Lucy Boyd lugs a harsh first childhood memory – the crumbling of her parents’ marriage. During that horrible few minutes, Boyd can picture herself being held by her mother as the woman sat on a piano bench near the front door, beseeching her husband.

“He said he was leaving and she was begging him not to go … I also always had an innate sense of, ‘This is important; I need to always remember this,'" says Boyd, 45, a registered nurse and author from Hixson, Tenn. She knows this occurred just before she was two because her parents divorced in 1968.

Then, there are what seem like mundane first memories – stray threads of our past that seem to carry no special weight.

Paula Pant, 28,  remembers sitting on her mother’s lap in their Cincinnati living room. She believes she was 2 years old at the time.

“My mom was talking to a guest, one of her friends, who was sitting opposite us," says Pant, who now lives in Atlanta and runs a financial-advice site . "The guest wanted me to sit in his lap. My mom tried to put me in his lap. I started crying, so my mom reversed course, keeping me in her lap. That’s it. It’s a standard, everyday childhood event; nothing special or out-of-the-ordinary. There's no reason it would be seared in my mind as my first memory. And yet it is.”

While such fragments might seem to lack any larger meaning decades later, often they do carry some form of subconscious heft, Gurner says.

“This woman may only remember what she sees as an insignificant snippet of memory because it may be the only trace left of a memory that likely was more extensive at another time,” Gurner says. “Often, especially in early memories or before language, we have a hard time keeping our memories in a context. Our memories can fade, and if they do not disappear, sometimes we can be left with the bits."

Gurner’s own first memory was notched, she says, at about age 2, taking place on the farm where she grew up. She is standing in her playpen, gazing out the window at a creature in the pasture. As she soaks in the image, her brain is flooded with questions and feelings of amazement because it is the largest single thing the girl has ever seen. The object: a horse.

“That sense of wonder and curiosity has never left me,” Gurner says. “I believe that sharing a first memory is meaningful because it reveals something uniquely personal about us to others. It allows us to share a moment in time from a vantage point of a younger version of ourselves, and gain insight into the younger versions of someone else.

“First memories get beyond the presentations of everyday life – of clothing, career and status -- and reveal something distinctly personal and unique about you … something about our families or environment," she adds. "But all of it has something that has been so resilient that it has withstood many years of other memories and experiences without erasure. For some it will be fun, for others, very painful – but for everyone, it’s personal.”

What's your earliest memory? Tell us the stories of the earliest moments in your life you can recall -- we'll publish our favorites in an upcoming Body Odd post.