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Earliest Memories Start at Age Two and a Half, Study Finds

A close-up of a vintage photo that shows a young bow riding in a child-size red car.
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Key Takeaways

  • New research shows that our earliest memories may begin at age 2.5, about a year sooner than previously thought.
  • How far back you can remember depends on a long line-up of factors, including your culture, gender, family, and the way in which you’re asked to recall memories.
  • You may be able to remember further back when asked repeatedly over time what your earliest memory is.

How far back can you remember? The answer might be even earlier than you think, according to new research.

In a study recently published in the journal Memory, researchers found that people could recall things that happened to them from as far back at age 2.5 years old on average—about a year earlier than previously estimated.

The research also suggests that there’s actually a “pool of potential memories” that people can pull from, rather than a fixed beginning, and you may be able to recall even older memories when interviewed repeatedly about them.

Here’s what the latest research says about how far back our memory actually goes and why it matters for the narrative of your life.

The Study

For this study, researcher Carole Peterson, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, reviewed previous research on childhood amnesia and analyzed data collected in her laboratory over the last two decades to better understand early memories.

The data showed that people’s earliest memories can often be traced back to age 2.5. Scientists previously believed that a person’s memory clock started at around 3.5 years old. 

David Copeland, PhD

It might be difficult to pinpoint the one true ‘earliest memory’ for anyone.

— David Copeland, PhD

“This article explored the idea of infantile amnesia—this is an idea that researchers have considered for years and it states that people do not remember much (or anything) from their first 2 to 3 years of life,” explains David Copeland, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This line of research is suggesting that we might have memories a little bit earlier than that.”

The research also found that just how far back any one individual’s memory goes depends on a variety of factors, such as: 

  • culture
  • nationality
  • home environment (urban vs. rural)
  • how your parent recalls their memories
  • intelligence
  • birth order
  • the size of your family
  • gender

Cassandra Fallon, LMFT

This study will lend validation to people that even from a young age, children do see and are impacted by their environment, the people in them, and events around them.

— Cassandra Fallon, LMFT

“This study will lend validation to people that even from a young age, children do see and are impacted by their environment, the people in them, and events around them,” says Cassandra Fallon, LMFT, a therapist at Thriveworks.

Fallon continues, “The fact that recalling memories is a challenge and that this study gives permission for this to be acceptable is helpful for validating that we may not ever know some details, like dates and times, but that it does not take away from the fact that we experienced or felt what we did and that it impacts us.”

Another important factor in how far you can remember is how you’re asked to recall your earliest memory, the study found. Your earliest memory may not be permanently fixed. Instead, extensive interviews and multiple follow-ups over the span of months or years could help you pull even earlier recollections from your memory bank in some cases.

“This aligns with what I observe in my clinic. I advise my patients to create timelines of their life, and this helps them access early memories,” says Leela Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. “They are often surprised by how much they can remember once they complete this activity.”

The research concluded there’s fluidity in retrieving early experiences and that one’s earliest memory may actually be malleable.

“In other words, it might be difficult to pinpoint the one true ‘earliest memory’ for anyone,” adds Copeland.

Why Early Memories Matter

Regardless of how far back they go, your earliest memories may provide therapeutic opportunities.

“Early memories often align with individuals’ core values, fears, hopes, and dreams. Learning about early memories can allow individuals to nurture their inner child and heal from the stressful or traumatic situations they have endured throughout their life,” says Dr. Magavi. “It can also help them gain clarity and embrace what matters the most to them.”

Leela Magavi, MD

Early memories often align with individuals’ core values, fears, hopes, and dreams. Learning about early memories can allow individuals to nurture their inner child and heal from the stressful or traumatic situations they have endured throughout their life.

— Leela Magavi, MD

Early memories—even those that have been reconstructed from external sources beyond what’s in our minds—can also play an important role in constructing the overall narrative of your life, says Copeland.

“For example, whether someone truly remembers the experience of falling off of a tricycle at age 3 or they learn about it from family members’ stories or from seeing pictures, it might not matter—as long as the event actually happened, it can be a part of one’s life narrative,” he says. “Someone might use it as a theme in their life of overcoming difficulties ever since they were young.”

Overall, these early memories help us to better understand ourselves, which can help us lead more fulfilling lives.

“The better we know ourselves, both attributes and challenges, the better we are able to make changes or maintain awareness for consistency. It is a powerful thing to know our strengths to continue using them and to know our weaknesses so that we can grow and learn to become a better become better version of ourselves,” says Fallon.

She adds: “This improves self-confidence, eases anxiety, reduces depression, and builds our grit, determination, and resiliency to handle anything life throws at us.”

What This Means For You

Your earliest memories can teach you a lot about yourself. Just how far back you can recall depends on a variety of factors, but new research shows that our memory bank may start at age 2.5 on average.

Repeatedly being interviewed about your earliest memories may allow you to remember things that happened at an even younger age. But experts say the age at which your earliest memory occurred doesn’t matter quite as much as putting that information into the context of your life and finding ways to grow from it. These memories, when placed into our overall narratives, provide opportunities to heal from trauma and handle the obstacles of life. 

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  1. Peterson C. What is your earliest memory? It dependsMemory. Published online May 6, 2021. DOI:10.1080/09658211.2021.1918174