Self Improvement — 11 April 2016
How Reliable Are Our Childhood Memories?

Many adults like to recite their early life memories to friends and family and particularly to their children and grandchildren as a way of bonding with the younger generation or creating their oral family history that is distinctively theirs. They identify some behaviors, traits or actions of their descendants that are reminiscent of their own in the process of defining their family lineage and their bond with the next generation. These may or may not be accurate, but serve as a tight bond with future generations.

Human curiosity prompts many individuals to seek information about their ancestors in order to better understand themselves. Socrates, the Greek philosopher stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In “The Importance of Being Earnest” Oscar Wilde forewarned us that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

In “Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us” Carl Sabbagh, a writer, journalist and television producer who studied retained memories in adults, discovered inconsistencies in early memories. He stated, “Controlled experiments in which scientists tried to corroborate alleged earlier memories by going to parents or siblings confirmed the period of infantile amnesia at about age two and a half, where psychologists had previously thought it stretched to age three or four.”

In 1968, Researchers Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin developed the “Model of Memory” in which they describe “the passage of stimuli from the Environmental Input to Sensory Memory that is accompanied by Attention enters the Short Term Memory File allowing us to recall. It further requires Rehearsal to become a recorded Long-term memory, whose duration is unlimited.”

Scientists have identified the physiological differences between short-term and long-term memory processes. Short-term memories rely mostly on acoustic and to a lesser degree on visual information. The Atkinson/Shiffrin team identified two memory processes: Long-term memory encodes information for storage semantically based on meaning and association. They stated, “Unlike with short-term memory, forgetting occurs in the long-term memory and is thought to be involved in changing neural connections for a period of three months or more after the initial learning.”

The above explanations underscore the need for rehearsal in order for memories to be recalled. It explains why many childhood events are not similarly remembered by siblings but may be more accurately recalled by adults. Thus, when we say we definitely recall a childhood event, it may or may not be accurate. Traumatic, amazing and rehearsed events can and do stay in our memory and are often used to protect us or preserve our innocent capacity for awe.

So when adult siblings compare their childhood memories they often present divergent views of many early experiences. When you add the psychological impact any event may have had on each child, we are clear about how varied siblings’ recollections occur.


  • Act kindly when your childhood memories do not match your siblings’.
  • Accept other family members past recollections.
  • Abandon the “truth”. Capitalize on respecting others and bonding with them in the present.











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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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