You might expect that your earliest recollection would be dramatic—yet for most of us, it is fairly mundane. Only about a quarter of people report a first memory that involves a trauma, according to a 2005 study. Scientific American Mind's online survey of readers' first memories uncovered the same pattern.
Young children are more likely to recall an event if they are prompted to talk about it and probed for details. Perhaps that is why the age at which a memory first sticks varies across cultures. Among the Maori of New Zealand, for example, most children's memories start a year earlier than they do in North America—a function of a culture in which memories are honored and much discussed, according to researcher Carole Peterson of Memorial University in Newfoundland.
Infant (0–2 years): Research hints that infants form brief memories.
Toddler (2–3 years): Toddlers begin to form memories of facts and events. Yet they are ephemeral because the hippocampus—key for long-term memories—is still maturing.
Young child (4–7 years): Short-term memory improves. Prospective memory—the ability to plan and remember to execute the plan—starts to emerge.
Child (8–10 years): Children have now forgotten about two thirds of their memories before age three. Recall of facts and spatial relationships improves greatly.
Early adolescent (10–12 years): As hippocampal growth cools down, connections in that region start to get pruned, and long-term memory improves. The ability to consciously suppress memories appears to increase as well.
Young adult (13–21 years): The superior temporal cortex, which helps to integrate information, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, involved in short-term memory, continue to mature into our early 20s. This pattern might explain why memory becomes richer and more complex throughout the young adult years. —V.S.