When it comes to remembering our childhood, scientific research still leaves us with more questions than answers.

Why can’t we remember our earliest years?

“I feel goosebumps, my stomach churns and tears well [up in] my eyes whenever I cross Sydney Harbour in a ferry, kayak or look westward towards the city from the entrance to the harbour at Watsons Bay,” writes Jack Frisch, in response to the callout asking The Correspondent members to share their earliest memories.

“My earliest memory is one that I feel through my body rather than my mind’s eye,” he had begun, before adding: “I was two and a half years old when I arrived with my parents in Sydney in March 1951 on an immigrant ship from Europe. My parents and many others on the ship were Jewish concentration camp survivors who had had family members murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. They were looking for a new life in Australia and most became successful Australian citizens. I think that the feelings I get are the result of the feelings of sadness, hope, uncertainty and trepidation passed on by the adults who would have been looking towards the distant cityscape as they entered the harbour.”

There have been many such evocative memories shared. The smell of fresh cactus reminded Xavier Moya of falling into a prickly pear, aged four. For Anne Brodie, it was watching a game of football from a pram. “My mother shouts: “Come on the Abbey, give us a goal!” I have no idea why we were watching football. My mother hates it to this day.”

Some of the examples are clear and detailed. Others lack colour; the location, or date, or sequence of events are hazy. But with each one, sharing a memory reads like sharing a piece of themselves. Reading so many from so early on in life has been both illuminating and perplexing.

It seems the most straightforward way to understand the first 1,000 days of human life – the time from conception to second birthday – is to ask what people remember. But how are early memories formed and why is there so much variation in the age of first recollection? Can we trust our early memories, given how fragmented they often are? And what is memory to begin…

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