The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

The teenage years can be the best of times or the worst of times, but certainly they ought to be the most memorable of times. Daniel Offer, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, put this apparent truism to the test and discovered that our memories of even the most formative experiences in life may be decidedly unreliable.

In 1962, Offer conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 73 teenage boys, all 14 years old. Decades later, Offer and several colleagues at Northwestern asked 67 of the surviving boys–now 48-year-old men–some of the same questions they had posed previously: What was your mother’s best trait? What was the best thing about your home life? What activities did you enjoy most?

The answers they got were surprising. It turned out that the boys’ memories were quite inaccurate.

For example: 82 percent of the teenagers had said they were disciplined with physical punishment by their parents. But as adults, only 33 percent of the men recalled having received physical punishment.

Based on the results of this one study, it’s too soon to write off all recollections of adolescence as hopelessly untrustworthy. However, it does call into question the popular notion that memories of emotionally charged events–however long ago they occurred–are as reliable as tape recordings.

Observes Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle whose research has challenged the accuracy of eyewitness accounts and "recovered" memories from childhood. "If you’re someone who thinks that if something very emotional and awful happened, you would remember it, this is a very good study to contradict that claim," Loftus says.