Every once in a while, I’ll come across a TikTok that brings up a deeply embedded, deeply personal (or, so I thought) childhood memory of mine. The comments of these posts and videos are usually flooded with revelations like, “I thought I was the only one that did this” or “I did all of these!!” and, of course, “did we all have the same childhood?” Sometimes, scrolling through my feed, it seems as though we have a lot more in common than we ever knew.
One of my first “wtf” moments was seeing a TikTok video about a very specific rectangular alarm clock with glowing red numbers that my dad had when I was growing up. It would ring out a brutal, headache-inducing yelp every weekday morning around 5 a.m. when he got up for work. The sound still haunts me. It felt like something only my dad would own, but the TikTok — with over 70,000 likes and 1,000 comments ranging from “I can hear this alarm in my head” to ones professing that their parents still have theirs — proved me wrong.
“Unlocking a deep childhood memory you’d forgotten about” has become a whole genre of Instagram and TikTok content. There are videos about how we used to jump off a surface while holding an umbrella in an attempt to fly; how our parents told us that we’d get struck by lightning if we showered during a thunderstorm; and how we sometimes still wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. with the George Lopez theme song ringing in our heads. And if you head to the comments, you often see the same, half-shocked, half-celebratory reactions: We all did this?
TikTok user @annafabbre recently posted a series of 2000s childhood trends and memories, all of which sparked memories and revelations in the comments. In response to someone who commented, “I’m convinced we all had the same childhood,” she replied with a video, saying, “I’m convinced we’re all playing in the same Sims game and the world’s not real.” She has a point.
While the world is almost definitely real, the way we view our lives can be pretty egocentric. “Although we like to think that our life is unique and no one else knows what our experiences are like, the fact of the matter is really that all of us lead quite ordinary lives that aren’t all that different from other people in our culture,” David Ludden, PhD, professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College, tells Refinery29.
Something like an alarm clock can be explained away by this theory. As a kid, we probably didn’t have the best sense of the current alarm clock market, so it never would have occurred to us that the clock that terrified us every morning had been a popular or cutting-edge model, and therefore was terrifying a lot of other kids across the country too.
Even memories that seem so weird and specific can often be chalked up to generational overlap: As an adult, you might think back to the craving you had to chew on Polly Pocket’s rubber clothes with bewilderment, but at the time, those toys were popular — and to a kid, they were begging to be chewed on. So it makes sense that you’re one of the many your age who had the same weird urge.
That said, Qi Wang, PhD, professor and chair of human development at Cornell University who specializes in autobiographical memory, says that everyone’s memory is different. “There’s no implication whatsoever that says ‘wow, there’s a common thing that everyone’s reporting.’ Memory and childhood are just as diverse as we are as human beings, and the memories reflect that diversity,” she says.
One explanation as to why we might be convinced we’re living in a simulation, she says, is that we’re appropriating one another’s memories as our own. Her statement brought a specific TikTok to my mind. In it, user @millenialkyle holds up a large silver bowl with the caption, “Me on my way to fill up the family puke bowl with popcorn in the 90s.” The video flooded me with the now-familiar sense of shared nostalgia, but when I thought about it, while my family did use a silver bowl like this for popcorn, I didn’t actually have any memories of us using it to throw up in… or did I?
Both Dr. Wang and Dr. Ludden agree that some people may be remembering something that didn’t actually occur. “Memories are very plastic,” Dr. Wang says. “They can be easily influenced by outside information. If you strongly identify with a person, there’s a possibility to appropriate that person’s experience as your own.”
So maybe you didn’t want to chew on your Polly Pocket’s clothing. Seeing the video may have reminded you of another chewable rubber scrap you came across as a youth, and you conflated the two. Maybe your dad didn’t even have that clock, and it was a different model that blasted your eardrums every morning.
My family popcorn bowl may have strictly been used for popcorn and not bodily fluids, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t connect with the creator’s experience. “What kind of environment we’re in, in a way, shapes our experience,” Dr. Wang says. “They can be similar for a particular period of time and a particular kind of lifestyle, and as a result they can create similar experiences.”
And of course, it’s worth noting that social media infamously shows us material that reaffirms our own life experience and beliefs. While I’ve outed myself as being on alarm clock and puke bowl TikTok, hundreds of thousands of other people may have never scrolled past one of these videos in their lives. Instead, their FYP and feed is filled with content by people who grew up in the same area, time frame, income bracket, and family structure. They, too, may be thinking, “Wow, we’re all more alike than I realized.” Even though we’re kind of… not.
Still, the nostalgic bond this sort of content creates between us and others, on the internet or IRL, isn’t at all a bad thing. Humans have a strong need to connect with one another — and if that happens to be over the fact that a surprising number of us are willing to publicly admit that we tried to become waterbenders in the shower, then so be it.