Why can’t we remember our early childhood?

Most of us have no memory of the first three or four years of our lives; in fact, we tend to remember very little of life before the age of seven. And when we try to reminisce about our earliest memories, it’s often unclear whether they’re real or just memories based on photos or stories other people have told us.

This phenomenon, known as “childhood amnesia”, has been baffling psychologists for more than a century, and we still do not fully understand it.

At first glance, it may seem that the reason we don’t remember being babies is that babies and toddlers don’t have fully developed memory. But babies as young as six months old can form both short-term memories that last minutes and long-term memories that last for weeks, if not months.

In one study, six-month-old children who learned to press a lever to power a toy train remembered how to perform this action for two to three weeks after they last saw the toy. Preschoolers, on the other hand, can remember events going back years. However, it is arguable that long-term memories at this early age are actually autobiographical, that is, personally relevant events that occurred at a specific time and place.

Of course, memory capacities at these ages are not similar to those of adults: they continue to mature into adolescence. In fact, changes in the development of basic memory processes have been proposed as an explanation for childhood amnesia, and it is one of the best theories we have so far.

These basic processes involve various regions of the brain and include the formation, maintenance, and subsequent retrieval of memory. For example, the hippocampus, which is believed to be responsible for the formation of memories, continues to develop until at least seven years.

We know that the typical limit for the displacement of childhood amnesia – three and a half years – moves with age. Children and teens have earlier memories than adults. This suggests that the problem may lie less in the formation of memories than in their maintenance.

But this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Another factor that we know plays an important role is language. Between the year and the age of six, children go from speaking a single word to mastering their mother tongue or languages, so there are important changes in their verbal capacity that coincide with the period of childhood amnesia. This includes the use of past tense, memory-related words like “remember” and “forget,” and personal pronouns, the favorite being “mine.”

To some extent, it is true that a child’s ability to verbalize an event at the time it occurred predicts how well it remembers it months or years later. A laboratory group did this work by interviewing young children who came to emergency services for common childhood injuries. Children over 26 months of age, who could verbalize the event at the time, remembered it up to five years later, while children under 26 months of age, who could not speak about the event, remembered little or nothing. This suggests that preverbal memories are lost if they are not translated into language.

Social and cultural effects

However, most research on the role of language focuses on a particular form of expression called narrative and its social function. When parents reminisce about past events with very young children, they implicitly teach them narrative skills: what kind of events are important to remember and how to structure the conversation about them so that others can understand them.

Unlike simply recounting information for factual purposes, memories revolve around the social function of sharing experiences with others. In this way, family stories maintain the accessibility of remembrance over time and also increase the coherence of the narrative, including the chronology of events, their theme, and their degree of emotion. More coherent stories are best remembered.

Maori adults have the earliest childhood memories of all societies studied so far, thanks to Māori parents’ highly elaborate style of telling family stories.

Memories have different social functions in different cultures, contributing to cultural variations in the quantity, quality, and timing of early autobiographical memories. Adults in cultures that value autonomy (North America and Western Europe) tend to have more childhood and earlier memories than adults in cultures that value relationships (Asia and Africa).

This is predicted by cultural differences in the parent’s style of remembrance. In cultures that promote a more autonomous concept of themselves, parents’ memories focus more on children’s individual experiences, preferences and feelings, and less on their relationships with others, social routines, and behavioral norms. For example, an American child may remember being given a gold star in kindergarten, while a Chinese child may remember that the class learned a certain song at this educational stage.

While there are still things we don’t understand about childhood amnesia, researchers are making progress. For example, there are more prospective longitudinal studies that follow individuals from infancy to the future. This helps to obtain accurate accounts of events, which is better than retrospectively asking teenagers or adults to remember past events that are not documented.

In addition, as neuroscience progresses, there will no doubt be more studies linking brain development to memory development. This should help us develop other measures of memory in addition to verbal reports.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that, although we cannot explicitly remember specific events from when we were very young, their accumulation nevertheless leaves lasting traces that influence our behavior.

The first years of life are, paradoxically, forgettable and yet powerful in the formation of the adults we become.

Jeanne Shinskey, Senior Lecturer and Baby Lab Director, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London

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