Childhood Amnesia

Can you recall your earliest years? Most of us can’t, and here’s why…

Most of us have no memories from 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 recall our earliest memories, it is often unclear whether they are the real thing or just recollections based on photos and stories told to us by others.

The phenomenon, known as ‘Childhood Amnesia’, has been puzzling psychologists for more than a century and we still don’t fully understand it.

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

Of course, memory capabilities at these ages are not adult-like: they continue to mature until adolescence. Developmental changes in basic memory processes have been put forward as an explanation for childhood amnesia, and is one of the best theories we’ve got so far. The hippocampus, thought to be responsible forming memories, continues developing until at least the age of seven.

We know that the typical boundary for childhood amnesia – three and a half years shifts with age. Children and teenagers have earlier memories than adults do. This suggests that the problem may be less with forming memories than maintaining them.

Another factor that we know play a role is language. To some extent, a child’s ability to talk about an event at the time it happens predicts how well they will remember it months or years later. One lab group interviewed toddlers brought to accident and emergency departments for common childhood injuries. Toddlers over 26 months who could talk about the event at the time, recalled it up to five years later, whereas those under 26 months who could not talk about it, recalled little or nothing. This suggests that pre-verbal memories are lost if they are not translated into language.

However, most research on the role of language focuses on a particular form of expression called narrative, and on it’s social function. When parents reminisce with very young children about past events, they implicitly teach them narrative skills-what kinds of events are important to remember and how to talk about them in a way that others can understand.

Unlike simply recounting information or factual purposes, reminiscing revolves around the social function of sharing experiences with others. In this way, family stories maintain the memory’s accessibility over time; they also increase the coherence of the narrative, including the chronology of events. More coherent stories are remembered better. Maori adults have the earliest childhood memories (age 2.5) of any society studied so far, thanks to Maori parent’s highly elaborative style of telling family stories.

There is still things we don’t understand about childhood amnesia, but researchers are making progress. Meantime, we should bear in mind that even if we can’t remember specific events from when we are very young, their accumulation nevertheless leaves lasting traces that influence our behaviour. Paradoxically, the first few years of life are forgettable and yet powerful in shaping the adults that we become.

An article by Joanne Shinskey, Director of the Baby Lab at the Royal Holloway, University of London (i, July 14th 2016)


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