Just a few weeks ago I was sitting with my family, reminiscing old memories. Someone asked me to recall a trip that we took to the mountains when I was about 3 years old. I was quite puzzled as I am usually able to remember most of my childhood memories. As a student of psychology, I put two and two together and understood that this was a classic example of Childhood Amnesia.
What is Childhood Amnesia?
Childhood amnesia, also known as infantile amnesia is the inability of adults to be able to recollect early episodic memories, before 2-4 years of age. Episodic memory is a kind of long-term memory which involves the recollection of certain events, experiences or situations. Childhood amnesia occurs at an early point in an individual’s life where memories that are formed are short-lived and become inaccessible after a period of time. It is believed that childhood amnesia occurs due to the underdeveloped brain of a child – which makes it harder for adults to retrieve memories about events which took place early on in childhood. As children grow older, their capacity to store and retrieve information becomes more adept. By the age of 7, they have strong autobiographical memories and their rate of forgetting is relatively similar than that of adults.
Early life events which induced trauma or were life-altering tend to greatly impact adult behaviour and may lead to psychological concerns later on in life.
Causes of Childhood Amnesia
Although there has been abundant research about childhood amnesia, its absolute cause still remains a mystery. Despite this, many researchers have attempted to provide an explanation about the phenomenon.
According to Freud, childhood amnesia occurs due to the repression of traumatic memories in the early psychosexual stages of development. More contemporary researchers believe that forgetting of memories happens during the early stages of brain development.
Children may also tend to forget memories as when their brains develop and add more connections to different things, they appear to lose memories at a faster rate as compared to making memories. According to Bauer (2014), between the ages of 3 to 7, more memories tend to slip away than get fixed into long-term memory – as a result of which children forget memories. Bauer (2014) also states that the quality of ones memory improves by the age of 7 since the brain starts to replicate the adult brain to a great extent.
Peterson (1980) conducted a research on the memories of children and as a result pointed towards the fact that children are not good at storing memories of mundane events such as visiting someone’s house. But on the other hand, their memory when it comes to notable emotional events is significantly great.
Frankland (2012) believed that in an attempt to make our memories last for a long time, they need to be engraved in the hippocampus. This part of the brain connects simultaneous memories from different regions of the brain and turns them into one single episode. He attempted to explain that the process of neurogenesis – production of new neurons in the brain – is what causes forgetting in both adults and children. The resulting complexity in the structure of the brain as new neurons are produced causes memories to fade away.
What kind of memories persist?
While we understand what causes childhood amnesia, it is also important to understand that children will not forget all memories between the ages of 2-4. There are many memories that may persist in their brain and thus ‘survive’ infantile amnesia. These are those memories which carry a significant amount of emotion or are trauma inducing. For instance, one may be able to clearly recall when they were sent to the emergency room as a child.
Another instance when a child may remember early events is when they crafted the event into story with details of the time, place as well as a detailed sequence of events. It is also understood that parents play a great role in whether or not the child is able to recall certain events. Parents tend to provide shape as well as structure to a memory. If this does not take place, then the memories are more likely to fade away.
The ability to remember memories is something that children learn over time. As their brain becomes more and more developed, the capacity of their brain to retain details replicates that of an adult. In order to help children remember their early memories, parents can also play a great role in turning life events into a narrative so that the events can get engraved in the brain of the child.
Now that we have discussed childhood amnesia in detail, let’s sit back and think – what is my earliest memory?
Alberini, C. M., & Travaglia, A. (2017). Infantile amnesia: a critical period of learning to learn and remember. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(24), 5783-5795.
Bauer, P. J., & Larkina, M. (2014). The onset of childhood amnesia in childhood: A prospective investigation of the course and determinants of forgetting of early-life events. Memory, 22(8), 907-924.
Josselyn, S. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2012). Infantile amnesia: a neurogenic hypothesis. Learning & Memory, 19(9), 423-433.
Li, S., Callaghan, B. L., & Richardson, R. (2014). Infantile amnesia: forgotten but not gone. Learning & Memory, 21(3), 135-139.