Why don’t we remember our early childhood?
Or if we do have vague memories, why are they so hazy? There are many scientific theories for infantile amnesia, including Freud’s opinion, activation hypothesis, neurogenesis and the development of the hippocampus.
Why don’t people remember much about their childhood?
Our memory is very selective when it comes to our childhood. Only a few people can recall exact details about events that occured when they were younger than the age of 3.
Today scientists have come up with several opinions which may explain why we don’t remember the first years of our lives.
Freud was the first to describe the infantile amnesia that covers the first 5 years of a human’s life. Freud explained that it is not a functional disorder, but instead a consciousness block that protects our psyche from early turmoil.
Early childhood traumas, self-awareness that occurs when a child discovers his or her own body, encountering many sensations. Freud called any retained fragments of the infantile memory “masking ones”.
“Memory” is the work of scientists from the Emory University, who gave us the hypothesis for the activation of infantile amnesia. Doctors Patricia Bayer and Marina Larkina estimate that we start to forget things at the age of 7.
They came up with this theory by compiling the results of a set of scientific studies. During the first stage they conducted a survey among children aged 3, recording their clearest memories.
During the second stage they interviewed the same children when they were between 5-7 years of age, asking them to describe the memories that had been recorded. These children were able to recall about 60% of the details from those memories.
When those kids reached around 8-10 years of age, they were able to recall only 40% of these memories, compared to when they were 3. The results of this experiment were used as a basis for the theory of infantile amnesia activation.
Dependence on the environment
Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at the Memorial University in Newfoundland in Canada, describes how our childhood memory is connected to the place where we grew up.
She devised an experiment with large groups of children from Canada and the PRC. During the experiment children had 4 minutes to describe their clearest memories.
Children from Canada had more memories, and their thoughts were more personal, while the children from China remembered less, and their stories were mainly about their social groups, i.e. friends or family.
Lack of connection between time and events
Simon Dennis from the medical center of the Ohio State University says that children simply make no connection between the place and time of an event. He claims this is why they can’t recall their memories.
For example, a child can remember that he was riding a horse in a field, but he cannot recall that it happened on the 3rd of July at 5pm.
Another theory for infantile amnesia is the negligible vocabulary that we have up to the age of 3. We don’t know many words, thus our memories are not connected with words.
In 2003 Gabrielle Simcock and Harlene Hayne carried out an experiment that was later described by “Psychological Science”. They discovered that children who couldn’t talk could not use “verbal code” to describe events (as the events had been experienced via nonverbal “code”) so they were unable to remember those events using any vocabulary.
Undeveloped hippocampus, neurogenesis and memory erasing
Dr Paul Frankland, Senior Scientist in Neurosciences & Mental Health at “SickKids” in Canada, has been researching childhood memory and the process of its formation, and also infantile amnesia.
According to research that he undertook with children, he confirmed that they could successfully describe their recent memories, which proved that their short-term memory was working perfectly.
However, many of these memories faded away in just one month. This situation can be explained as neurogenesis, or the “substitution” of old memory cells with new ones.
Previously, it was believed that new neurons were formed only when new memories were created, but today scientists have confirmed that this happens in conjunction with the deletion of old information.
When we reach adulthood we have retained only a small amount of neurons from our childhood, leaving us with fewer memories from that time.
During our childhood the hippocampus in our brain is not developed yet, and this is the part of the brain that is responsible for the transmission of information from the short-term to the long-term memory. This is the theory behind why the clear memories of childhood fade away so fast.
There is considerable research that confirms the phenomena of neurogenesis and the undeveloped hippocampus in adults, as well as mice.
These mice were put into a cage with a base that was connected to a low current power supply. Adult mice went into a panic every time they approached the cage, and they exhibited this anxiety even up to a month following the first experiment.
On the other hand, the young mice showed no such anxiety. The bad memories from their previous experience had already faded, even in only one day, as their underdeveloped brains were able to forget.
All of these theories are united in the core idea that infantile amnesia is a way for our body to protect itself from “information overload”. And scientists have not yet even uncovered everything there is to know, so we may still discover new and amazing facts about our capacity for memory, incredibly soon.