The Reasons You Can't Remember Your Early Childhood

Are you unable to recall a childhood trip? Do you struggle to remember your first haircut even as your parents talk about it fondly? Here is why you may forget what happened when you were a baby.

By Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran

The Reasons You Can't Remember Your Early Childhood

During a family discussion, the conversation may sometimes veer towards your childhood days. Your parents or relatives may fondly remember a peculiar mannerism that you had or talk about a specific incident when you were naughty as a toddler. While other members of the family may remember those days, you may face difficulty recollecting them.    

Why is it that certain events from your childhood are etched in your mind, while you may have the vaguest memory of some others? Here, we examine this phenomenon.      

What is childhood amnesia?

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, described the phenomenon of ‘infantile amnesia’, in which people cannot recall events that took place during early childhood.

An individual generally has memories of events in his life from the age of about four years. However, he may often not be able to recall what happened before that. This is called childhood amnesia. It is common and experienced by many people. 

What are the causes of this phenomenon? 

The most common explanation for childhood amnesia is the nature of neurological development. The areas in the brain responsible for memory consolidation and retrieval — the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — are not fully developed in children. There is also a constant development and rewiring of the neuronal networks, which leads to the loss of information or memories later.

Another reason for childhood amnesia lies in the psychological development of the child. Until the age of 4-5 years, children do not have a sense of self and, therefore, may be unable to anchor memories of themselves. This leads to forgetting.

Types of early memories

Early memories may include play, injury and transitions. However, a child is more likely to retain memories that involve strong emotions like receiving an award or being seriously injured. That is why, we forget certain things and retain others from the same period.

Do people remember happy childhood memories more than unhappy ones?

What a child remembers does not depend on a positive or negative emotion. A specific memory may rather depend on the intensity of the emotion. For e.g., a strongly negative memory will be remembered over a mildly positive memory.

Memories play a part in shaping our personality and future

Memories play a role in shaping the behaviour and, subsequently, the personality of a person. Conditioning plays a significant role in the things that a person retains and imbibes in his personality.

Negative and averse experiences are suppressed from the memory and may never be brought back to consciousness. Ongoing stress can also push back many irrelevant and less important memories to help the brain focus on immediate concerns. These memories are easier to recall.

As a parent, how do childhood events or memories affect our parenting?

One's childhood memories have a strong impact on the development of the individual’s personality. These childhood memories (mainly negative) may predispose an individual to certain unhealthy styles of relating with people and functioning in general. These style of relating to others come into play in most of the relationships of the individual. When such an individual must relate to his/her child as a parent these styles can colour the parenting style of the individual. For example, mothers with childhood experiences of trauma or violence are more likely to be anxious or aggressive in their parenting style.

Is there any way to retain childhood memories?

Creating associations, making connections between certain events, people, places and even fragrances can form more networks of memories and may help in retaining more material.

The emergence of the first memory from childhood is the end of childhood amnesia. There is a clear consensus among researchers that the first two years of life are marked by childhood amnesia. After which, the duration of childhood amnesia can range from 2-8 years. This variability in the duration of childhood amnesia can be explained by individual differences such as gender, culture and individual factors such as cognitive abilities.

The author is Professor and Consultant, Clinical Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Clinical Psychology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru.

With additional inputs from Md Afsar and Pratibha Meena

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