Most of us don’t have many memories from the first three to four years of our lives — in fact, even from before the age of 7, a whole lot is a blur. And when we do try to trace our earliest memories, our brain is tricked whether those memories are real or just recollections based on photos or stories we’ve grown up listening to. The phenomenon, known as “childhood amnesia,” has been puzzling psychologists for more than a century — and the process to understand it is yet ongoing.
Transcontinental Times got some insight from the work of The Conversation regarding how our brain remembers childhood memories, that is if it does!
It comes as obvious that infants and toddlers don’t have a fully developed memory which is why we don’t remember being babies, but interestingly babies as little as six months are capable of forming short-term memories that last for minutes and long-term memories that last weeks, if not months.
In one study, six-month-olds who learned how to press a lever to operate a toy train remembered how to perform this action for two to three weeks after they had last seen the toy. Preschoolers, on the other hand, can remember events that go years back. It’s debatable whether long-term memories at this early age are truly autobiographical, though — that is, personally relevant events that occurred in a specific time and place.
Of course, memory capabilities at these ages do not show adult-like behaviour — they continue to mature until adolescence. In fact, developmental changes in basic memory processes as an explanation for childhood amnesia is one of the best theories put forth so far. These basic processes involve several brain regions and include forming, maintaining and then later retrieving the memory.
The hippocampus, thought to be responsible for forming memories, continues developing until at least the age of seven. We know that the typical boundary for the offset of 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 with maintaining them.
Giving words to memories – language
But this does not seem to be the whole story. Another factor that we know plays a major role in forming memories is language. From the ages of one to six, children progress from the one-word stage of speaking to becoming fluent in their native language(s), which means that with their verbal ability improving in little time, the childhood amnesia overlaps. This includes using the past tense, memory-related words such as “remember” and “forget” and personal pronouns, a favourite being “mine.”
A child’s ability to verbalize about an event at the time that it happened can to some extent predict how well they remember it months or years later. One lab group conducted this work by interviewing toddlers brought to accident and emergency departments for common childhood injuries. Toddlers over 26 months, who could verbalize 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 preverbal memories are lost if they are not translated into language.