Is it normal to not remember your childhood

Why Can't I Remember My Childhood? Causes and Solutions

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Many people can recall happy childhood memories: playing with friends during recess, birthday parties, that time you accidentally set fire to your parents’ living room (don’t worry — we’ve all been there). But it’s also pretty common to find that you don’t remember much about being a kid.

Is it normal that I can’t remember my childhood?

The good news is that it’s completely normal not to remember much of your early years. It’s known as infantile amnesia. This means that even though kids’ brains are like little sponges, soaking in all that info and experience, you might take relatively few memories of it into adulthood.

It doesn’t mean you’ve got a problem with your memory or that you repressed memories of childhood trauma (although both of these factors can interfere with childhood memories).

Your memory only really starts improving at age 8 to 10.

The thought of not remembering much — or wondering whether you experienced childhood trauma — can be pretty upsetting. So let’s take a look at what causes childhood amnesia and what you can do to make some of those good memories a bit more vivid.

So what gives? After all, childhood is when you discover the world and everything in it. You instinctively remember some of those lessons — such as learning that candle flames are painful for your fingers or that it’s not appropriate to just poop on the stairs as you please. Shouldn’t you remember the rest of it too?

First things first: You probably don’t have a problem with your memory, even if you can’t remember your third birthday.

The truth is that most people can’t recall that stuff (ask your friends or family — they’ll likely say the same thing). It just comes down to how our brains are formed. They’re squidgy lumps of matter, not computers.

Rat brains develop memory in a similar way to human brains. And studies on our little rodent cousins have shown that, like us, they can remember learning experiences from their childhood (like “falling over hurts” and other greatest hits) without remembering other details.

It’s just the way our brains work. A lot of different factors (like individual brain development and wider culture) might mean you remember slightly more or less about your childhood than others do. It doesn’t mean you’re broken.

It’s not always trauma

Many people who worry about a lack of childhood memories fear that, to protect them, their brains have repressed something bad that happened.

Fortunately, that’s not always the case. Psychology OG (psychol-OG?) Sigmund Freud was one of the first to suggest a link between childhood trauma and a lack of memories, and researchers have been exploring the possibility ever since.

In the 1990s, the theory of repressed memory became so widespread that some therapists made the mistake of confusing anxiety, eating disorders, and other neurological issues for signs of childhood abuse. These docs then suggested to their patients that something awful had happened in their early years and they didn’t remember it.

As a result, some people in treatment developed false memories of incidents that had never happened. That’s absolutely not good.

But if this is something you’re worried about, remember this: Most people who have experienced childhood trauma, especially in its most serious forms, remember the incidents.

Trauma can certainly affect your memory (more on this in a minute). But if you have absolutely zero memory of anything bad happening and nothing else from your life seems suspicious, then you’re probably not repressing memories — it’s prob just regular childhood amnesia.

Possible reasons for childhood trauma

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, these are some common causes of childhood trauma:

  • physical, sexual, or physiological abuse
  • natural disasters and wars
  • domestic violence
  • grief
  • substance use disorder (your own or that of a loved one)
  • serious accidents and illnesses
  • military-related stress (like deployment or injury of a parent)

Can trauma or abuse play a role in childhood amnesia?

Research indicates that childhood trauma and abuse can absolutely affect your memory. While you’re unlikely to forget traumatic incidents completely, you may find you have distorted memories of what happened.

Many abuse survivors recall incidents in “flashes” — images that aren’t quite coherent, since the brain will often disassociate to protect itself. This can also mess with their perception of time.

Survivors might feel as though they’re in limbo. Traumatic memories can obliterate earlier, more positive memories of childhood. And because the traumatic memories are often also fractured, people may be left with very few memories of their childhood.

People who have experienced trauma and abuse can find themselves stuck in vicious cycles for years. If this sounds like what you’re experiencing, consider talking with a therapist for support.

Other explanations

There are some other reasons you might not have a full mental photo album of your childhood. But they prove that your brain is healthy and functioning. Hurrah!

The first is that human memory, especially in children, mostly focuses on events that had a big impact. So you probably have vague memories of playing with your friends but nothing specific. You may remember blowing out birthday candles or getting a gift but little else about your fourth birthday.

But you’ll clearly remember that day you accidentally set fire to the living room, because your mom chewed your ear off about it.

Other people might even remember incidents far more than you do — precisely because of that impact.

For example, you might have been present when your sister fell into the swimming pool. The adults will remember it clearly because they had to save a child. Your sister is also pretty likely to have a clear memory of it, for understandable reasons. But you might not have understood the incident, so you don’t remember it so well.

Another reason for childhood amnesia is that our brains go synapse-wild when we’re babies. Synapses are the things that allow electrical currents in our brains to move around. It’s estimated that before age 2, our brains produce 40,000 synapses per second. Ah, those were the days.

You’d think that would make your memory super awesome, but it’s actually the other way around: Some experts think this can contribute to memory loss.

The good news is that when you hit puberty, your brain does a spring cleaning and prunes a lot of unneeded synapses, improving your memory. This means you can totally memorize your crush’s phone number. So yeah, who needs synapses anyway? (OK, definitely still you, but we get that your crush’s phone number is mega important.)

It can be annoying not to have a better recollection of your childhood, especially if you remember it as happy. On harder days, you might wish you could reach back into your brain and pull up a memory of having the time of your life on a swing set.

Is it even possible to reclaim childhood memories?

Yes — but you’re gonna have to work at it!

Studies suggest that memories may indeed last a lifetime and that it’s just a case of jogging them back into the forefront of your mind. Indeed, it seems that memories get stronger the more you actively recall them.

Who doesn’t want to bask in those sunny, carefree days again, when you could smoosh your face into a cake and people thought it was cute rather than a problem? But thanks to synaptic pruning, combined with adolescence (a time when most people really start to discover who they are) being more memorable, those early years can become lost.

So, how can you go about rediscovering some of those memories?

Talk about the past

One of the simplest ways to regain some memories of your childhood is simply to talk with people! If you have older siblings or you can talk with your parents, sit down and discuss the old days with them.

You’ll probably find that your parents remember a ton of things you’ve completely forgotten, and it may help punt those memories back into your recollections. Family vacations, your favorite belongings, even memories of grandparents and other relatives — you may find that something tickles your memory and opens the floodgates.

Just be prepared for all the embarrassing (and possibly sad) ones too.

Look at photos

Photos are great for regaining memories of your childhood.

Most parents like to take plenty of pics and prove what a cute little button you were. (“OMG, what happened?” Your parents are wrong. You’re still super cute.) This means they probably captured lots of everyday things. Seeing those events again can often trigger memories.

Don’t focus so much on one-off occasions. Instead, pay special attention to the everyday items. Do you remember the toys you’re holding or the clothes you’re wearing in photos?

Maybe you hadn’t thought of them in years, but one look at your favorite “My Little Pony” toy or a particularly cute T-shirt could bring memories back.

Revisit locations

Memories are more than visual. You might find that when you revisit a location, the sights, smells, and sounds can bring back happy recollections.

Try taking a road trip to a place you used to go to with your family. You might find that little has changed and that the hot dogs there taste just like they used to — and OMGoodness do you remember that time you ate them by the lake? You do now! (Alternatively, it could now be a Wendy’s. It’s a gamble, but it might pay off.)

You could even go local and take a trip back to your old school. Just seeing the buildings or smelling the familiar scent of the schoolyard or cafeteria could bring back the old days a little.

Keep learning

You can also help your memory by keeping it active. Just like you work out your muscles, if you keep your brain engaged and busy, it’ll reward you by performing better.

There are multiple ways you can do it too. You don’t have to go full-on Mr. Memory and recite every capital city in the world every morning (though all power to you if you can!). Even learning a language gives your memory an excellent workout.

Brain training games have also been found to improve memory, especially in younger people. And they couldn’t be easier or cheaper to find, with apps like Peak, Elevate, and Lumosity waiting for download on both iOS and Android.

In most cases, not being able to remember your childhood very clearly is completely normal. It’s just the way human brains work. On the whole, childhood amnesia isn’t anything to worry about, and it’s possible to coax back some of those memories by using sights and smells to trigger them.

Sadly, a hole-filled memory of childhood can happen due to trauma or abuse, making recollections patchy and distressing and forcing out memories of happier times. Survivors can often feel like they’ve lost their childhood entirely.

Most people won’t experience repressed memories. But if there are strange gaps in your memory, you find contradictions between what you remember and what you’ve been told, or you feel strong, unexplainable negative emotions associated with people or places, it may be worth talking with a therapist.

Why Can't I Remember My Childhood: Possible Explanations

Long, lazy summer days, shenanigans with friends, squabbles with siblings, and freshly baked cookies after school are just a few of the memories that might linger from your childhood.

Some people have plenty of memories from various stages of early life, but others remember very little of their formative years by the time they reach adulthood. Try as you might to search your brain, you might come up with nothing more than some fuzzy images that drift away when you try to examine them more closely.

If you’re used to hearing friends and loved ones talk about childhood, you might wonder why you have blank space instead of nostalgic recollections. You’re pretty sure you didn’t experience anything traumatic, so what gives? Why can’t you remember? Did you live through something deeply distressing, after all?

Not necessarily. Childhood or infantile amnesia, the loss of memories from the first several years of life, is normal, so if you don’t remember much from early childhood, you’re most likely in the majority.

Perhaps you’ve heard the theory that people often cope with painful memories by forgetting the event. If you don’t have many childhood memories, it can be hard to shake the idea that might be something traumatic lurking below the surface.

While this is possible, it probably isn’t the case. A quick overview of the repressed memory theory can help explain why.

Repressed memory theory

Sigmund Freud was the first to connect childhood trauma with memory loss, or repressed memories, to be precise. This idea really began to gather steam in the 1990s when a number of therapists suggested a link between unexplained mental health symptoms and forgotten childhood abuse.

Some therapists worked to help clients regain so-called repressed memories through the unethical process of suggestion. Many of these recovered “memories” later proved to be false.

Experts haven’t conclusively ruled out the idea that people can forget traumatic events and recall them later, but more research is needed.

Survivors might have disjointed memories or gaps in memory around the time of the abuse. You might struggle to place specific life events on a timeline or doubt what you remember — but you probably remember bits and pieces, at the very least.

Trauma and memory

While it’s unlikely that you’d completely forget everything about a traumatic event, a 2019 review of studies suggests that experiencing abuse can indeed affect the way your brain creates memories.

Some children respond to trauma by dissociating, or mentally detaching, which could affect how they remember what happened.

Others simply refuse to think about the trauma and wall off the event, but this isn’t quite the same as actually forgetting.

Either way, trauma usually doesn’t completely disappear from memory. Survivors tend to remember traumatic events at least partially, though they may not fully understand what happened.

You’re also more likely to remember events you experienced more than once, say researchers. If your parents physically abused you or shouted at you often, you’ll probably retain some of those memories.

It’s not at all unusual to remember very little from the first several years of life. Childhood amnesia is part of the normal course of development. Experts aren’t entirely certain what causes it, but memory researchers have come up with a few different theories.

Early childhood memories lack emotional significance

It is believed memories become stronger when they have an emotional component.

You might realize this yourself when considering some of your clearest memories. They likely relate to events that held meaning for you or experiences that generated intense feelings, such as embarrassment, love, happiness, or grief.

Young children don’t have a fully developed range of emotions. As a result, childhood experiences may not register with the same emotional significance as those you’d have during adolescence or adulthood. Since these memories carry less weight, they fade more easily as you age.

Though you might find it strange you can’t remember certain key events parents or older siblings have told you about, your lack of memories may only seem significant because others have suggested you should remember.

Maybe you terrified your family by locking yourself in the house alone as a 4-year-old — but they remember what happened clearly since they were old enough to attach emotional significance to the memory. You may have simply been confused (or amused) by all the fuss.

Normal cognitive development affects memory storage and retrieval

Plenty of cognitive growth takes place in early childhood. This development includes the ability to remember instructions and events for longer stretches of time.

Another aspect of this cognitive growth? The production of new neurons in the hippocampus. As these neurons are introduced, your brain incorporates them into existing pathways. This is great for developmental progress, but not so great for the memories you’ve already formed.

These neurons may potentially block off early memories or disrupt memory pathways in other ways, though experts aren’t yet certain exactly how this happens.

Neuroplasticity research also makes it clear that brain development doesn’t stop once you hit adulthood, as experts previously believed. Rather, your brain can “restructure” itself when it sees the need to adapt to various changes you experience throughout life.

In order to do this, however, it needs to trim away older neural connections you no longer need or use. This process, known as synaptic pruning, helps your brain work more efficiently. It also enables you to make new connections and store new information and memories that are more relevant to your present life and developmental stage.

Memories often aren’t permanent

It’s worth noting that many memories fade over time, even throughout adulthood. You’ll certainly have a stronger capacity for memory as an adult, but you still won’t remember everything.

Memories of early childhood generally begin fading as you approach the teenage years — about the time when you begin to develop your sense of self.

The memories you create as a teenager become a core component of your identity, taking precedence over the memories created when identity was less developed. That’s why, while early memories tend to have the least lasting potential, your strongest memories probably come from your years as a teenager and early adult.

Something else to consider: Your lack of childhood memories may only seem unusual when drawing a comparison to memories you’ve made as an adolescent or adult.

You likely remember plenty of things that happened in the past 5 to 10 years. When you think back farther, some memories might stand out, but you might find it challenging to recall earlier events.

It follows, then, that you naturally wouldn’t have many memories remaining from early childhood. When taking normal forgetting into account along with developmental factors, it becomes easier to see why those first memories tend to slip away.

Having no childhood memories might frustrate you, especially if you get the feeling they’re lurking below the surface, just out of reach.

Experts have different opinions on whether forgotten memories can be recalled, but some researchers believe those memories haven’t completely disappeared from your brain.

Specific triggers later in life may help jog your memory, unlocking the traces that remain. This research focused on rats, which also seem to experience a form of infantile amnesia.

Still, if you’d like to try pulling up some memories from early life, these tips might help.

Talk about the past

Discussing experiences you’ve had and other important events can often help keep them fresh in your mind. Talking about the things you do remember with loved ones and asking them questions may help add more substance to those tiny glimpses of memory.

Keep track of what you do remember by writing it down, using as much detail as you can. You might, for example, keep a journal of your memories and add more details as they come to you.

Many of the memories you have from childhood may come at least partially from what others have told you already. Some memories are often patched together from stories of the past, described often enough that you eventually formed a picture in your mind.

Look at photos

Childhood photos could also help you recapture early memories.

Perhaps you received a small toy train on your second birthday and carried it with you everywhere for more than a year. Your parents are astonished you’ve forgotten, since you wouldn’t let the train out of your sight.

But when you look at some photos of yourself from that period, you see the train clutched in your fist on the playground and pillowed under your head during a nap. The memory stays hazy, but you begin to vaguely recall setting it by your plate and insisting it stay there during mealtimes.

When glancing back through old photos, focus on those that reflect everyday life. Memories of things that happened regularly are often stronger than memories of one-time events, so you might have an easier time remembering weekly trips to the candy store with your siblings than your second birthday.

Revisit familiar areas

Going back to the scene of your childhood could also evoke some of those forgotten memories. As you walk down familiar streets and notice nostalgic smells — fragrance can be a particularly powerful trigger — you might begin to recall similar moments from your early years.

On the other hand, if a lot of things in your childhood neighborhood have changed, you might notice these differences even if you can’t remember exactly what things used to look like. You might feel a little disoriented or have a sense of things being in the wrong place. The realization “This isn’t supposed to look like this” could then prompt memories of how things used to look.

Keep learning

Lifelong learning can help strengthen your brain, improving memory and other cognitive functions. While brain training won’t necessarily help you recall childhood memories, it won’t hurt, and it can also improve your chances of retaining the memories you still have.

Both mental exercises and regular physical activity can have a positive impact on not just memory, but brain health overall.

Find 13 tips to boost brain fitness here.

Whether you lived through a turbulent childhood or enjoyed one that was perfectly pleasant, there’s a good chance you’ll lose most of your early memories by the time you reach adulthood — and that’s absolutely normal. Even if you experienced something traumatic in the first few years of life, you may forget it entirely in the normal course of development.

That said, it may be worth talking with a therapist if you notice:

  • unsettling gaps in your memory
  • memories that conflict what others have told you about the past
  • strong negative emotions attached to specific memories

A trained, ethical therapist will help you explore potential reasons without automatically linking these memory issues to childhood trauma.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.

I don’t remember my childhood

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Know yourself

“My brother is happy to talk about how we built huts in the country, recalls our disputes, quarrels, and how, secretly from our parents, we fed a stray dog … I don’t have any memories,” 34-year-old Elizabeth is surprised.

Psychophysiologist Yuri Grinchenko reminds us that the brain records everything that happens to us: "This information continues to be stored and does not disappear anywhere." What are the reasons for such amnesia?

1. Injurious experiences

“The inability to remember, as a rule, is associated not with memory loss, but with an unconscious desire to forget the past,” explains child psychoanalytic psychologist Natalia Zueva. - Forgetfulness protects against moments of shame or humiliation experienced in childhood, feelings of grief or acute loneliness. It also protects from pleasant sensations that are prohibited.

In this way, for example, the forbidden excitement experienced while playing with a brother or sister can be “forgotten,” and with it the game itself, and the whole day, and sometimes a more significant period of time, goes into darkness. If such a memory comes up, it will lead to hurtful experiences in the present.

2. Conscious refusal

Refusal to remember can be quite conscious if a person, for one reason or another, wants to delete some period from life.

“Until the seventh grade, I was a real outsider,” recalls 30-year-old Julia. “Then we moved, and at the new school, where no one knew me, I firmly decided that I would not allow anyone else to mistreat me. I erased the previous seven years of my life from memory and started all over again.

Recovering our memories, we restore our integrity

As psychoanalyst Virginie Meggle explains, “those who avoid their memories are not ready to recognize in themselves the child they once were and who still lives in them. They are afraid that, having allowed the past to come to life, they will find there instead of themselves a different, unpleasant creature. It's really just a scared child who needs love."

3. The Power of Family Rules

Another reason for "forgetfulness" is the rules of conduct adopted in the family.

“When there are secrets and mysteries in the house, the child learns, by watching the elders, not to ask questions about the past, and therefore not to have a memory,” says Natalia Zueva. “He involuntarily obeys these rules of communication and applies them, intentionally or out of habit, to his own past.” For example, information about relatives who have ended up in prison, about previous marriages of parents, illegitimate children or illnesses can fall into the zone of silence ...

However, “each of us is the story of our life,” emphasizes Natalia Zueva. “And if we delete something from it, then we live only a part of ourselves and cannot perceive the world in its entirety. ” By regaining our memories, we restore our integrity.

What to do?

Be more attentive to your emotions

“An event or experience in the past can cause such severe pain that you involuntarily try not to remember it,” says Natalia Zueva. - Try to find the boundaries of the forgotten. Ask yourself: what causes strong feelings? These emotions may be related to the current situation, or maybe they have already met in the past. When, why? The goal is to gradually trace the origin of negative emotions back to childhood.”

Return to places of childhood

“Relive memories with the help of associations,” Yuri Grinchenko suggests. “They can be caused by objects preserved from childhood, toys or books ... If you succeed, visit the places where you grew up.” Watch the kids. At the sight of a little girl crying on a snowy hill while others ride down it, does your heart clench? The meaning of this experience will be revealed to you if you look into your own childhood.

Share feelings and listen to others

Listen to others' stories about their childhood and be sensitive to your own feelings that arise during these stories, says Virginie Meggle. Often it is enough to start an exchange of cases from life, and something is remembered. She recommends moderate reliance on family sources: "This is not an objective account of events, they can be interpreted and explained at their discretion."

But even such a subjective presentation helps us fill in the gaps in our history, Natalia Zueva believes. Especially if we manage to ask ourselves questions or compare different versions. Gradually expanding the past, we begin to accept ourselves more.

Personal experience

Elena, 29 years old, assistant translator

“I never liked to remember my childhood. In my memory, it looked somehow gloomy: angry kindergarten teachers, a school child, a tired mother - besides, she was often sick, and she had almost no strength left for me. But one day I thought: this can not be! If it had been so hopelessly black in my past, I simply would not have been able to grow up as a normal person ... And I forced myself to remember.

At first it was very difficult and unpleasant. But other pictures gradually arose: how I was in the theater for the first time, how my mother and I went to the sea ... I still didn’t find out why these images didn’t come to me for so long, but I can say with confidence: it became much easier for me to live since I managed to restore something from my childhood in my memory.


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Why do we forget our childhood memories

Usually adults do not remember much from their early childhood, and there are psychological and neurophysiological explanations for this. But if we don't remember the details, do those memories matter in terms of shaping our personality? And where, and most importantly, why does our childhood memory go? Perhaps we have something to hide from ourselves? We publish an abridged translation of an essay by writer Kristin Olson for magazine

Aeon , in which she tries to answer these questions and find traces of her own childhood.

I am the youngest of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, and she was so upset by this chronological indiscretion that she even tried to hide her pregnancy. […] My mother's age and my late arrival to the family were also burdensome for me, especially when I went to school in 1957 and got to know the mothers of my classmates. These women still had small children! They still put them in cars and went on picnics by the river or on hikes... they still had to resolve conflicts over toys. But by the time I started first grade, my brothers and sisters had already left my parents' house... and we had gone from a very noisy family to a very quiet one.

My family used to tell me stories about the former period: how my older brother called me Ubangi because my hair grew in tight, thick curls; how my other brother liked to ambush me with a toy crocodile because it made me scream in terror; how my older sister carried me like a kangaroo. But in return, I can offer them quite a few of my own stories from those early years. My most vivid memory is the constant stress of not being able to be with my brothers and sisters in the same way that they spend time with each other. I remember going to bed when it was still light and kicking the sheets, listening to their voices coming from the hall or through the backyard windows. […]

A few years ago, I thought that maybe I would have a chance to recover that lost past when we all gathered in the house that our family used to rent every summer. […] My brothers went there a little before me and, according to them, found our old hut unchanged - even the table made at the local sawmill was still standing in the living room. […] When we got to the hut, my brothers and sisters scattered to take their favorite places in the open air, but I stayed next to the car, amazed at how different this place was from what I remembered.

I remembered that it took a long walk from home along the sandy beach to get to the water, I even had an image of my mother standing on this huge beach, her dress fluttering in the wind, her hand pressed to her mouth. But the pebbly shore was only a few feet from the house. I remembered the backbone of a dam that jutted out of the water not far from my house, a dangerous bluff at the edge of a lake that my brothers and sisters once ventured too close to. But it turned out that the dam was not visible from the house. I followed my father inside, where he was fascinated by the tinyness of the kitchen. He kept opening cabinet doors and laughing as they hit each other in the narrow aisle. "Your mom just hated this kitchen! he said. - She always cooked big breakfasts, and as soon as she finished cleaning, you children would run back to the house to have lunch" .

I didn't remember that. I didn't remember the table. I didn't remember anything about this place. My brothers and sisters dragged me through the house, showing me where everyone slept - they said that I slept in a small niche in the hallway, although I remembered staying in my parents' room and watching them sleep in the morning light. The brothers and sisters kept telling me other details about the life we ​​all led in that hut and wanted me to remember at least something, but it didn't happen. I even got on my knees and walked around the living room, looking at it at the level of the kids' eyes, peering at the dusty window sills, inhaling the smell of pine wallboards and running my fingers along the floorboards. Nothing.

Now I know that it would be unusual in general to remember anything from that time. Few adults remember their early childhood. There is even a term for this, childhood amnesia , introduced by Sigmund Freud in 1910 to describe the absence of memories of the first three or four years of life and the lack of complete memories until about the age of seven. For more than a century, several studies have been conducted on whether the memories of these early years are hidden in some special part of our brain and whether they can be restored by some special signals. This is exactly what I hoped for when I visited our old hut again with my brothers and sisters. I intended to evoke unruly memories through the sights, sounds, smells, and touches of that place. But research shows that the memories we form so early in life simply disappear.

Freud argued that we suppress our earliest memories due to sexual trauma, then until the 1980s most researchers assumed that we do not retain early childhood memories because we simply do not create them - events take their course without leaving a lasting imprint on a child's brain. However, a 1987 study by Emory University psychologist Robin Fivush and her colleagues dispelled that misconception forever, showing that children as young as 2.5 years old could remember past events if they hadn't happened more than six months ago. […]

Most of us think we can't remember events as adults because they're too far back in time... but that's not true. We lose memories as children

Psychologist Carol Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland conducted a series of studies to determine the age at which early childhood memories disappear. First, she and her colleagues asked a group of children aged 4 to 13 to describe their three earliest memories. The children's parents stood by to make sure the memories were true, and even the youngest children could remember events that happened when they were about two years old.

Then, two years later, the children were asked again to see if anything had changed in their memories. More than a third of children aged 10 and over retained the memories they listed in the first part of the study. But younger children — especially the youngest, who were four years old at the beginning of the experiment — forgot them almost completely. "Even when we prompted them to their earlier memories, the children said: 'No, this never happened to me'" , Peterson told me. — We watched childhood amnesia in action. .

In both children and adults, memory is surprisingly selective in terms of what sticks in it and what falls out… and to try to understand why some memories prevail over others, Peterson and her colleagues again studied the memories of children. As a result, they concluded that if a memory was highly emotional, children were three times more likely to remember it two years later. Specific memories—when children fully understood who, what, when, where, and why—were also retained five times more often than scattered fragments of events. […]

To form long-term memories, a series of biological and psychological stars must converge, and most children lack the mechanisms for this alignment. The raw material of memory—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of our life experiences—is received and registered through the cerebral cortex, the seat of cognition. For them to become memories, they must be connected in another brain structure, the hippocampus. […] The hippocampus not only integrates the many inputs from our senses into a single new memory, but also connects these sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations with similar ones already stored in the brain. But some parts of the hippocampus don't fully develop until we're teenagers, so it's hard for a child's brain to complete this process. […]

In addition, young children are not good at chronology: they are several years away from fully mastering clocks and calendars, so it is difficult for them to tie an event to a specific time and place. They also don't have the vocabulary to describe the event, and because of this, they can't create the kind of causal story that Peterson believes underpins a lasting memory. Children also do not have a developed self-awareness that could prompt them to accumulate and revise fragments of experience as part of an expanding life narrative.

Childhood memories, however fragile, can also undergo a process called pulverization . In the first years of life, we create a storm of new neurons in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, and continue to form them for the rest of our lives, although not at the same rate as in childhood. A recent study by Toronto-based neuroscientists Paul Frankland and Sheena Josselin suggests that this process, called neurogenesis, may actually cause forgetting by disrupting existing memory circuits.

Finally, our memories can be distorted by other people's memories of the same event or new information, especially when it is so similar to information already stored in memory. For example, you meet someone and remember their name, but later you meet a second person with a similar name and start to get confused with the name of the first. We can also lose our memories when the synapses connecting neurons fall apart due to their disuse. "If you never use a particular memory, the synapses responsible for storing it may be used for something else" , says psychologist Patricia Bauer at Emory University.

However, memories become less vulnerable to destruction and destruction as the child grows older. Most of the clear memories we carry through life are formed during what is known as the memory spike between the ages of 15 and 30, when we put a lot of energy into learning about the world around us in order to understand who we are. According to Bauer, the events, culture and people of this period remain firmly in our memories and can even overshadow the memories of the present. That is why films were better then, as well as music, fashion, political leaders, people, and so on.

Of course, some people have more memories of early childhood than others. And it seems that memory is partly influenced by the culture of participation in the family. A 2009 study by Peterson, along with Qi Wang of Cornell and Yubo Hou of Peking University, found that children in China have fewer such memories than children in Canada. They suggest that this discovery can be explained by culture: the Chinese value individuality less than North Americans, and therefore are less likely to spend as much time drawing attention to individual moments of a person's life. Canadians, on the other hand, enhance memories and keep the synapses that underlie them active. Another study by psychologist Federica Artioli and colleagues at the University of Otago in New Zealand in 2012 found that young people from large Italian families had more early clear memories than people from Italian nuclear families, presumably due to less intense family transmission. memories.

But in order to improve a child's memories, it is not necessary to meet regularly with cousins ​​and second cousins. Bauer's research also indicates that the mother (or other adult), engaging the child in a lively conversation about past events, motivates the formation of memories. "This interaction promotes long-term memory expansion, ," Bauer says. — It does not necessarily guarantee that the event will be remembered, but builds up a kind of memory muscle. The child learns to retain memories and better understands what part of them can be shared. In the course of such conversations, the child learns to tell stories.0082 . […]

I wonder if our family's storytelling and memory apparatus had broken down by the time I was born. My brothers and sisters adored me—so they tell me, and I believe it—but their main activities in those years were horseback riding, football, winning spelling contests at school, not talking to a baby. In addition, somewhere between my birth and the departure of my brothers and sisters from the parental home, our mother had a breakdown that plunged her into twenty years of depression and agoraphobia. She could only go to the grocery store accompanied by my father, who was pushing a cart with a list of groceries in his hand. Even when she went to the beauty salon to have her hair cut, styled and dyed, my father sat next to her, reading Wall Street Journal . When we were all at home, she spent a lot of time in her room. In fact, no one knows exactly when my mother's longing and departure from the world began - and now she is not around to tell us - but it could have started when I was very young. All I remember is silence.

The first three or four years of our lives are the maddening, mysteriously empty opening pages of our story about ourselves

As Freud said, childhood amnesia "hides early youth from us, turning us into strangers to ourselves" . […] But if we can't remember much of those years, whether it was abuse or overprotectiveness, does it really matter what happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn't have enough cognitive tools to keep that event in mind, did it affect our formation?

Bauer says yes. Even if we do not remember early events, they leave an imprint on how we understand and feel about ourselves, other people and the world in general. For example, we have elaborate ideas about birds, dogs, lakes, and mountains, even if we cannot remember the specific events that formed those ideas. "You can't remember skating with your uncle, but you realize that skating and visiting relatives is fun, ," Bauer explains. - You feel how good people are, how reliable they are. You may never be able to pinpoint exactly how you knew it, but you do." .

And we are not the sum of our memories, or at least not all of them. We are also the story we build about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and gives meaning to what we actually remember and what other people tell us about ourselves. Research by Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams shows that these stories guide our behavior and help pave our way into the future. Especially lucky are those of us who have stories in which we find a grain of good luck, even in the face of all adversity.

So our stories are not bare facts engraved on stone tablets, they are stories that move and transform, and that is the basis of most talk therapy. Here's one inspiring aspect of aging, by the way: our stories about ourselves get better. "For some reason, as we get older, we tend to focus on the positives," says McAdams. — We have more desire or motivation to look at the world in brighter colors. We develop a bias against our memories.” .

I can't bring myself to remember the early years of my life with my brothers, sisters and mother, who has not yet had a breakdown, even if I visit again that cabin and mountain idyll where the summers of a former beautiful life unfolded. But I can use the "kind lens" of aging and the research of memory scientists to write a story untainted by loss on these blank pages.

I am an optimist and trusting person by nature - these are character traits that sometimes bother me because I think they can be signs of intellectual weakness, but I can interpret them as a special view of the world, developed by countless experiences with a loving family in those early years.

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