Why don’t we remember our childhood?

“Oh, if I could remember the naughty and sweet memories of my childhood!” The first walk, the first spoken word, we can’t remember. When we hear about our childhood from the people around us, we mistakenly think of them as our memories.

Even if you don’t remember your childhood’s significant or happy memories, you do remember the lines of a story heard or read in adolescence. Why is that?

Psychologists have been studying the causes of childhood memory loss for more than a century. About 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, named the term ‘infantile amnesia,’ which is an innate process of forgetting 2-4 years of memory and not fully remembering before 7 years of age.

Memory retention rate with age
Source: This graph is taken from a research article titled “Infantile amnesia: A neurogenic hypothesis”

As is the case with the childhood memory

Children’s cannot create long-term memory, but their Implicit and Explicit Memory is formed.

Implicit Memory

Implicit memory is a Systematic memory that can remember experiences without thinking about them. Implicit memory is enabled by previous experiences, no matter how long ago those experiences occurred. Implicit memory is sometimes called as unconscious memory or automatic memory. 

Explicit memory

Explicit memory or declarative memory is the conscious, intentional recollection of factual information, previous experiences, and concepts. When you intentionally try to remember facts (like a scientific formula or a list of dates for your history class), it is stored in your explicit memory. People use these memories every day, from remembering information for a test to recalling the date and time of a doctor’s appointment.

Functions of expressive and inherent memory in long-term memory retention
Source: Medium

Children can memorize information in those situations, such as 6-month-olds can remember what to do in 24 hours, 9-month-olds can remember one month’s activities, and 20-month-olds can retain up to a whole year of what they have learned. It can also be seen that the events that are more emotional to children, those memories they can remember three times more.

Many times the matter of retaining memories also depends on our culture. Some people can remember many childhood experiences, while many people do not remember any incident before age 6-7 years. Again our culture, surroundings, and social position play an important role in forming and retaining these memories.

Children’s memory formation and retention capacity depends on culture
Source: Diario de Huelva

But no one can remember any incident from the first 2 years. There are two possible reasons behind this:

1) Brain structure and change

At a young age, our brain is not fully developed, so much information can not be stored in an intricate neural pattern, which we call memory.

At birth, the human brain contains one-fourth of the adult brain, and at the age of two, it is one-fourth of the full-grown brain. The growth and connectivity of neurons depend on this size and structure of the brain.

The brain grows with age and memory capacity increases
Source: celinealvarez.org

We have a part of our brain called the hippocampus, which is essential for the formation of episodic memory. Episodic memories (visual, taste, and sound memory) spread to different parts of the cortex of the brain. The hippocampus brings these scattered parts together.

Hippocampus 3D image
Source: Deutsches rzteblatt

Patricia Bauer, a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, said:

“If you think of your cortex as a flower bed, there are flowers all across the top of your head. The hippocampus tucked very neatly in the middle of your brain, is responsible for pulling those all together, and tying them in a bouquet.”

Location of episodic memory at the surface of the brain and aggregation by the hippocampus
Source: semanticscholar.org

Episodic memory formation is less in children aged 2-4 years because the hippocampus is not fully formed at that time. If something is to be stored in memory, it must be formed within the hippocampus. At this age, the hippocampus begins to accumulate fragments.

The hippocampus is the only part of the brain that continues to produce new neurons from birth until adulthood, where other parts of the brain only change and develop.

Scientists think that the rate of rapid neuron production in childhood can make us forget the past as we get older. This is because as more neurons are produced, new connections are made to the memory circuit, and more networking of new neurons hinders the release of previously formed memory.

Various studies say, this process of neuron production is driven by forgetting the previous memory, which can interfere with this production process. So until we reach adolescence, our brains cannot fully retain the memories of the past and are completely incapable of capturing the events of a very young age.

2) Inability to express thoughts

You cannot remember something if it is not in your memory. And can we remember an event for a long time without expressing it in words?

Many psychologists believe that the ability to retain autobiographical memory comes from expression.

Children do not have the vocabulary to describe an event, so they cannot formulate an explanation of the action. And children don’t have ideas about themselves that would make them think that experiences are part of their life story.

Carol Peterson, a psychologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, cites this as one of the reasons for not retaining social memory.

Nora Newcomb, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, commented, “Episodic memory may be unnecessary and complex for a child when he is just beginning to learn about his surroundings.”

He added, I think the primary goal of the first two years is to acquire semantic memory of the language, and in that sense, episodic memory may be a distraction.

Whether is it possible to recover childhood memories?

While we may not feel that way in our past experiences, many of our childhood experiences have influenced our behavior. So is it possible to recover that experience or memory?

“Early childhood memories may be preserved somewhere that is now inaccessible, but it’s hard to put into practice,” said Jeffrey Fagen, a researcher on memory and learning at St. John’s University. This may explain why any previous trauma can affect adults’ behavior and increase the risk of future mental illness.

Childhood hostile experiences can subsequently have a negative impact on mental and physical health
Source: thriveglobal.com

The more you remember an event, the more you remember it as long term memory. Adults lose a lot of information, facts, or memories over time if efforts are not made to recover them. So this childhood amnesia can be called a normal process of our life.