Why Childhood Memories Disappear

Do Babies Create Memories?

Because most of us can’t recall things that happened before aged four, researchers thought that very young children didn’t create memories and that, though events occurred, they left no lasting impression on the brain.

Then in 1987, a study by the Emory University psychologist Robyn Fivush and her colleagues demonstrated that children who were just 2.5 years old could describe events from as far as six months into their past.

What Happens to those Memories?

We believe we can’t recall them as adults because they’re too far back in our past to bring into the present. The truth is, we lose those memories while we’re still children.

Psychologist Carole Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland conducted a series of studies to pinpoint the age these memories vanish. She asked a group of children, 4 to 13, to describe their three earliest memories. Their parents were standing by to confirm that the memories were accurate. Even the very youngest of the children could recall events from when they were about two years old.

Two years later, the same kids were interviewed again. Over 1/3 of those 10 and older recalled memories they had reported in the first study. However, the very youngest, who had been 4 years old in the first study, couldn’t remember, even when prompted about their earlier memories. They said, “No, that never happened to me,”

Sigmund Freud said, “Childhood amnesia veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it.”
Peterson concluded that, if the child could understand the who, what, where, when and why, their memories were five times more likely to be retained than disconnected fragments.

In order for long-term memories to stick, there’s a list of biological and psychological factors that must align, and most children lack the machinery for this alignment.

The Hippocampus Bundles and Links Memories

To become memory, life experiences must undergo bundling in the hippocampus. Consequently, the hippocampus bundles multiple input together into one new memory. Furthermore, it links these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations to similar ones already stored in the brain. Some parts of the hippocampus aren’t fully developed until we’re adolescents.

Neuron Storm in the Dentate Gyrus

At a young age, the dentate gyrus generates a storm of new neurons. This process, called neurogenesis, can disrupt the circuits for existing memories.  That’s another explanation for why our memories can’t go back beyond the age of 4 or so.

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Jean Ludwig · February 22, 2017 at 11:21 am

I have memories from when I was a baby, now many, but still. My granddaughter told her Mom en me about what it was like to not have been born yet en how stressful her birth was to her (het a normal probleem free birth. That was when she was about 4 or 5.

Brenda · February 23, 2017 at 12:27 pm

That’s very interesting. I wonder if the stress of her birth experience caused her to remember?

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