Many of us have memories of our very early childhoods, but how reliable are those childhood memories?
In fact, research shows that most of our earliest memories are probably reconstructed by the brain later in life. In general, adults are not able to retrieve memories of events in their lives that took place before an early age, which can vary from about two to about four. Many people’s memories of the years before the age of about eight or ten are patchy and unreliable. This phenomenon is known as childhood or infantile amnesia.
While we may remember events that we experienced as very exciting or as traumatic from as early as about two—such as the birth of a sibling or an accident—memories of everyday life typically fade. The reason why is due to simple physiology—the prefrontal cortex is not yet sufficiently developed to retain detailed memories. This is why we might remember that time we stood on a thumbtack aged two and got terribly upset but cannot recall detailed memories from our lives at the same period. Our brains may have evolved to remember upsetting or traumatic events particularly clearly so that we can learn what potentially dangerous situations to avoid and keep ourselves safer.
Childhood amnesia does not mean that small children have bad memories. On the contrary, toddlers and even babies can remember a lot of what happens in their lives and will respond accordingly. However, these memories gradually fade as they get older and are typically absent by the time they reach adulthood. This might be partly because of language acquisition. When we are very small, we remember things in a non-verbal way—which is to say much as our pet cat or dog recalls things. As we get older, our language skills become gradually more sophisticated, and we increasingly remember events and emotions in a language-focussed way. Moreover, when we can speak, we can also share our memories with others and discuss them, which can help to keep them active. Research suggests that children who frequently discuss things that happened in the past with their parents are more likely to retain memories of those events as they get older.
When we enter adolescence at puberty, we lose access to more of our early memories, suggesting that adolescent brain development plays a role in childhood amnesia, too, with unnecessary memories disappearing as our brain starts to get ready for adult life.
So, what does it mean if you have memories that date back to babyhood? What if you are sure that you remember lying on your changing mat at six months playing with a toy or looking up at mum or dad? Most probably, your brain is playing a trick on you. Your parents have told you about your babyhood, you have seen photographs of yourself as an infant, and you have some scattered fragments of memory from your later toddler and early childhood years. Your brain can take these isolated pieces of information and weave them into a coherent narrative that you recall as a memory, even though it probably didn’t happen exactly as think you remember it.
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