Early Childhood MemoriesMy earliest memory is of a large room with glass display cases along the right side. To the left metal things were in various stages of construction. Light came in through openings in a high ceiling. There were birds up there. My dad carried me to door in back that led to a cramped area where my grandfather was doing something on a small, loud machine that had a spinning part. As a teenager I later recognized the machine as the same one that was in our basement after my grandfather died. It was the one he used to cut keys. He was a locksmith who owned a bicycle shop in Detroit where he would assemble and repair bicycles. My parents were able to confirm that the description from my memory was of his shop, but they didn’t believe I actually remembered it. “Someone must have told you that,” my mom would say. He closed the shop when I was around a year old, but I do remember and not because anyone had ever described the shop to me. In fact I have other memories of things from my very early childhood.
My parent’s lack of believe in my recollection isn’t all that unexpected. It’s common knowledge that people can’t remember anything from before roughly four years of age; in fact, scientists have said for generations that children don’t even form long-lasting memories before age three or four. Well, that thinking is changing. Recent studies into the phenomena called Infantile Amnesia or Childhood Amnesia are revisiting these assumptions.
Research Into “Infantile Amnesia”
Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud wrote about “Infantile Amnesia” that prevents people from remembering their first six or so years of life, but “In the last year or two there's been a much greater interest in childhood memory and the whole field of natural memory,” says Ulric Neisser, a psychology professor at Cornell University. And so, amidst attempts to explain the reasons behind the lack of early childhood memory many scientists are revealing information that refutes even the basic assumptions on the topic that have been around for generations.
Young Children Do Form MemoryResearch at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada led to the conclusion that do in fact have “the cognitive, linguistic and memory skills to talk about things that had occurred in their past,” as psychology professor Carole Peterson states. The study tracked children ages 4 to 13 years-old. Researchers concluded that memories were formed at much earlier ages than though, but faded over time. The thinking was that “by age 10, those memories seem to get crystallized,” according to Peterson. Yet even those ideas are being challenged by still other research.
Preteens And Early Childhood MemoryResearch at the University of Otago in New Zealand confirms that some preteens can and do remember being two years-old. Prior to the study, hard data was hard to come by, but the study, published December 22 in the Journal of Child Development, followed children from infancy tracking memories of a device each child was exposed to between 27 and 51 months of age. The study found that some of the test subjects not only formed memories of the device, but could remember it much later in life than previously thought possible.
Disecting Childhood MemoryIndeed, childhood memory is a complex topic and there is still much to learn about it. Wikipedia articles on the subject expound on childhood memory in an even more nuanced manner, citing differences between long term, short term, verbal and working memory as well as differences within these subtypes that vary throughout the human life cycle. Surely future research into early formation and later retention of memory will also be further nuanced as scientists explore these subtleties.
Visual MemoryMost of my own memories are very visual or spatial in nature. As an artist, I’m not surprised by this. In school I found that I could often remember the answer to a question on an exam by remembering the layout of the textbook page where the information was found – ‘Oh, there was a red rectangular picture on the upper right side of the right-hand page and the information was in a short paragraph near the bottom of the left side of the page by the binding,’ and that was just one real-life example.
More NostalgiaIt is the same way with the memories I have of my early childhood. I remember climbing on a kitchen chair that had been placed next to my crib in an upstairs bedroom to get in and out of the crib for midday naps. The crib was on the right side of the room as I entered. There was red carpet (which is no longer there) on the floor. The chair was black vinyl with a brass square tube frame. In the middle of the room, not far from the crib was a rocking chair with a red cushion. Both the crib and the rocking chair were a dark stained wood. My mom sat in the chair and she helped me climb into her lap before reading me from a thin hard-covered book. When I told my mom this memory she seemed to believe it was a genuine memory more so than some of my other memories. It seems that neither she nor I had ever talked about this while I was growing up. I went on to explain that I left the room, walked over to the top of the stairs and started crying that I didn’t have a particular stuffed animal (even though the idea that I cared about the toy enough to cry makes no sense to me now). Besides the mere fact that this memory includes my crib, I know this is a very early memory because the same crib and room were given to my newborn brother when I was two years-old (I was moved to an adult bed with after-market side rails in the adjoining room).
Another memory I have is of going to the grocery store with my mom. She would give me dried apples to munch on in my stroller. They came in a red pouch with a portrait of a dark-haired girl inside a yellow circle on the front. I loved those dried apples. There were never enough. I can describe the layout of the store to some extent too, but that’s not as interesting.
Future DiscoveryTo be clear, I don’t remember everything from my childhood, the same way I don’t remember everything that happened yesterday. I remember some things and don’t remember others. I’m sure there are many explanations for this, and I’m aware of several plausible reasons psychologists and neurologists propose for why some memories last and some memories fade. Neuroscience remains a fascinating frontier for research. After years of being told my memories are unusual, I am very excited to see what the current flurry of research will uncover.
Further ReadingHere are some more links to this topic and other interesting topics in neurology.
- Why Are Earliest Memories So Fragmentary and Elusive? - Bryce Nelson, New York Times
- Mystery of Fading Childhood Memories Solved - Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience
- Some Preteens Remember Being 2 - Jennifer Welsh, LiveScience
- Childhood Memory - Wikipedia
- The Makings of Our Earliest Memories - Perri Klass, MD, New York Times
- How Childhood Memories Fade Away - Marianne English, Discovery News
- Brain 101: Topics in Neuroscience - Memory - University of California, San Francisco
- Scientists Uncover a Previously Unknown Mechanism of Memory Formation - Neuroscience News
- In-Brain Monitoring Shows Memory Network - Neuroscience News
- Deep brain stimulation enhances spatial memory - Mo Costandi, The Guardian, "Neurophilosphy"