Ask an adult what their first reminder was and probably it’s a reminder of when they were about 7 years old.At some it is later, at some earlier, but it is rare to have a reminder of the first 4 – 5 years (when out there it is often a false memory that is talking). Apparently all people have amnesia, the young years are completely gone, kinda odd right?
The official term is infancy amnesia and we are not quite out of it yet.
It is a tricky subject because memory itself is incredibly complicated and large parts are still unknown. What follows will be mainly the scientific consensus, which we can agree on and what we can test with experiments (and that is not easy with children).
(Image based on data of Rubin & Schulkind, 1997 [1)
I will skip the whole introduction to memory and focus on episodic/autobiographical memories.
These are the memories we have of events that occurred at a particular place and time.
The second thing that I am already telling you is that there are two forget phases : The early phase to about 4 years old and a later phase between 5 and 7 years old.Most people have practically no memories of the first phase and very little of the second phase. This is also well seen in the figure of Rubin and Schulkind (1997).
The first thing that the world should be out of is that it is “normally forgotten” , the idea that it is simply difficult to remember something of that time because it was so long ago.This has been investigated and the conclusion was that forgetting is reasonably predictable, if we were to pull that line we should remember more. So it is not “just forgotten”.
Now we are back to the finish, we lose our memories of our young years. There are two major camps to explain this.
The one says that children do not have the ability to remember anything, we have no memory of our childhood because the ability to store these events needs a few years to develop. This is late emergence of autobiographical memory (late Emergence of Autobiographical memory).
The second big camp says the memories are there, but they are not accessible.This is called disappearance of early memory (Disappearance or early memory).This camp is also responsible for the idea that language plays a role.They say that language changes the way we store memories, the early visual reminders cannot be read by the adult language memory.
Both camps make good claims and both camps have it right, but also wrong.The reality is probably somewhere in the middle (science is tricky). Children have memories, they have memory. They can save and retrieve events before they are born. It is not so that the memory is not there, but it is not so that we still have everything in place but have no access to it. We forget things, that is an active system that ensures that everything remains very efficient.
Children have memory, but they remember things differently.When adults pick something up there is a who, what, where, when, why and how.Children can do this too, but not as good as adults. Some children’s memories may have a who and when (M1 in the picture), but Miss the What, where, why and how.Another reminder only has a how, where, and when (M3 in the picture).There are few memories that have everything. This also means that the aspects they do have are not very extensive and also not so strongly linked (the middle picture is of a child and the right image is an adult reminder).
(Figure of Bauer (2015) based on the Complementary Process Account [2)
Our memory does not work like a movie; We only store important things and fill in the rest. Children still need to learn what is important and how to build a story.
This is good to see when you talk to a child about their day. What they tell is quite scripted with lots of trivial details. They tell them they have awakened, had breakfast, went to school, played there, came home, etcetera. It is a description of what they have done, but no story. Almost automatically, adults are going to send the story by asking questions. “Who was there?What did we do? Did you like that? “. Instinctively, we teach children how to save an event, so it’s important to talk to them about their day.
It also helps to be aware of yourself, something that usually happens around 18 months.At that age, a child realizes that they are one thing, one person, apart from all other things and persons. An autobiographical memory is a little easier to make when there is a concept of “self” to center the event.
Child memory consists of weak memories, islets of events that are not really connected and incomplete (they do not have all the elements, and what they have is not extensive).This can not only be in language. Ever with a 3 year old talk? They chat with your ears! They certainly have language, but even with language they make weak memories.
So children have memory, not a strong memory, but that doesn’t explain why those memories disappear.
A children’s brain is still growing, it’s very plastic, and things happen where your pants descend.Large brain structures are still changing, the memory systems are no exception. There is a lot of biology going on that I will save you.
See the memory as a skeleton of elements, a kind of web.If one of those elements is activated (you see something, you smell something, don’t matter), then the activation spreads throughout the web. Everything that is strongly connected to that one element also goes on. With all these loose elements we make a reminder, we know the important things (the WHO, what, where, why, etc.) and fill in all the details. When everything is filled in then “remind” us something.
That’s all beautiful and nice for adults, but you can imagine that you need an intact web for this.
Our children have weak memories that barely hang together, and the time is not mild.
Biological changes break up the memory, where loose elements are no longer connected to each other.New neurons are cramming between an existing web and old neurons in the web disappear. New methods, knowledge, and skills disrupt what and how we store events. All those things happen very quickly when we are young, so it’s not surprising that what we’ve saved doesn’t linger long.
We Forget our first years because inefficient memories are made by a inefficient system that stores things in a inefficient brain. Early memories are weak, but strong enough to survive for a while.That’s why children still remember things that happened a year earlier, the memory is there. Eventually, these memories will disappear, faster than usual, because of all the extreme changes.
It is not that children have no memory, nor is it that we do not have access to the old memories.It’s a bit of both, where the brain grows and changes how it stores and retrieves memories. Old memories also go faster because of the weak basis and the great biological changes.
All that plasticity, all that development, is why we forgot.Children’s brains undergo unimaginable changes in such a short time, it is not strange that our memory is gone.
[1 Rubin, D. C., & Schulkind, M. D. (1997).Distribution of important and word-cued autobiographical memories in 20-, 35-, and 70-year-old adults. Psychol Aging.
[2 Bauer, P. J. (2015).A complementary processes account of the development of childhood amnesia and a personal past. Psychological Review, 122(2), 204.
Without mastering the language at this age, it is difficult to give something a meaning to what we have seen or felt at that time of our lives.