Why Can’t We Remember Memories From Early Childhood?

Most people have very few memories from early childhood. The memories that we do have from an early age are often not memories at all but formed from photos we have seen or stories others have told us. “Childhood amnesia,” or the phenomenon that humans retain very few memories before the approximate age of seven, is something that scientists and psychological still cannot fully explain. 

A common belief is that babies and young children do not have the brain capacity to create and store memories. This doesn’t make sense, though, when we take into consideration how much learning is done in the early years. Babies learn to walk, talk, and navigate the world, which requires creating and storing memories.

The hippocampus 

However, different parts of the brain are associated with creating and storing memories, and development of those parts of the brain strengthens the ability to remember. The hippocampus is believed to be the part of the brain responsible for memory storage, and does not completely form until age seven or later. 

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have any memories before the age of seven though, as it is believed that our brains start changing the way we store memories around the age of three and a half, so true memories before this age are unlikely. Teenagers have more childhood memories than adults, suggesting that the inability to remember early childhood has more to do with memory storage than memory creation. 

The connection between language and memory

One factor that plays into whether or not we remember something from early childhood is language. Children learn spoken language between ages one and six and retain this information for the rest of their lives, which is strange when compared to the “childhood amnesia” period that occurs at the same time. Studies show that toddlers over two years old who could speak about an event were able to remember the event up to five years after it occurred, but toddlers under the age of two who could not speak about the event remembered far less or nothing at all. This suggests a strong correlation between language and memory retention, and that memories formed without being verbalized are significantly less likely to be remembered. 

“False” memories

Another way that language affects memories is that, as mentioned previously, is that early childhood memories are often not memories at all, but instead are formed by accounts of events that others have told us. When adults tell stories to children or read to them, children learn narrative skills, such as what parts of a story are important and how to structure story-telling in a way people understand. 

Cultural influence 

What we remember is often culturally influenced as well. This is due to a variety of reasons, including emotional attachments to a memory and how often the memory is discussed or reinforced. Different cultures emphasize different things, and so memories of certain events will be stronger for a child of one culture than another. For example, an American child might remember receiving an award at school at an early age, whereas a Chinese child might better remember a class activity at school, due to the cultural values emphasizing individual versus group efforts and achievements.  

“Childhood amnesia” is still not fully understood, but researchers are still conducting studies and making progress in learning about this phenomenon. Advances in neuroscience and technology also help us learn more about what causes this gap in memory at an early age. As we learn more, it is important to remember that although we may not remember events from early childhood, they still have an effect on our brains and behaviors as adults. Early childhood, despite the lack of memories, is still a powerful time in forming who we become as adults. 

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