Childhood Amnesia: Why Don’t We Remember The First Years Of Life?

Memory works through logics and rules that are difficult to understand.

Child in the dark.

What is your first memory? The answer to this question will in most cases be a situation or a brief image of some event or sensation that we experienced in our early childhood, mostly corresponding to when we were between three and five years of age. But by then we had been alive for several years. Our brains were already processing information from the environment and we were even capable of learning skills, information and ways of acting.

What happened before that first memory? Why can’t we remember something before it, such as when we learned to walk or talk? The explanation for this void of memories has a name: it is called childhood amnesia.

What is infantile amnesia?

Infantile amnesia is defined as the inability to remember the phenomena and situations that occurred in our early childhood, on an autobiographical level. That is, we retain, for example, the skills acquired at this stage (for example, walking or speaking), but not how we did it.

This amnesia usually affects memories that occurred before the age of three. In fact, when asked about our first memories, most people usually indicate some type of element or situation that they experienced from that moment on. Occasionally it is possible to remember a previous element, but it is not frequent and it would be limited to some very significant phenomenon or a sensation or image.

Babies have been shown to have the ability to generate memories, but they quickly forget them. And even at the autobiographical level: five-year-olds can identify and remember a situation that happened when they were two. It is not that children under three have no memory: they are able to remember what happens to them. These memories just disappear with time. Thus, what would happen would be a true amnesia since it is not that they do not exist but that they fade over time.

There are cases of people who claim to vividly remember previous phenomena. Although in some cases it could be like this, for the most part we will not be facing an authentic memory but rather an elaboration generated from the information we have in the present (for example, from what our parents have told us that it happened) . And in many cases whoever says such a thing is not that they are lying, but that they have generated a false memory that is lived as true.

When does it appear?

This amnesia of the first events has always been observed in adults, but research shows that this amnesia is visible already in childhood. Specifically, experiments and research by Bauer and Larkina in 2013 indicate that childhood amnesia generally appears from around seven years of age.

In addition, these investigations have allowed us to observe that younger children are capable of having more memories but that these were nevertheless less clear and detailed, while older children were capable of evoking phenomena in a much more extensive, exact and detailed way despite that they did not remember their early years.

Why don’t we remember anything from our early years?

The reason for childhood amnesia is something that has intrigued researchers dedicated to this area and has generated a large amount of research on the matter. Despite the fact that there is still no total consensus on the exact causes why we are unable to remember practically anything from our first years of life, there are various hypotheses in this regard. Some of the best known are the following.

1. Linguistic hypothesis

Some authors consider that childhood amnesia is due to the lack of inadequate coding due to the absence or lack of language development, as a structure that allows information to be organized. Until the development of this ability we would be using an iconic representation in which we would remember through images, but once the memory begins to be encoded and organized through language, these first memories would end up weakening and later being lost.

2. Neurological hypothesis

There are also neurological hypotheses. In this sense, some recent research seems to indicate that the absence of memory from this time could be linked to the immaturity of our brain and the neuronal overpopulation that we have during the first years of life.

During early childhood, our hippocampus is immersed in a process of constant neurogenesis, with the number of neurons we possess growing dramatically (especially in the dentate gyrus). This constant growth and creation of neurons makes it difficult to record information in a persistent and stable way, losing autobiographical information.

The reason for this may be in the degradation of memories by replacing the new pre-existing neuron connections, or in the fact that the new neurons are more excitable and activated more than those that were already in the brain.

There may also be a link between this forgetfulness and neural pruning, in which part of the neurons in our brain die in a pre-programmed way to improve the efficiency of our nervous system, leaving only the most powerful and reinforced connections.

3. Hypothesis on the formation of the I

Another of the explanations that has been proposed suggests that we are unable to remember our first moments because at those ages we still do not have a self-concept or an identity: we are not aware that we are, that we exist, with which there is no “I “Of which we can elaborate a biography.

4. Other hypotheses

Besides these, we can find many other hypotheses that have been overcome by the development of Psychology. For example, from the classical psychoanalytic model it was proposed that forgetting is due to the repression of our instincts and the Oedipus conflict.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bauer, PJ & Larkina, M. (2013) The onset of childhood amnesia in childhood: A prospective investigation of the course and determinants of forgetting of early-life events. Memory.
  • Josselyn, S. & Frankland, P. (nd). Infantile amnesia: A neurogenic hypothesis. Learning & Memory, 19 (9), 423-433.
  • Akers, KG; Martinez-Canabal, A .; Restivo, L .; Yiu, AP; De Cristofaro, A .; Hsiang, HLL; Wheeler, AL; Guskjolen, A .; Niibori, Y .; Shoji, H .; Ohira, K .; Richards, BA; Miyakawa, T .; Josselyn, SA & Frankland, PW (2014). Hippocampal Neurogenesis Regulates Forgetting During Adulthood and Infancy. Science, 344 (6184), 598-602.

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