Our early childhood memories are difficult to remember. For this reason.

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The phenomenon known as “Childhood amnesia, “has puzzled psychologists for more than a century – and we still don’t fully understand it.

At first glance, it may seem that the reason we don’t remember being babies is because infants and toddlers do not have fully developed memories. But babies by six months of age can have both short-term memories that last minutes and long-term memories that last weeks, if not months.

In one study, six-month-old children learned how to pull a lever to operate a toy train remembered how to do this action two to three weeks after they last saw the toy. Preschoolers, on the other hand, can remember events that happened years ago. However, it is questionable whether long-term memories at this early age are truly autobiographical – that is, personally relevant events that occurred at a specific time and place.

Of course, memory skills at this age are not like adults – they continue to mature into adolescence. In fact, developmental changes in basic memory processes have been cited as the explanation for amnesia in children, and this is one of the best theories we have yet. These basic processes span multiple regions of the brain and include forming, maintaining, and later recalling memory.

the Hippocampus, believed to be responsible for memory formation, continues to develop at least until the age of seven. We know that the typical limit for amnesia compensation in children – three and a half years – shifts with age. Children and teenagers have earlier memories than adults. This suggests that the problem may be less with forming memories than with maintaining them.

But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Another factor that we know plays a role is language. At the age of one to six, children develop from the one-word phase of speaking to fluent command of their mother tongue (s). These include the use of the past tense, memory-related words such as “remember” and “forget”, and personal pronouns, with “my” being the most popular.

It is true to some extent that a child’s ability to verbalize an event at the time of the event predicts how well they will remember it months or years later. A laboratory group performed this work by interviewing small children who were brought to the accident and emergency department because of frequent childhood injuries. Infants over 26 months of age who could talk about the event at this point remembered it up to five years later, while those under 26 months of age who could not talk about it remembered little or nothing. This suggests that preverbal memories are lost if they are not translated into speech.

Social and cultural impact

Most research on the role of language, however, focuses on a special form of expression called narration, and its social function. When parents reminisce about past events with very young children, they implicitly teach them storytelling skills – what types of events are important to remember and how to structure speaking about them so that others can understand them.
In contrast to simply telling information for objective purposes, remembering revolves around the social function of sharing experiences with others. In this way, family histories preserve the accessibility of memory over time and also increase the coherence of the narrative, including the chronology of events, their subject and their level of emotion. More coherent stories are better remembered. Maori adults have the earliest childhood memories (2.5 years) of all societies studied so far, thanks to the very elaborate style of the Maori parents of telling family stories.

Remembering has different social functions in different cultures, which contribute to cultural variations in the quantity, quality and timing of early autobiographical memories. Adults in cultures that value autonomy (North America, Western Europe) tend to share earlier and more childhood memories than adults in cultures that value connectedness (Asia, Africa).

This is predicted by cultural differences in the parents’ style of memory. In cultures that encourage more autonomous self-concepts, parental memories focuses more on the children’s individual experiences, Preferences and feelings, and less on their relationships with others, social routines and behavioral standards. For example, an American child might remember getting a gold star at preschool age, while a Chinese child might remember the preschool age class learning a particular song.

There are still things we don’t understand about amnesia in children, but researchers are making progress. For example, there are more prospective longitudinal studies that follow people from childhood into the future. This helps in creating accurate reports of events, which is better than retrospectively asking teenagers or adults to recall past events that are not documented. Also, as neuroscience advances, there will no doubt be more studies linking brain development to memory development. This should help us develop other measures of memory in addition to verbal reporting.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that even if we cannot explicitly recall certain events from our youth, their accumulation nonetheless leaves lasting traces that affect our behavior. The first years of life are paradoxically forgetful and yet powerful in shaping the adults we become.

Jeanne Shinskey is Senior Lecturer and Baby Lab Director in the Psychology Department at Royal Holloway University of London. Shinskey does not work for, advise, own or hold any interest in any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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