Childhood Amnesia

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationLike many other families, this past year and a half or so has had its share of up and down moments, but we’ve been lucky enough to have many more ups than we have had downs.

Every time our little guy learns something new, makes a new expression, says a new word, or just enjoys something in a way he never did before (splashing in puddles, apple picking, or just being pushed around the room in a cardboard box) it has filled our hearts with memories we will always cherish. When I watch him playing with mommy or running around our house, or laughing it up with Gramma and Grampa, I smile thinking of just how much joy he is experiencing and how these are the moments to hold in our memories.

It’s recently saddened me to come to the realization that these times we will remember so fondly, he won’t.

As we start looking to the future and think about what other needs we may have someday as our family grows, new locations, new housing, is at the top of that list. While it’s not immediate, it’s certainly a someday, as our current place was great for Meg and I, but as our family grows, our tiny space seems to shrink more and more.

That got me thinking about the various places that I had lived growing up, equating our current situation/house/neighborhood to what I remembered of the early residence my family had when my brother was born and I was three years old.

Then it began to dawn on me. That was at three years old and that’s the earliest I can remember…well, anything, really. Unfortunately, even that memory is spotty, remembering more just vague images of the surroundings and area through the eyes of a child. I don’t remember my brother being born. I don’t remember the apartment we lived in before that period of three-years old.

Of course, that led me to the inevitable conclusion that all of these wonderful memories we’re making, all these moments of enjoyment our little man is having each day, reacting to, communicating with us…it’s very unlikely he’ll remember any of it. And it just saddened me.

While I didn’t know it at the time, it’s an actual form of development known as Childhood Amnesia.

According to scientists, childhood amnesia (or infantile amnesia) is the term for our inability as adults to recall memories before the stage of 2-4 years old. During our first one to two years of life, scientists say that parts of our brain known as the limbic system holds what is called the hippocampus and amygdala (used in the storing of our memory) and are not fully developed at that point in our growth.

Researchers have found that sometimes children can recall memories from before the ages of 3 or 4, but that’s something they can accomplish while they are still children, and an ability that declines as the children age. It can vary from child to child, reportedly, as to when they start remembering.  Sometimes it’s 2 year old, sometimes 3 1/2, other times 5 years old.

Days spent with no reference of time, of limitations – purely of emotion and the drive to do, to play, to enjoy and to love.

It seems a bit unfair to me that these wonderful, carefree times should go unremembered by a child. At these early ages, we as adults get to enjoy in the purest form of their joy and yet, they will not be able to do so themselves.

However, an article just this year by the MinnPost on more recent studies show new insight into this whole phenomenon.

The researchers used 81 3-year-olds and their mothers who had volunteered in an earlier study on the development of memories in infants by the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

As mother talked with their child about six events (ranging from neutral events to positive events) that the child had recently experienced and were recorded doing so, asked to talk to their child as they normally would in any other situation.

In the years that followed, the researchers then made contact with the families again and asked the kids (at different ages, ranging from 5 to 9) to recall the events they talked about with their mothers when they were three. The age differences were so that the researchers could take note of what varied in each child along with how much they either remembered or had forgotten.

According to the MinnPost article, they found that “children 5, 6 and 7 years of age remembered a substantial percentage of events from the age of 3 years. In contrast, children 8 to 9 years of age had lost access to many of their memories of events from the same early age.”

That finding suggested that age 7 was the “inflection point” for childhood amnesia.

While that in itself is not groundbreaking or new information, the recent study is reportedly the first to demonstrate the finding using the recollections of the children.

The study also found that those children who remembered more details of the events discussed at three years old had mothers who had encouraged the child to elaborate on the memories as well as let the child steer the course of the conversation. The researchers say that encourages the child to participate in the give-and-take of the conversation as well as fill their recollection of the memory with their own content.

The MinnPost article goes on to point out that the study revealed the paradox that children between 5 and 7 recalled 65-72 percent of the events they talked about with their mothers at the age of three, but those children who ere 8-9 years old could recall only 35 percent of the events.

And while the older children remembered less of the events, what they did remember was in more detail. The researchers also say those older children were able to take perspective on the events by giving more evaluative information about them.

What the researchers believe this all suggests is that narrative abilities play a role in what is remembered. After seven years old, the language skills of a child have become stronger, which allows them to create a more elaborate narrative for each memory. That then helps the memory become more firmly established in their minds. Whereas at the younger ages, they don’t have much knowledge of the why, what, where and when that goes along with those memories, leaving many of them to be forgotten.

Absolutely fascinating.

Published by thedorkydaddy

So many people say they want to be "the cool parents," but I have no such delusions about myself. I'm as nerdy now as I always have been. Only my perspective has changed. I am what I am. I'm the dorky daddy.

2 thoughts on “Childhood Amnesia

  1. It’s sad to think that our little ones aren’t likely to maintain memories of the amazing moments they’ve had prior to developing the ability to create narratives.

    I wonder if this childhood amnesia is also a product of a “been there, done that” mentality in which they don’t think the first time isn’t as special, because they are now doing it regularly or at least more often.

    I hope my wife and I are able to keep at least of some the memories alive for our children as they get older, so that they can continue those memories on their own.

    1. I hope for the very same thing. With the advent of digital cameras/video recorders built-in to phones, I’ve realized I have become the digital equivalent of the cliche father with the accordion-style photo holders in the wallet. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. While the little ones may not have the ability to remember these ‘firsts,’ I think that makes it more important for us as parents to capture it, preserve it and put it into perspective as those years go by.

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