Imagine: you’re in Sigmund Freud’s office and he asks you to recall the earliest memory that you can remember. What do you remember? How old are you in that memory?
Every now and then when my family and I get together for dinner, my parents or grandparents would start laughing over an old memory they have of when my brother or I were younger. You know, like the things you don’t even remember doing when you were 2-years old.
I’m sure this is a common occurrence for many; older family members just love to ask you about things from your infancy that you most definitely do not remember.
This is my fifth column so I should probably get this out of the way: I’m not a fan of Freud. I’m not sure if there are many fans of his left. However, he did identify the phenomena that I’m about to discuss so credit is given where it is due.
This phenomena is called childhood amnesia, and that refers to the inability to remember autobiographical memories from our infancy or early childhood. But why is it that we don’t remember much from when we were really young? Let’s take a look at some of the factors theorised by other psychologists.
A problem with being really young is that you don’t have a lot of space in your short-term memory compared to adults. Young children struggle to hold onto all of the information needed for the process of encoding and consolidating memories to happen.
This means that for the most part, if you try to recall your earliest memories, typically you won’t have many memories from before you were 4- or 5-years old.
The lack of language is also a barrier. Autobiographical memories may depend heavily on language skills for us to actually store these memories away and recall them later. So, being able to articulate your memories may be key.
A study was done with infants 2- to 3-years old where they were told to verbally recount their experience with a toy that they played with in a lab. When they returned to the lab a year later and were asked to recount their initial experience with the toy, they used the same language they used in their first visit, despite having a more extensive vocabulary.
Different styles of interactions with young children can also influence how early and how strongly their autobiographical memories are formed. Researchers looked at two styles of parental-reminiscing with 4-year old children, and how they affect the age of the earliest memory the child has at 12-13-years old.
If your parents are the type to be like “Remember what you did on your first day of kindy?” and they keep repeating the question but slightly rephrased when you tell them you don’t, their reminiscing style is repetitive.
On the other hand, if your parents tend to be more like “Remember that time we went to Western Springs park when you were 3, and the geese bit you?” and they recount things like “You were trying to feed them some bread, remember?” and so on, that’s the elaborative-reminiscing style.
As you can probably guess, parents who used an elaborative-reminiscing style with their children at age 4 had adolescents who could remember earlier memories at ages 12-13 compared to parents who used a repetitive-reminiscing style.
The development of the ‘self’ is an extremely important stage for a child as they begin to gain a sense of identity. Children who develop a stronger sense of self also have a better ability to remember autobiographical memories from a younger age. This strong sense of self can help to bind past experiences together into more robust memories.
So, is there any way for you to get back those memories from when you were 2-years old now, as an adult? Unfortunately, it’s probably not very likely.
If you probed all of your relatives to tell you about everything that happened in your childhood before your earliest memory, you could gain some false memories instead.
Why? It’s hard to distinguish between memories that are ‘recovered’ and memories that are fake since you don’t remember them. If you really want to be sure, ask several people to corroborate the memory. Take what others reminisce with a grain of salt, their view of an event could be more positive or negative than it actually was.
For further reading:
Howe, M. L., & Courage, Mary L. (1993) – On resolving the enigma of infantile amnesia.
Jack, F., MacDonald, S., Reese, E., & Hayne, H. (2009) – Maternal reminiscing style during early childhood predicts the age of adolescents’ earliest memories.
Pezdek, K., & Banks, W. P. (Eds.). (1996) – The recovered memory/false memory debate.
Simcock, G., & Hayne, H. (2002) – Breaking the barrier? Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language.