Why we can’t remember our earliest memories

April 11, 2014 6:00 pm
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According to Bauer and Larkina (2014 Memory), children do retain their earliest memories through age 7, at which point “childhood amnesia” (i.e. the forgetting of memories beyond the normal rate) sets in. In fact, this phenomenon was evident long before Bauer and Larkina investigated it, as Sigmund Freud came up with the term “infant amnesia” over 100 years ago.

The onset of childhood amnesia after age 7 is apparent despite evidence that suggests children construct autobiographical memories during the same time period. This conflicts with the notion that babies are like sponges for new information – absorbing a huge amount through new experiences every day.

Through empirical research, Bauer and Larkina demonstrate that while a power function fits memory distributions among adults, children’s memories are better described by an exponential function. These results suggest that a major driver of childhood amnesia is a consistent rate of forgetting during childhood. This is caused by unsuccessful consolidation of the memory, which is the process that makes memories more easily retrieved later in life.

One plausible reason for the failed consolidation of childhood memories is simply because babies have not yet developed and perfected the necessary brain and neural function to be able to encode and preserve memories. For example, the hippocampus – which is a key brain structure involved in memory formation – continues to add neurons and grow larger within the first few years of a child’s life. Another plausible reason for poor childhood memory recall is that our earliest memories are stored in parts of the brain that are inaccessible as adults. This would explain why even though we cannot recall some childhood moments clearly, they can still have effects on our behaviour long after the memory is formed.

This link provides insight on the importance of sleep in strengthening memory retention.

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This post was written by Syngli