Most of us know what amnesia is, but most of our ideas about it come from fiction and have little basis in reality. In soap operas, for example, a character may lose memories of her, usually due to some trauma or brain injury, only to suddenly regain them when triggered by another person or event. It turns out that this scenario is unrealistic and unlikely to occur, especially when it comes to childhood memories.
Childhood amnesia is a condition that occurs naturally over time. If you have forgotten part or most of your childhood, you are not alone. This happens to most people. Some worry that their childhood amnesia may be indicative of severe trauma, but this is usually not the case. In fact, the very idea of repressed childhood memories is much debated, because you can’t prove something was repressed unless you have evidence that it happened in the first place.
What is childhood amnesia?
Think about your earliest memories. Go as far back as possible and try to paint a picture each year. How far back can you go? If you’re like most people, your memories start to get fuzzy when you try to remember something before kindergarten. Childhood amnesia or childhood amnesia means that someone is unable to remember their early childhood. It is very common and is not necessarily a sign of brain injury or external trauma.
Even though the average person can’t remember sucking a bottle as a baby, many people find it odd that they can’t remember life at three. At three, you know you were talking and could even use the bathroom, but it’s still rare to remember that part of your life. Your memories have probably faded like an old photo that has been sitting in the sun for too long.
You’ve probably heard your parents or someone who knew you when you were a kid talking about events that happened around that time, but you can’t remember what they’re talking about. It can be a little frustrating. Chances are that nothing major happened during that time, but it can seem strange to know that there are parts of your life that you can’t remember. It may seem like your life began at the age of four or so. Before this age, photos, videos, and stories from friends and family are the only proof of your existence.
Childhood amnesia and aging
Childhood memories generally fade with time. A child may be able to recall their early memories much better, but an adult may have a harder time remembering what happened before a certain age. Because that’s how it is? Do our memories fade with age? Or do we remember parts of our life that are more eventful?
Children begin to lose their first memories around the pre-teen age. By age 11 or so, they’re less likely to remember early memories, and as their brains mature, they seem to lose them completely. Some children may even forget their first memories at the age of seven.
Why do we forget?
One may wonder why we can’t remember anything before a certain age. The brain is a complex organ and we are still learning how it works, so there are many theories about childhood amnesia.
One of the greatest theories is synaptic pruning. To understand this concept, imagine a small tree. When the tree gets too big, it needs pruning to stay healthy. Synaptic pruning suggests that the brain has the same need. To get rid of memories that are no longer needed, the brain can remove these memories if they are not needed in the present. In theory, this keeps the brain efficient. However, emotions also play an important role in recalling memories.
You are more likely to remember something if it had an emotional impact. Some people believe that young children attribute less emotion to events, so they have a harder time recalling certain memories. After all, there is a difference between a baby crying by instinct and a baby crying due to emotional trauma.
Finally, childhood amnesia could be linked to brain development. When a child is very young, their brain is undeveloped, which can affect how their memories are stored and retrieved. The science of how memory recall works is very complex and worth a separate article, but in short, our brains don’t store memories like a computer would. Instead, memories are a collection of reactions from the brain. As the baby grows, the brain develops, and it can be difficult to access these collections from an earlier stage of development.
Are these memories real?
It’s hard to know how many childhood memories are real. Have you ever wondered how many of them you remember simply because someone told you about the event?
Can you remember being a child?
Remembering being a child is one thing, but some people claim to remember being a child. They remember drinking the bottle, crying for attention, and learning to take the first steps. This seems unlikely, but science currently has no way of knowing whether these memories are real or not. There is some evidence that children can retain memories, but again it is difficult to scientifically verify this.
Can’t I remember my whole childhood?
As mentioned earlier, it is very common for people to remember nothing before the age of three. If you have no early childhood memories, there is nothing wrong with your mind, and you probably don’t suffer from any trauma. It is normal to lose early childhood memories at a young age.
You can read the full study here: An Internet Therapist-Assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Intervention for PTSD: Pre, Post, and 3-Month Follow-up Result from an Open Study.
However, some people cannot remember anything from their childhood before age 12. In this case, there may be some form of trauma at play. Childhood trauma can lead to dissociative amnesia, where we sell a portion of our memories as a defense mechanism against significant trauma.
If this describes your experience, it may be best to speak to a mental health professional. It doesn’t mean you’ve definitely suffered a trauma, but they can help rule out any serious issues so you can understand why you can’t remember your childhood.
How to attempt memory recall by yourself
If you are curious to remember more of your childhood, you can try the following tips.
Write what you remember
To clarify your memories, try writing down what you are trying to remember. Include as many sensory details as possible. As you build your personal database of childhood memories, you may remember more and more of your childhood.
See if you can find any triggers
Triggers have a negative connotation in psychology, but in recalling memories, triggers can be a good thing. Sensations, sights, sounds and smells can trigger a memory and take you back to a specific moment in your childhood. Experiment with triggers like old toys or even songs to help you recall early memories.
Not being able to remember childhood memories can be frustrating or somehow scary, but it’s actually very normal. If you are curious to remember more of your childhood, consider the ideas contained in this article or consult a therapist who can support you in this process. Take the first step today.