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What is childhood amnesia?

Where do our early memories go?

What is childhood amnesia?

Child or infantile amnesia refers to the general inability of people to remember specific events from the early years of their lives. Typically from before the first three and sometimes four years of life. In studies, the average age of the earliest memory reported is about three-and-a-half years-old. Women tend to have better memories for this than men and on average could go back further than men. In general when people respond to surveys, there are far fewer memories before the age of eight than for other periods.

Why might childhood amnesia be happening?

There a number of ideas. The most controversial belonged to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who believed childhood amnesia was a response to sexual repression. Another theory points to our lack of language skills before the age of three. It may be that our memories need to be stored conceptually and associated with the kinds of words and meanings that we don't really get to grips with until we're about three years-old. Perhaps all of your childhood memories are still intact but in a form you can't access anymore.

Yet another view is that young childrens' brains simply don't have the tools to store memory properly. Babies are born with billions of brain cells but relatively few connections between them and so the areas of the brain responsible for processing memories are immature. In our brains, connections are everything and brain imaging studies on babies and toddlers suggest that between 8-24 months is when their brains are most active at growing more connections.

So do we remember nothing at all?

Recent research has challenged the belief that young babies have little or no capacity for long-term memory.

New born babies are much cleverer than previously thought. They show accomplished learning skills from early on and studies have shown that they can even remember sounds they were exposed to whilst still in the womb. One American researcher, Andrew Meltzoff, has totally overturned our view of babies and intelligence over the last twenty years. His work demonstrated sophisticated memory abilities in children as young as nine months.

One experiment involved letting children of 9, 14 and 24 months watch how an adult moved a toy in a very specific manner for just 20 seconds only. The next day, all the children repeated the same action - they had remembered it, recalled it and repeated it after many hours delay. Meltzoff's work showed that babies do have long-term memory processing. Other studies have since suggested that babies as young as three months may have similar abilities.

If you have a young child, around 3-4 years-old, then you'll know they have the ability to store long-term memories of events that took place up to two years ago, even though they have virtually no understanding of time, they'll still remember vivid experiences. So what's happening to this mechanism that means all of this will soon be forgotten? It's a paradox still waiting to be solved.

YOUR COMMENT

Debbie L
I like Carole can remember nothing of my childhood,up to the age of about 16.

sarah
i remember my brother being born when i was two, i remember nursery school very clearly and all reception class....i remember all my years up until 11 and then i have a total memory loss from 11-15! i cant remember people who i was in school with apart from close friends. unsure this is to do with my parents splitting up and becoming very withdrawn it was i suppose a particularly stressful time in my life

Rosemary
My first memory is my mother painting my new cot and putting Disney transfers on it. I had been sleeping in a bassinet at the time and was moving about by sliding around on my bottom. I also remember before I could walk that my mother left me on a tray I presume to stop my nappy wetting the carpet. 3 children came into the room and lifted me off the tray and used it to sit on to slide down some steps. I was shocked at first but admired their running skills. I determined then to learn to stand and practiced in my cot with the bars to help. We left that property before I was two according to my father's diaries. My parents never remembered these incidents. I am 71 now.

Klavin Ura
I dont remember anything at all before the age of six. And i wondering, why? My parents are shocked i cant remember athing before the age of six.Maybe because we moved countries.

Heather
The only problem is I find it very difficult to remember any of my childhood at all. I am only 15 and yet the small gap I have between now and then doesn't make it any easier to remember back to when I was younger.

Catrin
I'm never sure if my memories are actually my own or just ones that I've been told about. I think my first is around 3, I'm not really sure how you're supposed to think of your first memory, I just thought and saw if I could see anything about school then nursery etc and see which is the earliest.

Alex T
Interesting. I've been aware of this lack of early memories for a while, but one thing I'd never focussed on until reading the above is that one of my earliest memories is learning how to read.

Noreen
I remember my sister crying in her cot and being told to go into her and tell her 'mummy won't be long'. I must have been around three at the time. I have some memories of visiting my maternal grandmother who died four days after my third birthday, but I'm not sure if these are real memories or based on what my mum has told me about my gran. I also have memories of hearing "Two Way Family Favourites' on the radio and my dad calling me in for Sunday dinner. We moved from that house before I was five so I know I must have been under five.

Wytesoxx
I remember walking to the end of my grandmother's garden, and not having the strength to walk back again. It seemed an insurmountably long distance. I sat down and cried. The garden is about 25 feet long. I must have been about 18 months old, I guess. Someone came to get me!

Dennis
I have Two clear memories of my childhood first is when I was 3 years old ands getting my first wooden train for Christmas. The second is being allowed to stay up late to watch the Cilla Black Show one night when I was 4- 5 years old. I must have been her youngest viewer at the time.

Rodrigo
When I was under the age one year old I fell down the stars and hit my head on the floor, and I still remember the sound of my cry.

Judith
After a Traumatic chiidhood I have very few memories of my childhood and am not sure that I would like to remember things that happened to me. Is this usual after a disturbed childhood?

Gerri
I remember reaching up for a door handle and not being able to turn the knob. I must've been around 2-3 years old. I also remember falling out of my cot although my mum says it was my brother who's a year older than me. Perhaps I saw him do it. Either way, I remember it!

Thurstan
My first memory was as a baby, maybe about 1 year old or thereabouts. I can remember lying in a cot and my mum dangling her long hair onto my face. To this day I love stroking hair! I find changes or emotional ties help you remember further back then you think.

Sue
I have a clear memory of walking for the first time at about 13 months. I have a picture in my mind of the hall of the house we lived in at the time, 'from toddler height'. My mother was supporting me standing at the kitchen door, my favourite aunt arrived at the front door and I remember making a bee line for her!!

Laura
Lynsey, I am convinced that I remember my first Christmas. I remember my father throwing me up in the air and catching me and saying: "This is your first Christmas." If the memory is correct, I must have been about eight months old.

sally
at the age of three i spent several months in hospital with a broken leg. My memory of this is very clear but apparently bears no resemblance to the real experience!

Chrissy
I have very vivid isolated memories from my early childhood but cannot access much more which feels very sad. However, my sister, 18 months younger, can recount numerous visits to aunts with details of food, clothes and conversations. What is very frustrating for me is her conviction that, for example, I knew one of my cousins quite well whereas I am certain I have never seen him. So how can we be sure that the memories we have are real and not mistaken?

paul
my first memory i will never forget. i distinctly remember thinking "Life is shit". i must have been about 5. About 10 years later i first got drunk on my fathers whiskey. i remember singing "Drink ish good". both these memories have played a very prominent role in my life since although i have done many things since which i have forgotten by the next morning.

Lynsey
I am convinced I remember being at my own first birthday party - me sat in my high-chair, my nan and grandad on one side and my parents on the other, putting a trifle decorated with Smarties and one candle on the table. Whether I really do remember an event from so early on in my life is hard to tell; perhaps I have just pieced together a sensation like a memory from looking at photos of my mum holding the trifle and everyone looking as though they are singing Happy Birthday.

Evac
I was sent away from my family at the age of about 4 and did not return until I was 8. This was in the 1940s, when children were not kept informed why things were happening to them. I was completely traumatised by my experiences of being illtreated, and on my return could not remember anything of my previous life.

MARTIN
When trying to remember events earlier than my early teens I have found that I am usually remembering a retelling of the event rather than the event itself. My real memories seem to start only about 10-12 year ago. Like Andrew I have few problems remembering useless facts and an endless string of song lyrics.

Mary
Am I the only one who can't really remember anything from my childhood? My first memory is when I was five years old and cut my hand badly. After that I remember very few bits and pieces until I was about 13 years old. I have always wondered about that...

CAROLE
i WORRY THAT I REMEMBER NOTHING OF MY CHILDHOOD AND THEREFORE CANNOT ANSWER MY CHIDRENS AND GRANDCHILDRENS QUESTIONS I've tried hypnotism but it didnt work. Any suggestions where I can get help please.I FEEL THAT MY LIFE IS LESS RICH BECAUSE OF THIS HUGE VOID'

krakatau
Like other people who have posted here, I was lucky enough to move house at the age of four and a half. So any memories I have before that (quite a few) must be before that age. I think that knowing the dates of house moves and of the deaths of relatives allows us to fix a date for early memories that couldn't be done otherwise.

Ray
I was born in Sunderland in June 1935. My sister was born in January 1937 and I can remember that although I was only about 19 months old. Sunderland AFC won the FA Cup in May 1937 and I can clearly remember that too because my dad brought me back a toy fire engine from London.

John S
I like the suggestion of Laura R and lynwood - my parents moved house twice in the first year of my life and shortly after the second move (possibly even on the same day) I had an accident that needed stitches. I still remember adpects of this quite vividly, and have memories from most periods of my life thereafter. I can recall one image from before this time though, but it is much less vivid (+ never been shared).

Barbara
I was 3 when WWII started. I remember my Dad getting his call up papers and my Mum crying. I also remember certain events containing bombing, but do not remember how old I was. I went to school in Wales where I was evacuated. We returned from Wales (thinking the war was over) in about 1944 when I was 8 yrs.

Laura R
I have a theory that the reason I have such a good memory from early childhood is because we moved house frequently and so I find it easy to place and catagorise early memories.

lynwood
It would appear that if nothing happens in early childhood, then the child does not remember.Perhaps a traumatic event in a child's life ensures that those memories plus all the others will remain for ever.

Andrew
I cannot say that I do not remember anything about my childhood, but I remember very little. On the other hand my cousin has almost perfect recall of events - and when he talks to me about experiences we shared as children I get quite frustrated and feel that my life is less rich for not being able to remember. On the other hand if it's trivia I have no problem with remembering.

Rami (production team)
Thanks for this. If you haven't already done so, why not go into the 'Share' part of the website and add these memories to the survey?

Lucy
My first memories are from 18 months to two years, as far as I can date them. Nothing too special, first time I climbed out of my cot, first time I walked upstairs, and my maternal grandmother who died a month after my third birthday. I don't remember her death, just being with her before she was ill and when she'd become quite poorly.

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