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Why Can’t We Remember Anything From Our Youngest Years?

Updated on January 28, 2017
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Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to science, philosophy, and religion.

Infantile Amnesia and Other Quirks of Memory

This article will explain the theories of infantile amnesia (why we can’t remember anything from our earliest years) and explain various quirks of memory. It will also show why hypnosis does not aid in memory recall and “repressed memory therapy” and “past life regression” are false.

Infantile Amnesia

Infantile amnesia is the term used to describe the phenomena of having no memories from our earliest years.
Infantile amnesia is the term used to describe the phenomena of having no memories from our earliest years. | Source

What is Infantile Amnesia?

No one can remember anything about their birth or anything from their first few years. The term for this phenomenon is infantile amnesia.

This is true among all human cultures and even among nonhuman mammals. Almost no one remembers anything from before the age of four, and memories from early childhood (from about age four to eight) are very “spotty”--there are relatively few memories and they have few details. This is true not only for humans, but also for other mammals.

By the time a child becomes verbal at around the age of two, he begins to have autobiographical memories of the recent past. As he grows older, those memories will fade. The memories of early childhood will be gone forever

The loss of memories from the youngest years accelerates until about the age of seven or eight. However, after about the age of 11, the child’s ability to recall past events is similar to that of adults.

The Mind of a Baby

Even infants can form memories, although they are short-lived.
Even infants can form memories, although they are short-lived. | Source

Do Infants Have a Memory?

Even newborn infants (neonate) show evidence of memory, and older babies clearly have memories that endure for a day or more. There is a lot going on behind those big beautiful eyes.

Healthy infants use their mind to explore their surroundings by turning their head and moving their eyes. They change the direction of their attention in response to stimuli like sights, sounds, smell, and touch.

They clearly recall and recognize certain things. For instance, they remember and recognize their mother and other caregivers.

Is the Lack of Early Memories Due to Psychological Factors?

The term “infantile amnesia” was coined by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900’s. He thought it resulted from the repression of traumatic memories occurring in the child's early psychosexual development. This could explain why negative memories are forgotten, but it fails to explain why all memories, even pleasant ones, are forgotten.

Some scientists in the field of psychology and cognition believe that early memories are lost because infants and young children do not have sufficient language development or have not yet developed a “sense of self.” This makes sense because most of our memories rely on words--if the memories are not engraved (so to speak) on our minds with words, they are lost. However, there is a problem with this explanation because experiments with non-human primates and rodents reveal that the pattern of amnesia for early memories and the stability of later memories is similar for humans and other mammals.

The theory also flies in the face of everything every parent has experienced. Young children quickly become verbal and often quite verbose. Further, they seem to have a strong sense of self--one of their favorite words is “me.”

The Amazine Brain

The brain adds new neurons dedicated to memory throughout life..
The brain adds new neurons dedicated to memory throughout life.. | Source

Is the Lack of Early Memories Due to Biological Factors?

The best explanation for infantile amnesia is one that looks at brain development and neurology. There are two main theories—the “immature brain” theory and the “ongoing brain maturation” theory.”

The immature-brain hypothesis

This theory states that the brain structures used for memory are not mature enough to support the formation of memories during our earliest years. Although much of the human brain is fully formed at birth, the two regions for declarative memory—the cortex and hippocampus—require a long period of postnatal development

The ongoing-brain-maturation hypothesis

This theory states that the brain of infants and children is growing at such a rapid rate--the human brain quadruples in volume from birth to the age of ten---that memory formation is impeded.

The rapid growth of the brain is due to the increase of neural fibers and the synaptic connections. However, it is the myelination of the neural fibers that makes the largest contribution to the increase in brain size. Myelination is the process that provides electrical insulation to the nerve fibers which increases the speed of their conduction of signals. This process continues through adolescence.

Over a human’s lifetime, the number of neurons doesn’t increase very much, with the exception of the neurons in the area of the brain responsible for auto-biographical memory. This part of the brain increases throughout life.

The constant creation of new neurons facilitates the acquisition of new memories, but it also disrupts and weakens existing memories. This explains why some things are forgotten. The theory states that infants undergo an amazing proliferation of new neurons, and thus they are unable to form stable memories.

This is not a perfect analogy, but think of it like your clothes closet. You buy a bunch of new clothes, but there is no room left in your closet. The old clothes will have to go. Now imagine the infant is buying a trailer-load of new clothes every day. Everything has to go.

The erasing of old memories to make room for new ones goes on throughout life. We forget trivial and unimportant things to not only make room for new memories, but also to make the retrieval of memories more efficient. Going back to the closet analogy, it is much easier to find that one pair of pants that you are looking for when the closet is not jam-packed.

Which biological theory is right?

Perhaps they both play a role in infantile amnesia. However, since we continue to forget things even when our brain is fully mature, I think the in-with-the-new-out-with-the-old theory explains memory better. The brain “cleans out the closet” by replacing old neurons with new ones.

Can Hypnosis Bring Back Old Memories?

Some people think that hypnosis can bring back early memories, or even, past life memories.
Some people think that hypnosis can bring back early memories, or even, past life memories. | Source

Can Hypnosis Help Us Recover Our Earliest Memories?

There is a third hypothesis—the retrieval deficit theory. This hypothesis states that the memories formed in childhood are permanently stored and always exist, but that these memories simply cannot be accessed during adulthood because memories are best recalled when the same conditions exist at the time of the formation of the memory as at the time of the retrieval of the memory. Adults can never recreate the conditions of infancy, so memories acquired during this time cannot be recalled.

The problem with this theory is that we can recall things when circumstances are entirely different at the time of recall. Being in a similar situation does prod the recollection, but it is not necessary for recall.

Retrieving a memory is not like pressing “Play” on the DVR, and everything is replayed exactly as it happened. Memories are stored as fragments and then reconstituted in our minds. Often things are left out or added. Sometimes we have a clear memory of something that never happened. False memories can occur spontaneously or they can be implanted.

Under hypnosis, a person is very susceptible to suggestion. You cannot trust that something recalled while under hypnosis is a correct and accurate representation of what actually happened whether we are talking memories from early childhood or so called “repressed” memories.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

— Marcel Proust

Can Past Life Regression (PLR) Allow Us to Recall Even Earlier Memories?

We can’t recall our own infancy, yet some think that we can recall even earlier events, that is, events that happened in a “past life.” First of all, there is no such thing as a past-life because there is no such thing as a soul that survives from life to life, and there is no such thing as reincarnation.

Past life regression (PLR) uses hypnosis to help the subject “recall” his “past-life. Some people may report that they have recalled a past life, but what they are recalling is false memories which may arise from actual experiences, pure imagination, intentional or unintentional suggestions from the hypnotist, conflating something read, or heard, or viewed in a film with real experience, or outright prevarication.

Consciousness does not survive death so how in the world could anyone 1) have a past life, and 2) remember it?

{Please do not cite Bridey Murphy or any of the other cases of past-life regression. Every case that has been investigated in an objective and scientific way has been debunked.)

Have you noticed that so often in PLR, the subject learns that he was royalty, or a pirate, or some other grand or heroic figure? If his life is dreary, how pleasant it must be to imagine the glamorous life he lived in another life. No one was ever a smelly goat-herder who never did a single interesting thing in his whole life.

Just for Fun

Your earliest memory goes back to what age?

See results

For More Information on the Science of Memory and Mind, I Reccomend This Book

In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

I found this book to be both enjoyable and informative because the author, Nobel prize-winner Eric R. Kandel, weaves memoir with science. His understanding of the mind is based on his study of medicine, psychiatry, biology, cognitive science, and neurobiology, and his personal life-stories illustrate the facts and ideas he presents in a way that enhanced my understanding. This book was written for the general reader who wants to understand current scientific thinking and recent scientific advances in the study of the mind, consciousness, and memory.

 

© 2017 Catherine Giordano

I'd love to hear your comments. What is your earliest memory and how old were you?

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 6 months ago from Orlando Florida

      William: Since I wrote this many people have told me that they remember things from an age as early as one year old. I don't know how to explain this because my research into neurobiology said that this is unlikely, even impossible. I will have to delve into it some more. Thanks for your comment.

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      William 6 months ago

      I don't remember the age, but I clearly remember learning how to walk. I would pull myself up with table legs, or sides of chairs, push off, and sort of fall forward, working my legs as best I could. I also clearly remember the feeling of teething. Hot sharpness in my gums. My mother would give me a frozen teething ring, and that seemed to help for a moment, but biting down made the pain worse, like biting needles. Again, I don't know the exact age, but I can picture the teething ring, this is not a false memory. I believe memories that early are stored, and can be retrieved.

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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      bravewarrior: Thanks for sharing your early memories. I have a memory from about age 4 of taking all the canned goods and lining them all up in rows.It would be cool if we could remember more than just fragments, if we could actually remember what it was like to be a young child.

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      Shauna L Bowling 9 months ago from Central Florida

      Very interesting article, Catherine. I remember walking between my parents from the parking lot to the entrance of the Seattle World's Fair. I was 2 1/2 and was carrying a bunny doll. I also remember riding an elephant in a shopping center parking lot at about the same age. Another memory I have is when I was about three. I was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, opened a cabinet door and pulled out all the pots and pans.

      I also have a memory of doing the dishes when I was four. I was standing on a stool and cut my fingers because I didn't know to hold butter knives with the blades facing out. I was washing with my hands, not with a rag or brush. To this day I wash dishes with my hands, but am always careful to hold knives properly!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 9 months ago

      I can remember as early as three but only a couple of memories. I enjoyed your share on this topic and learned much from your research.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Robert Levine: Thanks for your comment and editing suggestions. As for your memories from age six to eight--everyone is different. Do you think your memories dating to that age are as many and as clear as your memories from teen-aged years?

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 9 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      I have plenty of clear memories from the ages of five or six to eight--not "spotty" at all.

      P.S.--You have the sentence "The name for this phenomena is infantile amnesia" twice in the first section. And "phenomena" is a plural noun; the singular is "phenomenon."

    • DavidMilbergLAW profile image

      David Milberg 9 months ago

      I believe it's because our brain is still developing. Our ability to create and restore memories doesn't fully develop until a certain age.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      MsDora: I will have to look for that documentary. Traumatic memories tend to "stick.", unfortunately. Thanks for commenting.

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      Dora Isaac Weithers 9 months ago from The Caribbean

      Very interesting topic. The documentary "Secret Life of Babies" seems to support the immature-brain hypothesis. I have memories from age four, but none of them are fun memories.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      It is amazing how much a child learns and how quickly. My research has taught me that neonates have much more going own in their little brains than we previously have given them credit for.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 9 months ago from Oklahoma

      While there are shortcomings in the child's mind regarding reason and logic, there are also amazing skills we lose, such as in language acquisition.

    • Doug Rice profile image

      Doug Rice 9 months ago

      Honestly, Catherine, the answer to both of your alternative choices is no. I was in fact 18 months old when I had these first two (connected) memories, as this was a significant event in the family and the ages of all family members is well established. Secondly, I was the first person in the family to actually acknowledge and speak of this event so it was my memory of what happened that started others in the family talking about what happened...others (siblings ages 6, 8 and 9) in the family only confirmed what I remembered after I spoke about it. And the first part of the memory is mine alone and no one else could have known what happened so they couldn't have given me any information. My first memory was in fact at 18 months.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Dream On: Thanks for the comment. I think most of what is reported in this essay is relatively new science. It is indeed amazing how our understanding of neurobiology just gets more and more detailed. The brain and the mind (consciousness) fascinate me. Look for more from me on this.

    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 9 months ago

      I find facts about our memory so interesting. It is who we are and what we have done that molds us into the person we have become. Thank you for sharing. Science is always learning so I can only imagine what we will learn in the future. Have a good morning.

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      Jack Lee 9 months ago from Yorktown NY

      Cathrine, I don't disagree with you. What did I propose that is different? Memories are interconnected of things including images, words, smell, taste and sounds... one can trigger another and lead to other memories...

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      jackclee: I'll stick with the brain theories of the neurobiologists. As to having unexpected recall of past events, the neurobiologists explain that also. Memories are stored in fragments A fragment activates another associated fragment. Memories are not like video clips that can be played back.

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      Douglas Rice 9 months ago

      My earliest memory is from the age of 18 months. An incident which was confirmed by family as well.

    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 9 months ago from Yorktown NY

      I do have a theory about this. I believe the brain develops in several stages. When we are born, it is in the development stage where things are being setup. It is why we have a better and faster learning of languages. Once the brain reach a fixed configuration, at about age 6, it is harder to change the structure though not impossible. When the brain is injured, it has some capability to re-wire itself. As regard to early memory, the brain has a short term memory and a long term memory storage. Both are accessible while we are awake but during sleep, the two are reordered to create neuron connections that will allow for easy recall.

      Our early childhood memories are still there but hidden. It is like digging in an excavation site. Each layer is older than the previous.

      I know from my own experience that my memory is fluid. I can recall items from my childhood that I've forgotten and yet when I recall some related things, it starts to come back to me. It is as if a door was opened and new stuff is available. Very fascinating...

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      billybuc: Thanks for your comment. It is always nice to hear from you. I think only a small proportion of people can remember anything back to the age of 3.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 9 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks FlourishAnyway for sharing your story. It is funny and charming. Heee is my earliest memory. I'm about four or five. I am telling my mother that I am going to stop sucking my thumb. And my thumb is in my mouth.

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      Bill Holland 9 months ago from Olympia, WA

      A very interesting read, Catherine. My earliest memories are of age 3...and 4...more at age 5....but zero before age 3.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 9 months ago from USA

      I have vivid memories of walking with my very tall father in the rain under an umbrella when I was three. He's never been empathically aware. I recall being soaking wet because I was so much shorter than he was and it was raining on me and the umbrella was dripping runoff on me. He took huge steps because he was so tall and I was holding his huge hand running trying to keep up. He was nearly dragging me and he'd tell me to keep up.