Fog in the head: why do we not remember everything from childhood?


“I remember here – I don’t remember here.” How does our memory separate the wheat from the chaff? An accident two years ago, the first kiss, the last reconciliation with a loved one: some memories remain, but our days are filled with other events, so we cannot save everything, even if we want to.

As a rule, we want to preserve our childhood – these memories, carefully folded in a “long box” somewhere deep inside us, of a pleasant and cloudless time preceding puberty chaos. But this is not so easy to do! Check yourself: do you remember many scraps and images from the distant past? There are large fragments of our “film” that have survived almost completely, and there is something that seems to have been cut out by the censor.

Many agree that we cannot remember the first three or four years of our life. One might think that the child’s brain at that age is simply not able to store all the memories and images, since it is not yet fully developed (with the exception, perhaps, of people with eidetic memory).

Sigmund Freud tried to find the reason for the suppression of early childhood events. Freud was probably right about the fact that children who have experienced trauma have memory lapses. But many had not such a bad childhood, on the contrary – quite happy and without trauma, if you believe the few memories that clients share with the psychologist. So why do some of us have so much fewer childhood stories than others?

“Forget all”

The neurons know the answer. When we are very small, our brain is forced to resort to images in order to remember something, but over time, a linguistic component of memories appears: we begin to speak. This means that a completely new “operating system” is being built in our minds, which supplants the previous saved files. Everything that we have preserved until now is not yet completely lost, but it is difficult to express it in words. We remember images that are expressed in sounds, emotions, pictures, sensations in the body.

As we age, it becomes more difficult for us to remember certain things – we rather feel them than we can describe in words. In one study, children between the ages of three and four were asked about recent experiences, such as visiting a zoo or shopping. When a few years later, at eight and nine years old, these children were again interviewed about the same event, they could hardly remember it. Thus, “childhood amnesia” occurs no later than seven years.

Fog in the head: why do we not remember everything from childhood?

Cultural factor

An important point: the degree of childhood amnesia varies depending on the cultural and linguistic characteristics of a particular nation. Researchers in New Zealand have found that Asians are much older than Europeans for their earliest memories.

Canadian psychologist Carol Peterson also, together with her Chinese colleagues, found that, on average, people in the West are more likely to “lose” the first four years of their lives, while in Chinese subjects it is several years longer. It seems that culture really strongly depends on how far our memories “go”.

As a rule, researchers advise parents to tell their children a lot about the past and ask them about what they heard. This allows us to make a significant contribution to our “memory book”, which is also reflected in the results of the research of New Zealanders.

Perhaps this is the reason why some of our friends remember their childhood more than we do. But does this mean that our parents talked to us too rarely, since we remember so little?

How to “recover files”?

Memories are subjective, and therefore it is very easy to modify and distort them (we often do this ourselves). Many of our “memories” were actually born on the basis of stories that we heard, although we ourselves have never experienced all this. We often confuse other people’s stories with our own memories.

But are our lost memories really lost forever – or are they simply located in some protected corner of our unconscious and, if desired, they can be “brought to the surface”? Researchers cannot answer this question to this day. Even hypnosis does not guarantee us the authenticity of the “recovered files”.

So it’s not very clear what to do with your “memory gaps”. It can be quite embarrassing when everyone around is talking excitedly about their childhood, and we are standing nearby and through the fog trying to get through to our own memories. And it’s really sad to look at your childhood photos as if they were strangers, trying to understand what our brain was doing at that time, if it did not remember anything at all.

However, we always have images with us: be it scanty pictures in memory, or analog cards in photo albums, or digital ones on a laptop. We can let them take us back in time and ultimately be what they should be — our memories.

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