Childhood Amnesia

Can you anything that happened to you before you were 1, or 3, or even 5-years-old? If you do you’re in the minority. Most of us do not know how far back their first memory is. The inability to remember early life events is called childhood amnesia. I have been wondering a lot about this lately because I was very involved in a group of 3 young children lives for almost 3 years and now I no longer see them. I wonder, ‘Who will I be in their memory?, Will they remember me?’ Sometimes I think it is best if they don’t ( I was their mother’s boyfriend and for the sake of the new   man in my place).

Regardless, I have wondered about this often and often while shedding a tear. Because I know they will be in my memory forever – Jacob, Chloe and Kailey. If you guys ever read this. I love you.

But what is childhood amnesia, Sigmund Freud referred to this as “infantile amnesia” in 1899, defining it as the lack of childhood memories in his adult patients. He famously suggested that infantile amnesia is an active suppression of early traumatic memories. Freud, along with many other scientists noticed an inexplicable decrease in memories before the age of 10, and a total lack of memories before the age of two. If this is true, it may mean that only the oldest (Jacob) will have any strong recall of me. Maybe to the rest I will just be a really cool 4th grade teacher type memory. Although I did teach each of the children memory training and worked with them to improve their memory for school work.

Research into childhood amnesia has come up with several interesting explanations, including: an infant’s brain is not sufficiently developed to support episodic memory; the trauma of birth brought on a repression of traumatic events; inability to understand language; undeveloped emotionally; and a child’s awareness of the cognitive self. Study into the differences between individuals and groups have further confirmed these explanations.

More recent research from the University of Otago in New Zealand has determined, from their study, that it’s simply a matter of time passing.

To prove their theory, the New Zealand researchers placed a group of children and adults into four categories. The youngest group were 5-year olds; the second group included 8 to 9-year olds; the third group were 12 to 13-years old; and the fourth groups was of young adults 18 to 20-years old. All groups were asked questions concerning recent events, and then were asked to remember events that occurred to them around 3-years-old, before 3, and the earliest memories they could bring back. At least 20% of the younger children were able to recall memories that occurred to them before their first birthday. Those 12 and older could only go back as far as their 3rd birthday. This study gives me hope that perhaps Jacob, Chloe and Kailey will remember me…even if just a little.

The study also found that young children are able to store long-term memories, which goes against most previous studies. The same factors that affect episodic memory in adults affect infant memory, and influence performance in a number of memory tasks, including visual cognitive memory. As a matter of fact, it has been found that adult-like memories may be formed in the womb.

Three-day old infants, who had been read to from “The Cat In The Hat” twice daily for the last six weeks of gestation showed preference to the familiar passage, even if spoken by someone other than his/her mother. This strongly suggests that encoding in the brain of a relatively high level takes place even before birth. This also eliminates the argument that an infant’s brain is not developed enough to form memories — at least not the same as an adult.

Taking into account that infants have to develop their language skills — both for understanding and communication, it is possible before the age of three they may not have understood enough to store it in their memory in any intelligent (to adult) manner.

It is noted that infants can store memory of how to operate certain toys after repeatedly showing them how they worked. They even can remember how that toy works after it has been put away for some time and then brought back out again months later. This would indicate they could store memory over a long period of time. Therefore, infantile amnesia cannot be explained simply by neurological immaturity (since both systems appear to be intact), or by the inability to remember over long delays. Furthermore, I taught Kailey how to memorize the presidents of the USA at the age of six so we know that the memory of children can actually be very good especially with memory training. For the record, I also taught Jacob and Chloe this memory method as well but never posted Chloe’s video (yet).

It could be that the massive synaptic pruning that takes place during infancy in the neocortex has rid the brain of information and simply is no longer there, or has been filed in a place in the brain that simply is not the same way an adult would in order for it to be retrieved.

This is Ron White, two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker. There are a lot of theories as to why we can’t remember earlier than we do, but there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive explanation. It is an interesting question.

 Memory Training


Developing Intelligence — The Myth of Infantile Amnesia:

Curiosity: What is Childhood Amnesia?

Psychology Today – The shifting boundary of childhood amnesia:

Wikipedia: Childhood amnesia:


Comments are closed.

You May Also Like