It’s an odd, unnerving feeling. You see home-video footage of yourself as a 2-year-old, running around and laughing and discovering the world. Your parents’ friends tell stories about some of the hilarious things you said or did—about momentous occasions like your first step, your first word, your first scar. You know you interacted with the world around you, and yet you can’t remember any of it.
Very few adults can remember anything that happened to them before the age of 3, but only recently have scientists really begun to understand why that is.
Back in the 1900s, Freud coined the term “childhood amnesia,” to describe the strange phenomenon of losing childhood memories as adults. His theory was that we repress our earliest memories because of their disturbing sexual content, because that’s his whole MO. While some agree with this hypothesis, the last few decades have yielded a different conclusion, thanks in large part to several studies led by Patricia J. Bauer, an Emory University psychology professor and expert in the field of children’s cognitive development.
In one groundbreaking 2005 study, researchers talked to three-year-olds and their mothers about important events in their toddler’s life, and then asked to recall these events at the ages of 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. At 5, 6, and 7, children remembered 60% or more of the early-life events, whereas the 8 and 9-year-olds remembered less than 40% of these events. The studies set up the accepted belief that 7 is the age that our childhood memories begin to fade, as we prepare for puberty. (For more on that, check out The Most Important Ages of Your Life.)
The experiments also led Bauer and other scientists to the conclusion that children under the age of 3 simply lack the complex neural architecture required to retain memories, in what has deliciously come to be known as the “pasta theory” of memory.
“I compare memory to a colander,” Bauer said. “If you’re cooking fettucine, the pasta stays in. But if you’re cooking orzo, it goes right through the holes. The immature brain is a lot like a colander with big holes, and the little memories are like the orzo. As you get older, you’re either getting bigger pasta or a net with smaller holes.”
Bauer and her team also theorized that part of the reason these early memories are so hard to hold onto is because, without any perception of time or even our identity, they lack necessary context.
But another part of the problem is that these early childhood memories are also wildly unreliable. In her research, Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, has found that many of our early memories are actually false. In 1991, she conducted a study in which volunteers were presented with a series of stories about their childhood. Unbeknown to them, one of these stories, about being lost in the mall, was actually not true. Despite the fact that it never happened, volunteers claimed to recall this experience.
Other research has also shown that the stories our mother’s tell us can often manifest themselves are fake memories, as can dreams and fantasies. Perhaps that’s why we lose so many of those memories at 7, so that we can let go of childhood.
And for some great ways to improve your own recall, check out 20 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory.
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