Why Can’t We Remember Our Earliest Years?

Why Can’t We Remember Our Earliest Years?

Many experts say the rapid generation of brain cells during early childhood may be at least partially responsible for our inability to remember much from the first few years of life. This phenomenon of not remembering is referred to as ‘childhood amnesia,’ or ‘infantile amnesia.’

You probably remember many things from your childhood – family, friends, school. And if you are like most people, you have a slew of recollections from the time you are about 7 years of age and older.

But what about people, places, things and events at ages 5 and 6? Are those memories a little fuzzier?

Go back to age 4 and your preschool days, and your memory probably gets hazier. It’s even tougher, if not impossible, when pondering your life at age 3. And if you are able to remember anything as a toddler, you are indeed the exception to the rule.

But why are people generally unable to recall anything in those first few years of childhood?

This question has perplexed psychologists, scientists and other experts. Various theories have been discussed over the years, but a clear answer seems to have been lacking.

But today, many experts believe the answer – at least in part — is connected to the rapid generation of brain cells in those first few years of life, according to Rachel Jeffrey, an assistant professor of biology and a neurobiologist at Southern. This process is technically known as “neurogenesis.”

She points out that the brain isn’t quite equipped for long-term memories in the first months of life. But the “childhood amnesia,” also called “infantile amnesia,” generally continues beyond the first months of life, extending to a few years in most cases.

“Until about age 4, there are so many new neurons being created in the brain that they are probably interfering with the long-term storage of memory,” Jeffrey says.

She points out that short-term memory is stored in the hippocampus part of the brain, and eventually released to the cortex. But the hippocampus is a part of the brain in which neurons continue to generate at a fairly rapid clip during early childhood.

“Actually, there is evidence today that some degree of neurogenesis continues into and through adulthood,” she says. “But the pace is much slower, and does not impair memory to the same extent as in infants and children. And in adulthood, we believe neurogenesis helps us deal with cognitive problems, stress and other functions.”

She also noted that emotional episodes – regulated by the amygdala portion of the brain – are often easier to recall. That’s why if a person remembers incidents from the ages of 3 and 4, they are more likely to involve crying, fear or joy.

Interestingly, Jeffrey also notes that studies have children generally have recollections of ages 2 and 3, sometimes even earlier, up until around age 10. At that point, memories seem to fade.

What is the earliest age at which you can remember?