Memories are an integral part of our existence. They help us to remember and contextualise our lives. They provide a sense of continuity, guide our decision-making and help to shape our identity, for good and bad. But as we age, many of us begin to struggle with recalling childhood memories. While some vivid moments may remain, many of the specifics of our early years become shrouded in a hazy mental fog. There is much we still don’t fully understand about this commonplace yet mysterious experience. Click here to learn more about preserving your memories with LifeBook Memoirs.
However, we do know that it’s caused by a mix of neurological, psychological and developmental factors.
Childhood memories and the developing brain
One of the major reasons we can’t remember childhood memories is due to the way our brains develop when we’re young. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning. It’s one of the first things to develop in embryos. However, the process is far from finished by the time we’re born. It takes about two and a half years for the main building blocks to be in place. This is probably why no one can remember the very early stages of their lives. The hippocampus continues to develop through our childhood years, adolescence and even into early adulthood. So, as the neural networks needed for the long-term storage and retrieval of memories aren’t fully in place, it’s no surprise that what we recall from those early years can be quite fragmented and not particularly vivid.
The emotional weight of childhood memories
Memories are not all created equal! When we sleep, the brain processes and consolidates what it’s experienced throughout the day before. It then transfers these events to our long-term memory. But these memories are not real records of what actually occurred; rather, they are selective reconstructions. Also, this process is driven heavily by emotion. The more emotionally impacted we are by an event, the more likely it is that the brain will prioritise the memories surrounding it. Childhood memories tend to be driven by simple, mundane and repetitive experiences; they simply don’t have the emotional weight of older experiences. So, they aren’t recorded as deeply, which makes them more susceptible to fading with time.
As we go through our lives, our minds are constantly bombarded with new events and experiences, which all serve to create new memories. As your mind is filled with an influx of new information, it’s thought that this can interfere with the recall of old information. This is a phenomenon known as ‘retroactive interference’. Think of your mind as a packed bookshelf. As new books are crammed in, older, similar ones are pushed to the back of the shelf and are harder to locate. Memories can work in the same way. Childhood is a time when we learn and experience everything in a jumbled rush, which makes retroactive interference of these memories particularly likely.
The effect of language development
Think back to your earliest childhood memories and it’s likely that what you can remember is very visual and non-verbal. It’s likely that the memories have no context at all, being rather collections of sensory experiences: sounds, images, smells and simple feelings. This is because our earliest recollections are formed before we develop language skills. As we learn these skills through childhood, we can then put these events into words. We can then effectively label them, understand them and file them in our minds. Language is an incredibly important tool for memory retention and retrieval. Lack of language skills as children is a major reason we can’t remember those early memories!
Childhood memories and personal identity
The development of a concept of self plays a huge role in how we remember our memories. While there is unquestionably a relationship between genetics and self-identity, genetics isn’t the only thing that shapes our sense of self. As infants, we begin to develop self-identity as we interact with the people and the world around us. By around 18 months to 2 years, we’re beginning to form a concrete sense of self. We’re then able to start interpreting and categorising our thoughts and feelings as we experience events, as seen through the prism of our self-identity. Memories become a real part of our life stories. The personal meaning they have makes it easier for us to transfer them to our long-term memory and recollect them.
The difficulty in remembering childhood memories is still puzzling researchers and psychologists. There is clearly a complex combination of factors at play. And despite many of our earliest recollections being vague and hazy, they are still incredibly important and meaningful. Our childhood years shape our lives, and looking back can help us understand who we are and how we got here. Inevitably, memories slip through our fingers as we get older, but you can preserve your stories for you and the generations to come with a LifeBook Memoirs project.
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Written by the LifeBook Memoirs editorial team