The Mystery of a Child’s Memory

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I wonder, what makes a childhood memorable? Are there perhaps certain special events from our childhood, some taste of homemade food or a certain smell that reminds us of home?

We all have memories that we attribute to the first years of our lives. Most might have been forgotten over time, but the feeling which rejoices within us when we stumble across a sudden memory brings us back right to those moments.  Moments which might have been attributed to a happy, carefree childhood, or sadly, perhaps to less joyful moments, as some sad experiences might have overshadowed our childhood. Whatever those first memories are that we recall, they most probably influenced who we are today, helped us to flourish, to form our character and build our personality. 

However, with all of the memories that one gathers during their lifespan, how far back do memories actually go in a person’s memory – back to when our first memory was born? The first five years in a child’s life are incredibly important. It is the time when children develop to trust in their life, when they learn primary things about themselves and take their first steps in exploring the world surrounding them. Nevertheless, almost all those first experiences will belong to a past that is deleted from our memories. We might all remember some sort of struggles from our long school days and the fun and lengthy summer holidays but might tend not to remember other episodes dating back to our early years. This is called “childhood amnesia.” 

According to Cristina M. Alberini and Alessio Travaglia from the Center for Neural Science at the New York University, infantile amnesia is “the inability of adults to recollect early episodic memories, is associated with the rapid forgetting that occurs in childhood. It has been suggested that infantile amnesia is due to the underdevelopment of the infant brain, which would preclude memory consolidation, or to deficits in memory retrieval.” 

Despite the proven childhood amnesia, adults frequently get astonished when some children really do surprise us with their narratives which we, as grown-ups, might have long forgotten or had never even noticed their existence.  This is the true mystery of a child’s mind.

Professor Dr. Thorsten Kollinger, an assistant professor at the University of Frankfurt specialized in Psychological Aging Research in developmental psychology, explains that children see and perceive their environment differently to adults and therefore focus on other life events. Children perceive even very small things, like, for example, a little snail or a feather, an ice cream donated by the grandparents, a popped balloon or jumping in muddy puddle on the way to nursery… things of which grown-ups take no notice and are amazed by their little one’s recalling these events from a certain situation.

Scientists have proven that most children do not recall events that happened under the age of three or four, despite influencing their personality and shaping the person into whom they are growing. According to studies carried out on this topic in Germany in collaboration with Dr. Kollinger, the ability for human beings to remember might begin when they are 18 months old, at the earliest. 

Before that, it seems that the brain is not developed to properly memorize events but is more focused on learning to recognize things happening around them. 

The majority of researchers contend that most children will start to remember events from their life as early as three years old. However, it seems that childhood amnesia ends only at around the age of seven. Even though memories might start to become more specific during the few years before that milestone, up to the age of six the capacity for memorizing may still be subject to wide fluctuations. 

Frequently, the early memories that children are most easily able to recall are those associated with the strong emotions they have felt during particular moments. As for example, the feeling of their baby sibling’s birth, moving house or some educational episodes. Hence, a person’s life is a collection of innumerable small and big events of which every single one is responsible for forming the person we are in our adult life. 

However, what happens when someone’s childhood has been challenging with negative experiences?

According to Professor Philip A. Fisher from the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, “Although early memories are inaccessible to adults, early-life events, such as neglect or aversive experiences, can greatly impact adult behaviour and may predispose individuals to various psychopathologies.”

He further explains that “neglect during early development can produce severe psychopathologies, such as depression and anxiety, as well as learning and cognitive disabilities.”

Once again, it proves that depending on how one’s childhood evolves, their future might be greatly affected. 

Sabina, a mother of three in her mid-forties, recalls one of her earliest and most beautiful childhood memories: “My father was an astrology passionate. Hence, every time some stellar constellation or some other unusual things were happening in space, he would wake me up in the middle of the deep dark night. Carry me softly downstairs, wrap me in his coat and take me outside. Together, just me and my father, we would sit mostly in silence, on a granite table, gazing at the immense universe above us. He would patiently point out and explain the star constellation before bringing me back to bed. Those were my first memories of a very happy and carefree childhood.”  

Blessed are those people, who can build their life upon a happy childhood as Sabina. A stable fundament for the rest of their live. Even those negative episodes can also have their place without  too much impact on one’s personal growth. Nevertheless, let’s not take happiness for granted but let’s try to make the memories of our children, and all those to come, into positive ones. 

Perhaps, adults might can sit down with their children while going through pictures from the past or through their photo albums, where their life story was created. Talking through memories in order to remember, to revive moments from our early years. To make memories that rejoice, reinforce and last our whole life.


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