Why Can’t We Remember Our Early Childhood?

Do you remember playing with the red wheel or do you remember a picture of you playing with it? Denis Omelchenko/Shutterstock
Danielle Andrew 21 Jul 2016, 13:28

It is true to some extent that a child’s ability to verbalise about an event at the time that it happened predicts how well they remember it months or years later. One lab group conducted this work by interviewing toddlers brought to accident and emergency departments for common childhood injuries. Toddlers over 26 months, who could verbalise about the event at the time, recalled it up to five years later, whereas those under 26 months, who could not talk about it, recalled little or nothing. This suggests that preverbal memories are lost if they are not translated into language.

Social And Cultural Effects

However, most research on the role of language focuses on a particular form of expression called narrative, and its social function. When parents reminisce with very young children about past events, they implicitly teach them narrative skills – what kinds of events are important to remember and how to structure talking about them in a way that others can understand.

Unlike simply recounting information for factual purposes, reminiscing revolves around the social function of sharing experiences with others. In this way, family stories maintain the memory’s accessibility over time, and also increase the coherence of the narrative, including the chronology of events, their theme, and their degree of emotion. More coherent stories are remembered better. Maori adults have the earliest childhood memories (age 2.5) of any society studied so far, thanks to Maori parents' highly elaborative style of telling family stories.

Exactly what we remember may be driven by culture. Calvin Chan / Shutterstock.com

Reminiscing has different social functions in different cultures, which contribute to cultural variations in the quantity, quality and timing of early autobiographical memories. Adults in cultures that value autonomy (North America, Western Europe) tend to report earlier and more childhood memories than adults in cultures that value relatedness (Asia, Africa).

This is predicted by cultural differences in parental reminiscing style. In cultures that promote more autonomous self-concepts, parental reminiscing focuses more on children’s individual experiences, preferences, and feelings, and less on their relationships with others, social routines, and behavioural standards. For example, an American child might remember getting a gold star in preschool whereas a Chinese child might remember the class learning a particular song at preschool.

While there are still things we don’t understand about childhood amnesia, researchers are making progress. For example, there are more prospective longitudinal studies that follow individuals from childhood into the future. This helps give accurate accounts of events, which is better than retrospectively asking teens or adults to remember past events which are not documented. Also, as neuroscience progresses, there will undoubtedly be more studies relating brain development to memory development. This should help us develop other measures of memory besides verbal reports.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that, even if we can’t explicitly remember specific events from when we were very young, their accumulation nevertheless leaves lasting traces that influence our behaviour. The first few years of life are paradoxically forgettable and yet powerful in shaping the adults that we become.

 

Jeanne Shinskey, Senior Lecturer and Baby Lab Director, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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