Studying Childhood Amnesia
January 28, 2014

Studying Childhood Amnesia

My earliest childhood memory is of when I was three. I was at my grandparents’ farmhouse, watching television with my grandfather. How do I know that this took place when I was three? Because that was the topic of conversation between us. He turned on channel three (CBS) to watch the news and I stated quite proudly “Channel three. That is how old I am!”

That is it. No great revelations into my past. Just me, as a little kid, overly excited because the channel my grandfather happened to be watching corresponded with my age at the time. After that, my next clear memories come from when I was older, somewhere around ten or so, which is quite unfortunate really, as I am aware of things I did but cannot remember. I know that I went to Disney World, Epcot Center, and Sea World when I was five, that I went to the Mississippi River, climbed up giant sand dunes, rode on an elephant, and many other great things, but I have no clear memory of any of it. Too young, I suppose, but still I often wonder why it is that so much of our own lives are forgotten, especially really special moments such as these.

According to Sigmund Freud, who first coined the term “childhood amnesia,” human beings tend to lose their memories from their infancy, which usually leaves their earliest memories from being around three or so – just like mine – and according to him, this was due to people wanting to repress thanks to their inappropriate sexual nature. Currently, psychologists at Emory University have been studying this phenomenon and have come up with a different, and less controversial, theory. According to them, infants use their memories to learn important things like language and to make sense of the world, but they have yet to develop the sophisticated neural structures needed to hold onto more complex forms of memory. That comes to us later in life. In order to study this, researchers have begun interviewing children, rather than adults, about past events starting at age three, and doing so again at the ages of five, six, seven, eight, and nine. What they have found can best be described by the co-author of the study, Marina Larkina, manager of research projects for Emory’s Department of Psychology. According to her “Memories are like orzo (rice-grained-sized pasta) little bits and pieces of neural encoding.” She describes the minds of young children like colanders with large holes in them trying to drain the orzo. “As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo. Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.” According to her study, children tend to forget events more rapidly than adults because they lack the strong neural processes that are required to link together the bits and pieces of data that fit together to form a complex, autobiographical memory. “You have to learn to use a calendar and understand the days of the week and the seasons. You need to encode information about the physical location of the event. And you need development of a sense of self, an understanding that your perspective is different from that of someone else.”

So, as we get older, our mind becomes less free flowing and better able to retain more and more of our “memory pasta.”

I still wish I could recall more events from my early childhood, but at least I have that one precious memory to hold on to. That one memory of a little kid, who just happened to notice what television station his grandfather was watching.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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