Why don’t we remember our early childhood?

[Source: https://benfa.smugmug.com. ]

“He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” — Gabriel García Márquez. Love in the Time of Cholera.

I often mention to friends and family that I have almost zero recollection of my childhood years. Ask me about pretty much any event at age ten or twelve and I remember it in vivid detail. Drop back a year or two and… nothing! I don’t remember anything! It’s not a gradual drop-off. Childhood before the age of roughly nine is a black hole to me. I remember none of it!

I look at my childhood photos and have no memory whatsoever of the event depicted — a family outing, a cousin’s birthday party, swimsuits at a seaside resort. Yup, I see that what I’m looking at is me as a child but I just don’t remember any of this happening. I might as well be watching a movie about someone else.

If you’re like most people, I suspect, you don’t remember much of your childhood, either. Most people have no memories before the age of four but the onset of “childhood amnesia” can be anywhere from two to nine years old. At first glance, it would seem that at some point in our journey into adolescence, most of us unconsciously drop most of the memories related to specific events in our childhoods. But is that really what happens?

Ask yourself: How many of those childhood memories of yours are “real” and how many are reconstructed around a photo or a video of the event in question? Continuity counts for a lot.

Do you just remember that one event at age four or do you also remember what what happened the day before and the day after? Is it a real memory or one constructed retroactively by years of looking at old photos and videos of that particular event?

I have no more than two or three murky memories of childhood before the age of nine; and I often wonder if even those are real or if they were planted after the fact.

I am standing in pajamas as a three or four year old, sick at home with a fever, being tucked into bed by my mother. I’m playing in the shallow water on a family trip to the seashore. Or do I delude myself into thinking of these as memories, knowing full well that they’re based on black and white photos I saw long ago.

When your teenage son says he “remembers” the trip to Disneyland at age five, does he really remember it or did he just see a video of it on your iPhone? Ask him about something that isn’t documented in the video footage and see if he remembers it. Most often, I’ve found the answer is no.

Thankfully, modern technology has come to our aid just in time, faithfully documenting our lives in excruciating detail on a daily basis. Pretty soon, our children will be telling us they remember the day they were born, based entirely on the available high resolution footage!

So… how did this come to be? Why do we forget our childhoods? How did this tiny supercomputer with arms and legs who can learn multiple languages simultaneously, who can remember every note of a piano concerto learned as a child, who can learn to use an iPad before (s)he even learns to speak… how can this amazing brain not have the ability to hang on to a few precious memories of childhood?

You could argue that your brain was so busy learning basic skills that you didn’t even bother to record the actual events of your childhood. But episodic memory (events, situations) works differently from semantic and procedural memory. Besides, we know, from decades of psychoanalytical research, that those early childhood memories are in fact retained in our brains, even if we can’t retrieve them at will.

At some point during childhood, it seems, as part of a periodic OS upgrade of our brain, most of the old memories became irretrievable — as if they were recorded on eight-inch floppy disks. They’re there; we just can’t get at them.

A key factor is the development of language: the more words and concepts we learn, the more we understand the relationship between objects and people in the world around us, the more “tags” we can attach to our memories for later retrieval.

You don’t remember Cousin Deborah’s third birthday party not because the video feed doesn’t exist somewhere in your brain but rather because at the time you had no idea who “Cousin Deborah” was or, for that matter, what the term “cousin” even meant. Or uncle. Or sibling. Or birthday. Or party. You get my point. You don’t have the “metadata” needed to annotate the event appropriately for later retrieval. To the extent that our brain is a database, you have no way of retrieving the data because you didn’t index it properly.

That, by the way, is also exactly how photographs and videos help anchor our memory. The visual evidence, when viewed repeatedly during childhood and adolescence and accompanied by commentary from parents and siblings, allows us to insert additional metadata about people and relationships, as we come to understand them, that can later be used to retrieve the raw data. “Oh, I see,” you may explain to yourself at age twelve, “that’s cousin Edie, Auntie Sophie’s daughter who lives in LA.” Instantly adding three tags that didn’t exist before.

Another key factor is that the very mechanism we use to encode, store, and retrieve long term memories is itself in the process of being developed during those same childhood years. The prefrontal cortex plays a key role in how memory works; and it’s the last part of the brain to develop during childhood.

Right about now, adherents of Freud are likely to jump in and remind me that we repress our childhood memories due to guilt, shame, and a dozen other neurotic tendencies.

I’m not a big believer in that theory. Most of us live rather boring childhoods interspersed by random episodes of trauma. Yet we forget all our memories, not just the traumatic ones. What is the value in doing that?

In my case, there’s an even simpler explanation for my lack of childhood memories. The onset of concrete memories for me suspiciously coincides with initial access to prescription eyeglasses. The world seems to have suddenly come into focus right about then. I was just blind as a bat and no one had noticed. No wonder I had no memories. I couldn’t see a damn thing around me!

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, Head of Engineering & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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