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Why Can't You Remember Being a Baby?

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There are probably blackout periods you can’t remember at all from your childhood, and the memories you do have are likely hazy and garbled. Although pretty much everyone experiences this phenomenon known as childhood amnesia, its causes are still somewhat of an enigma. Here are 4 hypotheses that might explain why you can’t remember much from your pre-kindergarten days.

1. Your Brain Was Underdeveloped

Many neuroscientists argue that infants can’t lay down long-term memories because their brains aren’t fully developed.

As infants, we can certainly make some types of memories. In fact, two of our brain systems necessary for memory-making – the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe – are pretty well developed by the time we’re a year old. However, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t completely mature until our early twenties. Neuroscientists believe this region of the brain helps us form episodic memories – memories about things that happened to us. Before our prefrontal cortex is at least partially developed, we might be able to recall skills or recognize items, but we won’t be able commit full scenes to memory.

2. Your Language Was Limited

Some psychologists argue that we can’t remember our infancy because we couldn’t frame the memories in linguistic terms – and thus never really organized or stored them away properly. When you think about it, learning language changed the way you represented the world. During your first visit to the doctor, you weren’t surrounded by “stethoscopes,” “scales” and “syringes.” You probably thought about things differently before you had words to describe your surroundings. Thus, your memories from your pre-verbal days might be less vivid because your whole schema for representing the world was different.

And while we don’t need language to form memories, it does help us rehearse them – both aloud and in our own heads. You might not have remembered the time the Tommy wet his pants in third grade if you didn’t remind him (and yourself) about it all the time. But if you’d been too young to verbalize what happened, you’d have missed the chance to talk about it over and over again until you’d committed the episode to memory.

3. You Had No Sense of Self

Some psychologists believe that infants need to develop a sense of self before they can develop memories about things that happened to them – known as autobiographical memories. Babies who don’t really understand who they are will have a difficult time picking out the things that are personally relevant.

One experiment on self-recognition and memory provided support for this hypothesis. Psychologist Hark Howe tested whether infants were able to recognize themselves in a mirror. He then let them play with a stuffed animal and told them to put it in a drawer in the laboratory for safekeeping. He brought them back two weeks later and discovered that only the infants who could recognize themselves in a mirror were able to recall where they had stashed the toy. Those who couldn’t had no memory of what they’d done with poor Teddy.

4. You Had No Retrieval Cues

Other psychologists argue that we never have any problem making memories – we just have trouble recalling them when we get older. It’s possible that we forget our episodes from our childhood because there are no context cues around to help trigger the memories. Even if you’ve lived in the same house all your life, the world looks a lot different now than when you were a baby. Think of how your first birthday party must’ve looked through your eyes. The furniture towered over you, the food was hard to eat, and all these people you didn’t invite were speaking a strange language you didn’t understand. But as an adult, it’s pretty rare that you walk by an enormous picnic table surrounded by Esperanto-speaking giants, so there's nothing to trigger the memory of Grandma introducing you to buttercream frosting. We may forget our infancy because our perspective has changed so radically since childhood that retrieval cues are hard to come by.

Shameless conversation-starter: What's the earliest memory you have from childhood?

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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