Why Can't You Remember Being a Baby?

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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August 22, 2012 - 8:01pm
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