CLOSE

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?

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
iStock
iStock

As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
iStock

If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
iStock
iStock

One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios