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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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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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