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?

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

Big Questions
What Is Fair Trade?

What is fair trade?

Shannon Fisher:

Fair trade is a system of manufacturing and purchasing intended to:

1) level the economic playing field for underdeveloped nations; and

2) protect against human rights abuses in the Global South.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage, which means workers who farm fair trade products and ingredients are guaranteed to earn enough to support their families and comfortably live in their communities. There are rules against inhumane work practices. Fair trade farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden. If these rules are not followed, a product will not receive fair trade certification.

The quality of life in many communities producing fair trade-certified goods is greatly improved. Sometimes, farming communities are given profit sharing from the companies that source their ingredients, and those profits go to improving the community as a whole—be it with a library, medical facilities, town infrastructure, or opening small businesses to support the residents. A major goal of fair trade is to help foster sustainable development around the globe. By helping farming communities in third-world countries, the economy of the entire region gets a boost.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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