Do you have memories of being a baby? Or anything regarding your childhood before the age of 3 or 4? Questions asked from almost 95% of the people were unable to recall their previous memory. This process known is as Childhood Amnesia was first of all reported by Caroline Miles in 1893. Five years after that, Henri and Henri surveyed a group of people and showed that most of the people are unable to remember the events of their life that had occurred during the ages of 4-5 years.
In 1910, Sigmund Freud offered a hypothesis regarding this whole process. He commented that children during the age of 2-5 years are not sexually mature. Hence they forget most of the happenings during this age. Freud asked his patients to recall their earliest times. He found that they had difficulty in remembering the events from before the age of 6-8 years. So he coined the term “Childhood Amnesia” or “Infantile Amnesia”.
Childhood or infantile amnesia is related to forgetting memories from the time when we were babies. Individuals from the age of 2-4 yrs old have an inability to remember events from the early period of his life or maybe longer for some individuals. Different psychologist differ in defining the onset of childhood amnesia. However, first memory is recalled in 3 -4 years (the most common age).
According to a study carried out by West and Bauer suggest that early memories seem to have less emotional and personal content than the later memories. Some other studies show that children cannot form context-rich memories. From the age of around 3, children are able to recall the individual images, emotions, behaviors and isolated moments while from the age of around 4 or 5 they are able to recall the event memories.
There are different factors for the process. Some researchers show that environment, culture and gender affect the overall process. Whereas, changes in encoding, storage and retrieval of memories during early childhood are also important factors while considering childhood amnesia.
Freud’s trauma theory
There are different theories to explain the process, the most important and the first one suggested by Freud, named as Freud’s Trauma Theory or Seduction Theory. Which is actually based on the psycho-sexual development of an organism. During the psycho-sexual development of every child, the brain attempts to forget the traumatic events (for example being abused by an adult) .Which in turn , leads to childhood amnesia.
But this theory suffered a lot of criticism and surprisingly Freud himself abandoned this theory in the late 1800s. While examining the effect of emotional trauma on the development of memories, some researchers found out that emotional abusement do effect the formation of memories in the hippocampus and amygdala, but does not give evidence for the Freud’s trauma theory.
Researchers also propose that the earlier memories have less emotional content than the latter memories. Amygdala (brain part responsible for the emotions) and Hippocampus (brain part for the formation and storage of memories) are independent but emotions and amygdala play a role in memory encoding in association with hippocampus.
In forming memories neurological development plays an important role. Our brain performs the continuous process of disruption and regeneration of neurons, making some of the memories fade away. Since this process of regeneration of neurons occurs more when we are babies and slow down as we age, this may represent a reason of childhood amnesia. The structures associated with formation and retrieval of the memories are hippo campus and prefrontal cortex.
It has been observed that these two structures are not fully developed before the age of 3 or 4, and hence prevent the formation of long-term or autobiographical memories. On the other hand, the development of Medial Temporal Lobe (MTL) plays an important role in the ability of brain to encode and store new memories as it contains Hippocampus. People who have damaged Hippocampus or MTL have a difficulty recalling their previous memories regardless of their age.
While the neurological aspect does explain a lot about the childhood amnesia. However , it is unable to explain that children themselves do not possess childhood amnesia. It was observed that children around 3 or 4 are able to recall the events that occurred in their previous life.
Role of GABA
Neurotransmitters are chemical compounds that help to transmit the nerve impulse across the gap between two neurons (the gap between two neurons is called synapse). It has been observed that these chemicals also play an important role in the formation of memories. Inhibitory neurotransmitter called Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) may be important in the extraction of previous memories during childhood.
In all the animals including humans, GABA activity is higher during the development in childhood than in adulthood. Past studies show that GABA activity helps in forgetting the fear memories during infancy and may play a role in infantile amnesia.
Theory of mind
The development of one’s self also play an important role in the encoding and memory formation. As a child is growing up, he realizes about his unique personality, characteristics and how his ideas differ from others. As he gains a sense of self, he tries to remember the past happenings and events. This concept is ‘Theory of Mind’.
Role of language/speech
Another aspect that play a crucial role in defining the causes of childhood amnesia is language. Speech is a medium of communication. Researchers suggest children who are not able to speak or communicate verbally. Hence are not able to recall events, earlier in their life. If a child cannot speak, he is unable to describe the memories in words. As he has less knowledge to explain them. Adults and children are able to describe the memories from the age of 3 or 4 years. As these years are important in the language development.
Discussions about past
There has also been a research that concludes that the degree of discussion about one’s past. Also plays an important role in the extraction of memories. Talking about tone’s earlier life, helps the people to remember more about their past. Which helps them to recognize the common and unique events of their past life.
Role of Gender and Culture
There are many factors which help in the development, storage and retrieval of memories. The most important being culture and gender. Females have earlier memories than males have.Moreover they have information-rich memories .They are also able to describe others in their memories than themselves.
An explanation to this is that mothers have more elaborative and emotional connection with their daughters which may help them to extract most of their earlier events. On the other hand, men are not able to recollect their memories the way women do and men remember most of the events related to themselves. It has also been studied that children from western culture describe more elaborative, detailed and emotional narratives than the children from eastern culture.
“The horror of that moment”, the King went on, “I shall never, never forgot.”
“You will, though”, the Queen said, “If you don’t make a memorandum of it!”
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
I’m a student of BS Applied Biosciences at NUST, Islamabad.