Most adults can’t remember much, if anything, from before the age of three.
It’s what Sigmund Freud first termed ‘childhood amnesia’.
But it wasn’t always this way: there must have been a time in childhood when memories from before the age of 3 could be recalled.
A new study of childhood memory reveals that childhood amnesia sets in at around the age of seven (Bauer & Larkina, 2013).
For their study, the researchers began interviewing a group of children at the age of three, asking them what they could remember.
They were then followed up at the ages of 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to see what they could remember from before.
The results showed that between 5 and 7 years-of-age, the children could remember between 63% and 72% of the events they’d first recalled at the age of three.
However, by the age of 8 or 9, the children only remembered about 35% of the events.
Their memories had, though, undergone an interesting transformation.
At the age of 5 or 6, children remembered more events, but their narratives of these events were hazy.
When older, though, despite remembering fewer events, what they did recall had greater detail.
Psychologists theorise that childhood amnesia occurs because the brain is still learning to encode long-term memories. The neural architecture that underlies this ability needs time to develop.
Childhood memory expert, Professor Patricia Bauer, explained:
“You have to learn to use a calendar and understand the days of the week and the seasons. You need to encode information about the physical location of the event. And you need development of a sense of self, an understanding that your perspective is different from that of someone else.”
When children are young the hippocampus–a part of the brain crucial to memory–is still undergoing neurogenesis: new neurons are constantly being produced.
This has the effect of clearing out old memories to prepare the way for new learning. This is vital for a growing child, but not so important for a young adult.
It isn’t until we gain the ability to lay down long-term memories reliably that we can begin to build a strong self-identity.
“Knowing how autobiographical memory develops is critically important to understanding ourselves as psychic beings. Remembering yourself in the past is how you know who you are today.”
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