It’s not that I’m regaining lost memories, only that I’m piecing together a sequence of early memories using external references.
For example, I have always remembered attending a movie at the Oliver Theater with my mother. I remember a black-and-white sequence on the screen with a pretty girl in the foreground, and a ferris wheel behind her, lighted up against the nighttime sky. Now I have established through research that the Oliver was demolished in 1950 when I was 2. So the memory is from sometime before that.
It’s not my only early memory. I clearly remember being deposited on the counter of a department store lingerie department, being surrounded by the doting clerks. I must have been a baby or a young toddler at the time, and I was cute—hence their outsized attentions.
I remember crawling on the floor of our first home’s living-room and looking at the brick-a-brack in the breakfront. Watching a neighbor’s light turn on and off from my crib. Making trouble in the early morning with graham crackers with my sister from our respective cribs (we shared a room in that first house). Looking up from beneath the dining-room table at a gingerbread house my mother had made for Christmas. Soap operas playing on the radio. My brown cowboy shirt. Listening to the radio with my great-grandmother and chewing Blackjack Gum. The neighbor girl, Ruth Ann Warner, and being on the floor of her room. Standing at the edge of an embankment that bordered the river. Being thrown hard candies by the railroad men who staffed the caboose.
Disorganized fragments of memory, in no discernible order. But some had to be earlier than others.
I remember a great swag curtain beside Kate Smith as she sang “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” on her afternoon TV show The Kate Smith Hour, which research says ran from 1950 through 1954 when I was age 2 through 6. I saw this in the living room of our first house. I do have clear memories of documented events which took place in 1954, after we had moved to our second home—but I didn’t remember when we moved until I called a nice woman named Vicki in the auditor’s department in St. Joseph County IN. She told me the title to our second home was transferred in December 1951 when I was 3½.
It’s been long believed that most people’s earliest memories only go back to about age 3½—so all of these memories should be considered remarkable because they’re earlier than that. Some researchers claim that any memories earlier than 3½ are false—but my own experience proves this to be incorrect. I know what I remember and I am certain that the memories were not influenced by anyone else from the outside subsequent to their occurrence.
Sigmund Freud coined the term “childhood amnesia” to describe this loss of memory from the early years. Using his psychoanalytic theory, Freud theorized that people repressed their earliest memories due to (what else?) their inappropriate sexual nature. (In my opinion, people can develop more psychological hang-ups just reading Freud than from experiencing any real trauma.)
Now, a study that was written up about a year ago has documented that it’s at about age 7 that there is an onset of childhood amnesia. This seems to fit with what we know about children forgetting past life memories. Some researchers have speculated that you must forget in order to “make room” for older memories, but I doubt that this is true.
In their study, researchers at Emory University interviewed children about past events in their lives, starting at age 3. The children were then interviewed again years later to test their recall.
“Our study is the first empirical demonstration of the onset of childhood amnesia,” said Emory University psychologist Dr. Patricia Bauer, who led the study. “We actually recorded the memories of children, and then we followed them into the future to track when they forgot these memories.”
Research is showing that infants do not have the sophisticated neural architecture needed to form and hold onto more complex forms of memory. For their experiment, the researchers recorded 83 children at the age of 3, while their mothers or fathers asked them about events they had experienced in recent months, such as a trip to the zoo or a birthday party. Bauer explained that parents were asked to speak as they normally would to their children, prompting them with questions, such as ‘Remember when we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s for your birthday party? You had pizza, didn’t you?’ The child might then recount details of the birthday party or divert the conversation to another event, such as a visit to the zoo.
The researchers noted that some mothers might keep asking about pizza, while other mothers would ask about the trip to the zoo. Parents who followed a child’s lead in these conversations tended to elicit richer memories from their 3-year-olds, according to Bauer. “This approach also related to the children having a better memory of the event at a later age,” she said.
The researchers then followed up with the children years later, asking them to recall the events that they recounted at age 3. The children were divided into five groups, and each group of children returned only once to participate in the experiment, from the ages of 5 to 9. While the children between the ages of 5 and 7 could recall 63% to 72% of the events, the children who were 8 and 9 years old remembered only about 35% of the events, the researchers reported.
“One surprising finding was that, although the 5-and-6-year-old children remembered a higher percentage of the events, their narratives of these events were less complete,” Bauer said. “The older children remembered fewer events, but the ones they remembered had more detail.” Some reasons for this difference may be that memories that stick around longer may have richer detail associated with them, she said. More advanced language skills also enable an older child to better elaborate the memory, further cementing it in their minds, she adds.
Young children tend to forget events more rapidly than adults because they lack the strong neural processes required to bring together all the pieces of information that go into a complex autobiographical memory, she explained. “You have to learn to use a calendar and understand the days of the week and the seasons,” she said. “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.”
She uses an analogy of pasta draining in a colander to explain the difference between early childhood and adult memories: “Memories are like orzo,” she said, referring to the rice-grained-sized pasta, “little bits and pieces of neural encoding.” Young children’s brains are like colanders with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory, she continued.
“As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo,” she said. “Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.”
Bauer said further research is planned to find the age when people acquire an adult memory system, which she believes is between the age of 9 and the college years. “We’d like to know more about when we trade in our colanders for a net,” she said. “Between the ages of 9 and 18 is largely a no-man’s land of our knowledge of how memory forms.”
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