Words by Ryan Gray
Art by Amanda La Forest
“What is your earliest memory?” I guarantee you will hear some excellent stories if you pose that question to your friends next time you’re at the pub. Mine for instance, was walking in on my parents in the living room at the innocent age of 3 years old. Low and behold, 9 months later, I received the beautiful gift of a baby brother. But the less said about what I witnessed on our old sofa, the better. However, it does leave me with a question (among many, many others). How much can you really remember from that time in your life? My guess is very little, if anything at all. In fact, I’m willing to bet that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really recall anything concrete from your infancy. This is the curious phenomenon, known rather ominously as ‘Childhood Amnesia’.
There are 3 basic stages in the memory process. It begins with “encoding”, the initial learning of information. Following this, is “storage” which is the consolidation and maintenance of the learned information over time. Finally, we have “retrieval”, the ability to access and reproduce successfully maintained information. Our incessantly referenced lord and saviour, Sigmund Freud, first coined the term “Infantile Amnesia”, describing it as “a form of forgetting, which veils our earliest youth and makes us strangers to it”. Nicely put, but it wouldn’t be a Freudian theory without then stating that this forgetting is due to the repression of traumatic memories that occur during our early psychosexual development. It always gets so dark with you Freud! Don’t worry, as is somewhat common with the cocaine-addled theorist, he’s been proven to be mostly wrong. After Freud brought this phenomenon to light, early research concluded that we simply don’t encode memories during infancy. But then that begs the question; How do we learn new information during our first few years of existence? It is worth noting that this early research used some questionable methodology when drawing these conclusions. Within science, old isn’t always gold.
The latest research has provided a clearer understanding. In a recent experiment, researchers found that the distribution of retrievable memories shows an exponential growth from the age of 3 to 7 years old. These findings would suggest that while there are few memories from our early years, the quantity rapidly increases throughout our development. In a follow up study, the same researchers replicated the above findings and provided evidence which suggests that after 11 years old, memories are encoded and stored in the same way as in adulthood. But what does this tell us? Well, although we can encode memories during early life, most may not be totally consolidated. As a result, our mental representations of early memories may be vulnerable to degradation over time and thus, cannot be retrieved.
Clearly, this vulnerability subsides as we get older, but what mechanisms underlie the beginning of remembering?
Firstly, language. The span between the age of 5, and the onset of puberty is known as the ‘critical period’ for language acquisition. Accompanying this seems to be the exponential growth of the number of memories we have stored away. Coincidence? Unlikely. What is more conceivable is that with a better grasp of language, children become more capable of providing a comprehensive narrative of the experience being encoded, including many more descriptive features. The reason that the old memories from before this development are lost, is because they are not updated to fit with the new verbal representations in our mind. Again, old just isn’t gold. We are creatures of habit though, and so it does take some time before we fully break free of the old techniques and begin consolidating every one of our memories verbally. Once we finally do, at a time around the onset of puberty (which I guess could be around 11 for some?) our memories may then be verbally consolidated in the same way that they are in adulthood.
But there’s more. While all the above is going on, a small neural structure nestled between both hemispheres of the brain, with a frightening resemblance to a seahorse, is slowly growing. This is known as the Hippocampus. Recent research has revealed that children begin to show continuing increments in the use of contextual cues in their memories, throughout pre-school and beyond. Could this be linked with seahorse development? It could indeed. There appears to be a significant relationship between the strength of our memories and the volume of the hippocampus head. How exactly the hippocampus is involved in memory, is still debated, but findings from amnesia research suggest that it is involved in a general process of generating details and binding them together to form a coherent narrative. Which would just oh so neatly fit with the development of using language, so let’s roll with it for now.
There are likely many more factors at play when it comes to learning to consolidate retrievable memories. The growing hippocampus, combined with a greater ability to use language may however, be two of the most crucially important. Until these components are fully established, our memories appear to be the victims of degradation, so much so that they become lost within the vast expanse of our minds. As much as I hate (love) to say it, the likelihood that Freud was right about repressing psychosexual trauma is minimal.