How Childhood Memories Shape Us

November 30, 2016

The slippery baby in the plastic blue tub cringes when her daddy, holding a drippy orange washcloth, leaks a bit of water in her face. He is bathing her for the first time. “Make sure you get the folds in her neck, where milk hides,” I say, video recording the scene on my iPhone. We are new parents delighting in and stumbling through this moment.

The three-year-old girl with pink paint-chipped toenails watches my iPhone video of that day when Daddy bathed her for the first time. She cringes as she sees her smaller self  cringe. My daughter requested this clip out of more than 400, all starring her, most of which she has watched before. We are snuggled up on the sofa. Her eyes fixate on the feet of the squirming infant on screen. She knows she was once that newborn. “Babies don’t get nail polish,” she says, looking down to admire her toddler feet. “I’m a big girl now.”

“Do you remember being a baby?” I ask, knowing it may be a trick question.

“Yes.” She is confident.

I want to peer inside her mind and see for myself what she thinks she remembers.

Many psychologists used to believe that the brains of infants and toddlers were not developed enough to embed salient long-term memories. That notion began to change through the 1980s and 1990s with evidence that even babies could learn and retain information over short stretches of time. Questions remained: What kinds of memories endured? What kinds were lost? How long could these early memories stick around? And when and why did most eventually disappear for good?

Adults can rarely tap into recollections from before two—even memories of something dramatic like a death, a birth, a hospitalization, or a family move. Most memories, if they do survive, come to adults with more clarity if they happened around or after age three-and-a-half. Still, not many that happen between three-and-a-half and puberty survive throughout life. Before we get into middle school most of the evocative impressions we may have held onto from toddlerhood to elementary school have vanished. As teens and adults, we are left with the stories we have heard about being little, along with incomplete fragments of events (if any at all). Only recently have scientists begun to understand the neurological underpinnings of this inevitable loss.

A 2014 study in Science found that throughout infancy, childhood, and into adulthood, new neurons are born within a particular part of the hippocampus involved in memory and forgetting. The researchers asserted that as the brain continues to create these neurons—through a process called neurogenesis—it must clear out older memories to make room.

The period of infancy to early childhood is one of the most crucial stretches of one’s life for forming the self. Brain connections are pruning and taking root. Lasting values are laid down. Foundations of identity are instilled. Language and personality develop at rapid speed. There is something bittersweet about the fact that we cannot access that essential time from when we were small. When I think of my own daughter, it is becoming harder for me to accept all that she will forget.

This week, she declares “fo-fo-felia” her favorite song (“Ophelia,” The Lumineers), and insists on wearing a blue tutu when dancing to it. She calls her dripping after-bath curls “mermaid hair,” grinning with a baby gap in her front teeth. She likes to drink a cold cup of goat milk before bed, and will not sleep without her Doc McStuffins doll. She has named each of her other stuffed animals, listing them off while arranging them in bed: Toodles, Sparkles, Wanda, Tukapua, Tukapia, Layla, Nene, Mrs. Bumpers, and Milky Way Horse Face. Before falling asleep, she wants to hold my hand.

No camera can capture the smell of her at night: watermelon toothpaste and coconut hibiscus shampoo. There is no iPhone camera recording these scenes, just the fragility of a memory that will not last in her mind, at least in any accurate form.

Soon, nights like these won’t be the same. The days of only us are dwindling. Our boys will be here any minute now—my husband and I are expecting identical twins. “My babies,” she calls her brothers with anticipation. She doesn’t understand that they will demand more attention than her parents will know how to give. People will stop and gape at them, and overlook her. I hold onto videos to remind her, and to remind me, that for three whole years, Mommy was all hers. I worry about how her life after the twins will measure up to before. As her memories recede, what will she lose?

Our memory is made of instances we know happened because outside sources told us so (Daddy once gave me a bath in a blue tub), and moments we revisit in our minds, looking out from our own eyes and bodies at an event we experienced in the past (I feel the warm water on my belly. I see the blue tub and Daddy holding the orange cloth. I feel like crying when the water gets on my face). That second kind—the ability to time travel into the past—is known as episodic memory.

Infantile amnesia—adults’ inability to remember, in an episodic way, events from birth to early childhood—has been studied for over a century, and there’s still much that’s unknown. But what’s even more mysterious, and far less examined, is how much kids remember their younger years while they’re still children.

I know my daughter has strong recall for letters, words, names, and songs. These skills fall into the category of semantic (knowing) memory. When I interview her myself (totally unscientifically) I feel like her episodic memory is pretty robust too. Six months ago, someone broke into my locked car while it was parked at her preschool, smashing the window and taking off with my purse, wallet, and phone, which I had left inside in a rush to pick her up. On the ride home, I explained to my daughter what the bad people did.

A few weeks ago, out of nowhere, she seemed to have a flashback while riding in my car along the same route we took home after that burglary: “Remember the bad guys? They broke your window? They stealed your bag, and your money, and your phone.” It is obvious why that memory stuck. There was emotion in it, and insecurity in the brief realization that the world is not always a good place.

Sometimes, I am convinced my daughter can visualize herself nursing in my arms, like she did as a baby. From time to time, she curls up against me and tries to mimic the position. I know she also recalls tunes of lullabies I sang putting her to sleep in that first year of her life. But it’s hard to believe she could mentally reconstruct a colorful scene from her infancy, at least without the aid of a video.

According to a 2010 study in Developmental Psychology, 20 percent of children interviewed under age 10 remembered events that occurred (and were verified by parents) before they even turned a year old—in some cases even as early as one month old. These are provocative findings. Yet Katherine Nelson, a developmental psychologist at City University of New York who studied child memory for decades, tells me: “It is still an open question as to whether and when very young children have true episodic memories.” Even if they appear to, she explains, these memories are fragile and susceptible to suggestion.

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