You’re out to lunch with someone you’ve known for a few years. Together you’ve held parties, celebrated birthdays, visited parks and bonded over your mutual love of ice cream. You’ve even been on holiday together. In all, they’ve spent quite a lot of money on you – roughly £63,224. The thing is: you can’t remember any of it.
From the most dramatic moment in life – the day of your birth – to first steps, first words, first food, right up to nursery school, most of us can’t remember anything of our first few years. Even after our precious first memory, the recollections tend to be few and far between until well into our childhood. How come?
This gaping hole in the record of our lives has been frustrating parents and baffling psychologists, neuroscientists and linguists for decades. It was a minor obsession of the father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, who coined the phrase ‘infant amnesia’ over 100 years ago.
Probing that mental blank throws up some intriguing questions. Did your earliest memories actually happen, or are they simply made up? Can we remember events without the words to describe them? And might it one day be possible to claim your missing memories back?
Part of the puzzle comes from the fact that babies are, in other ways, sponges for new information, forming 700 new neural connections every second and wielding language-learning skills to make the most accomplished polyglot green with envy. The latest research suggests they begin training their minds before they’ve even left the womb.
But even as adults, information is lost over time if there’s no attempt to retain it. So one explanation is that infant amnesia is simply a result of the natural process of forgetting the things we experience throughout our lives.
An answer comes from the work of the 19th Century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who conducted a series of pioneering experiments on himself to test the limits of human memory. To ensure his mind was a completely blank slate to begin with, he invented the “nonsense syllable” – a made-up word of random letters, such as “kag” or “slans” – and set to work memorising thousands of them.
His forgetting curve charts the disconcertingly rapid decline of our ability to recall the things we’ve learnt: left alone, our brains throw away half of all new material within an hour. By Day 30, we’ve retained about 2-3%.
Crucially, Ebbinghaus discovered that the way we forget is entirely predictable. To find out if babies’ memories are any different, all we have to do is compare the charts. When they did the maths in the 1980s, scientists discovered we recall far fewer memories between birth and the age of six or seven than you would expect. Clearly something very different was going on.
Intriguingly, the veil lifts earlier for some than for others. Some people can remember events from when they were just two years old, while others may have no recollection of anything that has happened to them for seven or eight years. On average, patchy footage appears from about three-and-a-half. More intriguingly still, discrepancies in forgetting have also been observed from country to country, where the average onset of our earliest memories can vary by up to two years.
Could this offer some clues to explain the blank beforehand? To find out, psychologist Qi Wang at Cornell University collected hundreds of memories from Chinese and American college students. As the national stereotypes would predict, American stories were longer, more elaborate and conspicuously egocentric. Chinese stories, on the other hand, were briefer and more factual; on average, they also began six months later.
It’s a pattern backed up by numerous other studies. Those with more detailed, self-focused memories seem to find them easier to recall. It’s thought that a dash of self-interest can be helpful, since developing your own perspective infuses events with meaning. “It is the difference between thinking ‘There were tigers at the zoo’ and ‘I saw tigers at the zoo and even though they were scary, I had a lot of fun’,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychologist at Emory University.
When Wang performed the same experiment again, this time asking the children’s mothers, she found the same pattern. In other words, those with hazy memories: blame your parents.
Wang’s first memory is of hiking in the mountains around her family home in Chongqing, China, with her mother and her sister. She was about six. The thing is, until she moved to the US, she’d never been asked. “In Eastern cultures childhood memories aren’t important. People are like ‘why do you care?’” she says.
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