Most of us can recall very few of our life experiences that occurred before the age of four or five, and researchers are now explaining why some of our earliest childhood memories become inaccessible.
“Childhood amnesia,” as Sigmund Freud called it, was previously thought to be an inability to remember anything before age seven. This theory did not hold up, however, as studies began to show that children as young as infants have memories that persist, even if they are short-lived.
In 2005, it was determined that five-year-olds can remember 80 percent of things that happened when they were three, yet only around half of this memory bank is retained by age 7.5.
Scientists have found that, in childhood, our brains can absorb a lot of information in a very short amount of time. The region of the brain that stores memories in the hippocampus, however, is still developing up until our early teens.
Most early childhood memories are lost during the adult brain development process as neurons are being continuously modified. Ultimately, our brain circuitry is lined with fatty tissues and memories become more long-term.
Patricia Bauer of Emory University is a leading expert on memory development. She explained that the long-term memories we set aside during childhood are the least stable recollections that we will store over the course of our lives.
Studies have shown that childhood memories are not completely wiped out, but events are often recollected inaccurately due to early restructuring within the brain.
“This is a phenomenon of long standing focus,” Bauer reported to Nautilus. “It demands our attention because it’s a paradox: Very young children show evidence of memory for events in their lives, yet as adults we have relatively few of these memories.”