Why Can't You Remember Being a Baby?

You were once a kicking, screaming, tiny little human. I know, it’s hard to believe, right? Since you probably can’t remember a single thing about being a baby. Most of your early childhood is probably a memory-less void, and the few events you do remember are likely hazy. This phenomenon is known as “childhood amnesia” and it happens to everyone. Some people are better at remembering than others but we’re all pretty bad at it. But why is it so hard to remember life as a baby? Let’s find out. It’s believed that memories start to form in our brain as soon as we’re born and maybe even before, however, studies have found that children don’t actually store those memories permanently, so that they can later be accessed in adult life. We don’t start storing memories in a somewhat semi-permanent manner until the ages of four to seven. We can usually remember certain important events that occurred between the ages of four and seven. But before the age of four, nothing. In fact, during a study, children between the ages of four and seven were told things that they definitely did and said two years prior, but none of the children could remember doing or saying them. Most of the children actually said “that wasn’t me, it was someone else”. Infamous neurologist and pioneering phycologist Sigmund Freud believed that we repress our earliest childhood memories because this period of time is so full of psychosexual content that we simply wouldn’t be able to handle such disturbing memories, even as an adult. But nowadays that theory carries very little gravitas. More recently however new theories have emerged that attempt to once and for all explain this mysterious childhood memory loss. The first of these is that as an infant our brain quite simply isn’t sufficiently developed yet. The two parts of our brain necessary for forming new memories, the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe are already well developed by the time we’re one-year-old. However, another part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until our early twenties. It is believed the prefrontal cortex is responsible for creating episodic memories. Which are memories of actual events. Being able to remember what happened, where it happened and roughly at what time it happened is a skill our brains don’t master until later on in life. Until this time our brain is only able to remember skills we’ve learnt as well as cosmetic things such as items and faces. As babies we aren’t able to attach emotions to these things, so they don’t transform into events and are therefore less memorable. Another theory that compounds this effect is that as babies we aren’t able to talk. We have no language. That’s quite significant, because it means we were never able to represent memories with words. For example, if you think back to the day when you moved into a new house your can probably remember distinguishable aspects of that day, such as, the house had six windows and a blue door and you arrived at your new house in a small red car. If an infant were to be placed in the exact same situation it wouldn’t be able to attach words to the event because a baby has no idea what a window or a door is, never mind how to describe them. So the infant wouldn’t be able to make that all-important link between words and memories, which is what we do all the time as adults. Psychologists think that by attaching language to memories in this way, it helps our brain to organise and store them more efficiently. So, if we’re able to describe a thing or an event with words it’s considerably more likely that our brain will remember it several years down the line. By the time the average child reaches four years old it knows about 5,000 words. That’s just enough to be able to describe most things and events. Even if those descriptions are rather basic, it doesn’t matter, it’s still fuel being added to the memory tank. This process of attaching words to memories is further reinforced by the fact that when we learn a language, we’re then able to talk about things we’ve seen, with others. And every time we talk about something that’s happened, we’re much more likely to remember it in the future. That’s why your granddad has told you that exact same story about when he was a young lad a hundred bloody times and continues to do so every time you see him. Because he’s told it so many times, that it’s nigh on impossible for his brain to forget it. These theories do have some weight to them and they’re widely regarded as some as the best theories we currently have to explain why we can’t remember life as a toddler. But there’s brand new evidence that may once and for all, definitively explain this phenomenon. We all know just how much scientists love to answer questions by experimenting on rats and this question is no exception. In an experiment scientists controlled the speed at which rat’s brains were able to make new brain cells. They found that when they slowed down the rat’s ability to generate new brain cells the rats were able to form more solid, clearer memories and they were able to recall memories easier. Conversely, when they sped-up the rat’s ability to make new brain cells the rats were more forgetful and their memories became fuzzier. Now before you ask, how they were able to test the rat’s memories? Let me explain, I mean they couldn’t exactly interview them, could they? The scientists did this by associating a place with a mild electric shock, then observing how the rats reacted when they returned to that same place in the future. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the rats who had their brain cell production rate increased, have been able to remember more, not less? You would think so, but here’s why it’s actually the opposite way around. Just like a computer hard drive, our brains have limited storage space. There’s only room for so many brain cells, so our ability to store memories is limited. This means that when new brain cells are created, if there’s no more space remaining, then they have to overwrite old ones. So when a new memory is created, if there isn’t any spare room our brain decides which memories are useless and can therefore be forgotten and deletes them to make room for the new memory. Oh and before you say we’re born with so many brain cells and we can’t grow new ones, that rumour simply isn’t true. Research has shown that brain cells and neurons continue to grow in our brains throughout our entire lives, although the process does slow down somewhat as we age. So why does this deletion of memories occur more often as an infant than as an adult? Two reasons, the first is that our brains are developing at an astonishingly fast rate as a child. We are learning and developing faster than we ever will in the remainder of our life. So a lot of room needs to be made for new memories and skills we learn. Secondly, a lot of what we experience as an infant is deemed non-essential by our brain. Because let’s face it, you don’t need to remember the time you were on all fours in your garden and tried to eat a tulip. So all these useless memories we create as an infant are the first to be discarded when new memories are created and new skills are learnt as we grow up. So to summarise, we can’t remember being a baby because our brains have emptied the trash, because our hard drive was getting rather full.

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