Childhood Amnesia: Is It Possible To Lose Your Childhood Memories?
By: Dylan Buckley
Updated February 15, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell
Most of us know what amnesia is, but most of our ideas about it come from fiction and have little basis in reality. In soap operas, for example, a character might lose his or her memories, usually due to some trauma or brain injury, only to regain them suddenly when triggered by another person or event. It turns out that this scenario is unrealistic and unlikely to occur, especially when it comes to childhood memories.
Childhood amnesia is a condition that occurs naturally over time. If you've forgotten some or most of your childhood, you're not alone. This happens to most people. Some worry that their childhood amnesia could be indicative of severe trauma, but that's usually not the case. In fact, the very idea of repressed childhood memories is highly debated because you cannot prove that something has been repressed unless you have evidence that it happened in the first place.
What Is Childhood Amnesia?
Think about your earliest memories. Go as far back as possible, and try to paint a picture of each year. How far back can you go? If you're like most people, your memories start to get fuzzy when you try to recall anything before preschool. Childhood amnesia or infantile amnesia means that someone is unable to remember their early childhood. It's very common, and not necessarily a sign of any brain injury or external trauma.
Although the average person can't remember sucking on a bottle as a baby, many people find it strange that they can't remember life as a three-year-old. At three, you know you were talking, and you could even use the bathroom, but it's still rare to remember that part of your life. Your memories are probably faded like an old picture that has been sitting in the sun for too long.
You've probably heard your parents or someone who knew you when you were a toddler talk about events that happened during that time, but you can't remember what they're talking about. It may be a bit frustrating. Odds are that nothing eventful happened during that time, but it can feel strange to know there are parts of your life you can't remember. It may feel like your life began at the age of four or so. Before this age, pictures, videos, and stories from friends and family are the only evidence of your existence.
Childhood Amnesia and Aging
Memories of being a young child generally fade over time. A child may be able to recall their early memories much better, but an adult may have more difficulty remembering what happened before a certain age. Why is that? Do our memories fade as we age? Or do we remember parts of our lives that are more eventful?
Children start losing early memories around their preteen years. By the age of 11 or so, they are less likely to recall early memories, and as their brain matures, they seem to lose those memories completely. Some children can even forget early memories by the age of seven.
Why Do We Forget?
You may wonder why we can't remember anything before a certain age. The brain is a complex organ, and we're still learning how it functions, so there are many theories about childhood amnesia.
One of the biggest theories is synaptic pruning. To understand this concept, imagine a small tree. When the tree becomes too big, it needs to be pruned to stay healthy. Synaptic pruning suggests that the brain has the same need. To get rid of memories that are no longer necessary, the brain may remove these memories if they're not needed in the present. In theory, this keeps your brain running efficiently. However, emotions also play a major part in recalling memories.
"If you're having difficulty remembering important parts of your childhood, that may be a sign of trauma. Talking to a therapist can help you explore childhood memories in a safe and supportive environment."
You're more likely to remember something if it had an emotional impact. Some people believe that young children attach fewer emotions to events, so they have a harder time recalling certain memories. After all, there is a difference between a child crying out of instinct and a child crying because of emotional trauma.
Finally, childhood amnesia could be related to brain development. When a child is very young, their brain is undeveloped, which may affect how their memories are stored and retrieved. The science of how memory recall works is very complex and worth its own article, but in short, our brains don't store memories the way a computer might. Instead, memories are a collection of reactions coming from the brain. As the child grows, the brain develops, and it can be difficult to access these collections from a previous stage of development.
Are Those Memories Real?
It's hard to know how many childhood memories are real. Do you ever wonder how many of them you remember simply because someone told you about the event?
Can People Remember Being Babies?
Remembering being a toddler is one thing, but some people claim to remember being babies. They remember drinking bottles, crying for attention, and learning to take their first steps. This seems unlikely, but science doesn't currently have a way of knowing if these memories are real or not. There is some evidence that babies can retain memories, but again it's hard to test this scientifically.
I Can't Remember My Entire Childhood?
As mentioned previously, it's very common for people not to remember anything before the age of three. If you don't have early childhood memories, there's nothing wrong with your mind, and you probably don't suffer from any trauma. It's normal to lose your early childhood memories at a young age.
You may read the full study here: A therapist-assisted cognitive behavior therapy internet intervention for posttraumatic stress disorder: Pre-, post- and 3-month follow-up results from an open trial.
However, some people can't remember anything from their childhood before the age of 12. In this case, there may be some form of trauma at play. Childhood trauma can lead to dissociative amnesia, where we seal away a chunk of our memories as a defense mechanism against significant trauma.
If this describes your experience, it may be best to talk to a mental health professional. It doesn't mean that you definitely experienced trauma, but they can help rule out any serious issues, so you can understand why you can't remember your childhood.
How to Attempt Memory Recall on Your Own
If you're curious to remember more of your childhood, you can try the following tips.
Write Down What You Do Remember
To clarify your memories, try writing down what you're trying to remember. Include as many sensory details as possible. As you create your own personal database of childhood memories, you may remember more and more of your childhood.
See If You Can Find Any Triggers
Triggers have a negative connotation in psychology, but in memory recollection, triggers can be a positive thing. Feelings, sights, sounds, and scents can trigger a memory and bring you back to a specific time in your childhood. Experiment with triggers like old toys or even songs to help you recall early memories.
Get Help With Your Memories on BetterHelp
If you can't remember anything before the age of three, that's okay and is to be expected. That said, if you're having difficulty remembering important parts of your childhood, that may be a sign of trauma. Talking to a therapist can help you explore childhood memories in a safe and supportive environment.
Studies have shown that internet-based therapy can have significant positive effects on those who have experienced trauma. A study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found online therapy to be effective in reducing trauma-related symptoms. In the study, patients participated in internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps those experiencing unhelpful or harmful thoughts to reframe thinking patterns. According to research, 69.2% of participants made significant progress immediately after treatment, and 77% sustained progress at a 3-month checkup.
Unlike with traditional therapy, online counseling allows you to access help at any time of day. Regardless of your schedule or location, you can quickly jump online with a therapist whenever you need support. You will also have the opportunity to work with therapists who may be outside of your immediate area, or even state. Read the reviews below to learn more about BetterHelp counselors who've worked with people in similar situations.
"I have been working with Dr. Cheng for a few weeks now. She is extremely caring and patient. Very quickly she was able to identify my struggles and I feel very well cared. I struggled a lot with one on one sessions, but doing online has been quite less tiring for me. She is helping me with my anxiety and with past childhood traumas. I find that the exercises she provided me are of great use. I definitely recommend her."
" She is very easy to talk to and the feedback she provides is honest, and personalized to fit my situation. She challenges me to think about my past in a new way which is helping to address future concerns as they arise too! Very thankful to have her help and guidance!!!"
Not being able to remember childhood memories may be frustrating or somewhat scary, but it's actually very normal. If you're curious to remember more of your childhood, consider the ideas in this article or reach out to a counselor who can support you through the process. Take the first step today.
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