You may have heard of amnesia from popular media. For example, in soap operas, a character might lose memories due to a trauma or brain injury, only to regain them after a specific event. However, this type of amnesia may be an unrealistic painting of how memory works, especially in the case of childhood memories. Understanding how memory loss occurs can be beneficial if you struggle to remember parts of your childhood.
What Is Infantile Amnesia?
Infantile amnesia is a type of memory loss that occurs naturally over time. You're not alone if you've forgotten some or most of your childhood. This type of amnesia happens to most people to varying degrees. Some worry that their infantile amnesia could be indicative of severe trauma. However, it may not be the case.
Repressed childhood memories are highly debated, as one can only prove a memory has been repressed with evidence that it happened. In addition, human memory is not necessarily reliable, and details of memories can be fabricated, changed, or imagined easily. Experts often believe infantile amnesia is a side effect of the brain's normal developmental process.
Infantile Amnesia And Aging
Memories of being a young child may 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.
Children start losing early memories around their preteen years. By around 11, they may be less likely to recall early memories, and as their brain matures, they may lose those memories completely. Some children can forget early memories by the age of seven.
Why Does Infantile Amnesia Occur?
The brain may remove memories if they're not needed in the present. In theory, this keeps your brain running efficiently. However, emotions also play a significant part in recalling memories. For example, you may be more likely to remember an event if it had a positive or negative emotional impact. Some people believe young children attach fewer emotions to events, making it harder to recall specific memories.
Infantile amnesia could also be related to brain development. When a child is young, their brain is undeveloped, which may affect how their memories are stored and retrieved. The science behind memory recall can be complex. However, brains don't store memories the way a computer might. Instead, memories are a group of reactions coming from the brain. As a child grows, their brain develops, and it can be challenging to find memories from a previous stage of development, as the brain has completely changed.
Is It Common To Forget Your Entire Childhood?
It's common for people to forget all memories before age four. If you don't have early childhood memories, it may be normal.
However, some people can't remember anything or only remember limited events from their childhood before age 12. In this case, memory loss may be due to traumatic events. Childhood trauma can lead to dissociative amnesia, where a child dissociates during a traumatic event to protect themselves from its impact.
If this describes your experience, you may benefit from talking to a mental health professional. If you resonate with complete childhood memory loss, it might not indicate trauma. However, a therapist can help you rule out these experiences to help you understand why you can't remember your childhood.
How To Attempt Memory Recall On Your Own
If you're curious about how to recall more of your childhood, you may benefit from writing down what you remember and pinpointing positive aids for remembering.
Write Down A Recall Of Events
To recall your memories, try writing down what event you're trying to remember. Include as many sensory details as possible. You may remember more of your childhood as you create an archive of childhood memories. You can come back and read what you've written at any time to see if new memories arise.
Find Memory Aids
In memory recollection, finding aids that help you remember your childhood may be valuable. Feelings, sights, sounds, and scents can remind you of a memory and bring you back to a specific time in your childhood.
Experiment with aids like old toys or songs to help you recall early memories. Scent, in particular, is the sense most strongly tied to memory formation and recollection, so try to focus your attention on utilizing scents from your childhood that may help spur memories.
For example, if your childhood home had a lilac bush, try smelling lilac flowers and see what pops up for you. If nothing happens, don't worry; keep trying other scents and utilizing your other senses, such as listening to music you loved as a child.
Counseling Options For Childhood Amnesia
If you can't remember anything before age three, your memory loss may be normal. However, an underlying mental health concern or physical issue may be at play if you do not remember most of your childhood. Talking to a therapist can help you explore childhood memories in a safe and supportive environment.
Studies have shown that internet-based therapy can significantly positively affect those who have experienced trauma. A study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found online therapy effective in reducing trauma-related symptoms. The same study found that of clients who participated in internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), 69.2% made significant progress immediately after treatment, and 77% sustained progress at a three-month checkup.
Regardless of your schedule or location, online therapy can be convenient, and you can meet with a therapist whenever you need support. Online therapists have the same credentials as in-person therapists and can offer many of the same therapeutic modalities. If you're interested in meeting with an online therapist, you can sign up for platforms like BetterHelp, which offer access to over 30,000 therapists licensed to offer many specialties, including trauma and memory care.
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Not being able to remember childhood memories may be frustrating or scary, but it's often a typical sign of aging. 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.
Why don't I remember much of my childhood?
It’s common for people to forget a substantial portion of their childhood, with the absence of memories being most pronounced for their infant and toddler years. Some researchers believe infantile amnesia reflects the lack of self-identity in very young children — because they don’t have a concept of themselves as individuals, they can’t link memories to themselves.
Others think that infantile amnesia happens because early childhood is a developmentally critical period in which an immense number of different abilities must be learned. The process of acquiring crucial functions like motor skills and facial recognition may come before the development of autobiographical memory (the recollection of specific life events).
Some people may remember substantially less of their early lives than others. This may be a simple case of individual variation. Research suggests that there are substantial differences in people’s ability to recall events from their lives.
Some of this variation may be associated with genetic and neurodevelopmental differences. Other differences may be related to behavior. For example, people who repeatedly recall and share personal stories may remember events from their lives more vividly (though not necessarily more accurately).
In some cases, an inability to remember most of your childhood could have pathological origins. Some researchers and clinicians have suggested that traumatic events that disrupt children’s emotional development may negatively impact their ability to remember their childhoods as adults. However, this claim is controversial within the psychological community.
Is it normal to not remember most of your life?
While most people forget at least some events from their lives, it’s less common to experience a near-total lack of memories. That said, it’s not unheard of. A 2015 study described a few cases of a previously unknown syndrome the researchers called “severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM)”.
The individuals with this condition reported that they rarely if ever had the experience of recalling past events from a first-person perspective. They had a good memory for facts and details from their lives, but they lacked the sensory recall and sense of “re-experiencing” memories. In tests, these individuals also displayed lower-than-normal visual memory skills.
Although this syndrome is uncommon and may cause subjective distress, it doesn’t appear to be linked to health problems. The people observed in these case studies showed no difficulties with lifelong learning or factual memory, and functioned well in daily life.
What age do memories start?
Researchers investigating early memories have found a large amount of variability in the age of a person’s first reported memory. Many studies report that the most common age of first memories, as reported by adults, is between three and four years old. Younger children appear to remember further back, though. They may report first memories as young as 14 months.
The way that people are prompted to recall their memories may also make a difference. Some investigators have found that tasks in which participants have a set amount of time to come up with as many memories as possible lead to recollections of earlier memories, compared with simply asking “What’s your first memory?” This suggests that different approaches to accessing memory may affect how far back a person’s recall can reach.
Some adults claim to have memories stretching back to birth. Psychologists are usually skeptical of these reports, though, since it’s possible to convince yourself you remember something you’ve heard details about — a process known as confabulation,
Can trauma make you forget your childhood?
Some psychologists believe that people who have experienced childhood trauma can develop large-scale difficulties with recalling early life events. This phenomenon is often called “dissociative amnesia” (or sometimes “traumatic dissociative amnesia”). It’s believed to result from the repression of painful memories rather than from physical damage to the brain. Many people believe a repressed memory of trauma can be recalled, and treatment for related psychiatric difficulties may involve attempting to recover and face these memories.
The concept of dissociative amnesia is highly controversial among researchers and mental health professionals. Many regard it as contrary to findings that emotional events tend to be recalled more strongly and vividly, not less.
A lack of caution in investigating claims of memory repression may have serious negative consequences. Persistent and problematic reports of so-called repressed memories have been repeatedly used as evidence for false accusations of crimes such as sexual abuse and satanic child sacrifice. As a result, claims that someone has recalled memories of a long-forgotten trauma are often regarded with considerable skepticism among psychologists.
Why is my memory so bad at 15?
A memory deficit in adolescence could have a variety of different causes. These may include:
- Poor diet
- Lack of sleep
- Use of intoxicating substances like marijuana or alcohol
- Childhood maltreatment
- Mental health issues such as depression
How do you test for memory loss?
The most common way to test whether a person has difficulty recalling memories from their lives is a questionnaire called the Autobiographical Memory Test (AMT). It was designed to test for a phenomenon known as overgeneral autobiographical memory (OGM), a phenomenon in which people remember their past in very general terms rather than recalling specific incidents. Participants completing the AMT are asked about various types of memories, and the specificity of their recollections is graded to determine if they show strong recall.
Other kinds of memory tests measure short-term or working memory, and are commonly used in assessing impaired cognitive functions in adults as part of dementia screening. These assessment tools include the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) and the Montreal Cognitive Assessment.
Why can't I remember my childhood and teenage years?
Due to the wide range of variation in the specificity and vividness of memory, a certain amount of vagueness in your recollections of your childhood and adolescence may not be unusual. However, if you have no memories at all from this time, it could be an indicator of retrograde amnesia. This condition can have a variety of different causes, including:
- Traumatic brain injury
- Brain damage due to heavy drug or alcohol use
- Prolonged malnutrition
- Neurological infections
- Seizure disorders
- Neurodegenerative disorders
- Severe psychological trauma
If you’re unable to recall anything from childhood or adolescence, you may want to consult a mental health professional for advice and/or treatment.
Does depression affect memory?
Clinical depression is associated with impairments in working memory, long-term memory, and learning, among other cognitive functions. These effects may persist even after treatment.
In addition, there’s evidence of a connection between depression and autobiographical memory recall. Studies have found that people with depression may have a harder time recalling specific memories from their lives, especially positive ones.
It’s not completely clear whether these memory challenges are effects of depression or contributing factors to the illness. Some researchers argue that the changes in memory retrieval seen in depression may be a cause of depression resulting from chronic stress. If this is true, improving the accuracy and specificity of recall might be helpful in therapeutic treatment of depression.
How can I improve my memory?
Research has uncovered many helpful techniques for improving memory. Frequently testing yourself may help you remember things you’ve learned, and describing events to yourself or others repeatedly could cement them more strongly in your memory. It may also be helpful to occasionally do nothing — studies suggest that short, 10-15 minute breaks during which you rest your mind and avoid all mental activity can help to improve later recollection.
Regularly playing a brain training game may also improve your memory. Techniques such as paying attention to multiple senses or forming rhymes, stories, or other amusing associations with things you’re learning could be another way to enhance later recall. Some studies on patients with dementia have also found that a technique called Memory Specificity Training can improve autobiographical memory.
Practicing mindfulness meditation may help improve your overall memory abilities. Keeping a journal or diary might have a similar effect, especially when it comes to helping you remember things in the future.
How can I remember my childhood?
Retrieving specific memories from the past may be much easier if you can provide some kind of cue to your brain. Memories are often strongly associated with sensory impressions, strong emotions, and other contextual elements that were present at the time. You may be able to recall childhood memories through techniques like:
- Revisiting locations from your past
- Looking at old photos or watching old videos
- Listening to music that was on the radio at the time
- Reading entries from journals (if available)
- Tasting foods you often ate as a child
- Looking at or smelling old clothing or other items you saved from your childhood years
- Handling or playing with old toys
- Watching a favorite movie or TV show from that time
- Reading a book or poem you loved when you were younger
The more specifically you can target the period you’re interested in remembering, the more effective it’s likely to be. If you want to remember a past birthday party, visiting your childhood neighborhood might help, but visiting the exact park you went to for your party might work even better.
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