Infantile Amnesia: Is It Possible To Lose Your Childhood Memories?
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.SAFE (7233). Free, personal support is available 24/7.
Many of us may be familiar with amnesia, but most of our ideas about it come from fiction. In soap operas, for example, a character might lose memories 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 simply TV magic, and is unrealistic and unlikely to occur, especially as it relates to childhood memories.
Infantile amnesia is a type of memory loss that occurs naturally over time. If you've forgotten some or most of your childhood, you're not alone. This happens to most people to varying degrees. Some worry that their infantile amnesia could be indicative of severe trauma, but that's usually not the case.
In fact, repressed childhood memories is a topic that is highly debated since one can only prove a memory has been repressed with evidence that it happened in the first place.
What Is Infantile 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 likely start to get fuzzy when you try to recall anything before preschool.
Infantile amnesia is a version of amnesia that involves not being able to remember early childhood. It's very common, and not necessarily a sign of any brain injury or external trauma. Experts believe that the amnesia is a side effect of the brain’s normal developmental process.
Infantile 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 just tend to 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 infantile amnesia.
One of the most popular theory is synaptic pruning. To understand this concept, imagine a flower bush. When the bush becomes too big, it needs to be pruned to stay healthy and continue producing flowers. Synaptic pruning suggests that the brain has the same need to get rid of memories that are no longer necessary and make space for new ones.
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 major part in recalling memories.
You're more likely to remember something if it had an emotional impact, whether positive or negative. Some people believe that young children attach fewer emotions to events, making it harder to recall certain memories. After all, there is a difference between a child crying out of instinct and a child crying because of emotional trauma.
Finally, infantile 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 our brains don't store memories the way a computer might. Instead, memories are a group of reactions coming from the brain.
As the child grows, the brain develops, and it can be difficult to contact these memories from a previous stage of development as the brain has completely changed.
I Can't Remember My Entire Childhood – Is That Common?
It’s common for people not to remember anything before age 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.
However, some people can't remember anything, or only very limited events from their childhood before age 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. If you resonate with complete childhood memory loss, this doesn’t always indicate trauma, but they can help rule out any serious traumatic experiences so you can better understand why you can't remember your childhood.
"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."
How To Attempt Memory Recall On Your Own
If you're curious to recall more of your childhood, you can try the following tips mentioned below.
Write Down What You Do Remember
Pinpoint Your Triggers
To recall your memories, first try writing down what event you're trying to remember. Include as many sensory details as possible. As you create your own personal archive of childhood memories, you may remember more and more of your childhood.
Triggers have a negative connotation in psychology, but in memory recollection, triggers can be positive. 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. Scent in particular is our sense most strongly tied to memory formation and recollection, so try to focus special attention on utilizing scents from your childhood that may help spur some 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 – just keep trying other scents and utilizing your other senses, such as listening to music you loved as a child.
Get Help With Your Memories On BetterHelp
If you can't remember anything before the age of three, that's okay. It could be a sign of trauma if you're having difficulty remembering important parts 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 to be effective in reducing trauma-related symptoms.
This same study found that of patients who participated in internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), 69.2% made significant progress immediately after treatment, and 77% sustained progress at a 3-month checkup.
Regardless of your schedule or location, you can quickly jump online with a therapist whenever you need support. You can work with therapists who may be outside of your immediate area, or state. Read the reviews below to learn more about BetterHelp counselors who've worked with people in similar situations.
It can be overwhelming to realize we have forgotten a lot of our childhood but there are steps we can take to recall some memories. Journaling about our childhood is a great place to start when trying to recall details. Working with a therapist through online therapy can further help with infantile amnesia by discovering potential trauma and creating a treatment plan. BetterHelp can be there for you while you revisit your childhood.
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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Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:
How much are you supposed to remember from your childhood?
Have you ever found yourself asking, ‘why can’t I remember my childhood?’ and wondered whether negative childhood memories may have something to do? Not being able to remember specific details of your childhood is extremely common – and normal. After all, depending on how old you are right now, chances are that several years or even decades have passed since you were a little kid. Not being able to remember your childhood is an occurrence called infantile amnesia, and experiencing doesn’t necessarily signal that you went through something horrible as a child, that you are developing memory loss or memory issues, or that you’re living with a long forgotten trauma that you haven’t been able to unearthed.
Just like you probably can’t recall every single you did last year or two years before – let’s be honest, for most people sometimes it’s even difficult to remember what they did last week – infantile amnesia reflects the normal course of how the brain works. In fact, research suggests that about 56% of the things we learn at the present moment are forgotten within an hour and 75% after six days. This has several reasons, including normal brain development, synaptic pruning, which is when the body eliminates extra synapses to maintain brain health, and decay or decline of cognitive functions.
There is no set amount of things that you should remember from your childhood. From a developmental perspective, some folks have the ability to remember things really vividly, even if they happened during early childhood. Others, whether or not they experienced childhood trauma, can only remember very few things about their early life and sometimes unconsciously rely on what other people tell them to form their so called repressed memories.
Is it normal to not remember most of your life?
While it’s completely normal to forget specific details of your early life (your childhood neighborhood when you were 2, familiar streets, the name of your dentist when you were 7, or other similar moments), significant memory loss that’s not caused by an underlying health condition and that doesn’t affect other cognitive functions, such as age-related dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or traumatic brain injury, this could be a sign of repressed memories from childhood trauma, not to be confused with infantile amnesia, which is the normal process of forgetting the details of events that occurred during your early years.
Memory loss after surviving traumatic events is sometimes called traumatic dissociative amnesia. It can happen in people who experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect, verbal abuse, or emotional neglect. Additionally, if you suffered head or brain trauma during this developmental critical period as a result of a traumatic event, such as a car accident or a severe blow to the head, you may develop memory loss. Additionally, struggling with mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder or PTSD as a result of childhood trauma, can also lead to memory deficit.
How do you tell if you have repressed memories?
The concept of repressed memories from childhood trauma or traumatic events later in life is a controversial topic that not all mental health professionals agree on. The idea that a traumatic event in a person’s early life can lead to a repressed memory came from Sigmund Freud, known as the father of modern psychoanalysis, who proposed that when a person experiences something traumatic or extremely distressing, their brain can unconsciously push it into an area of the mind that’s extremely difficult to contact.
Some psychologists believe that it is possible to ‘unlock’ a repressed memory through repressed memory therapy, and there are several tools that therapists regularly use to do this. Others aren’t sure because, from a neurological and developmental perspective, there isn’t a scientific proof that the brain actually does this. Others, though, say that there can be signs that a person who experienced abuse in early life may have developed traumatic dissociative amnesia:
- Having difficulty expressing or processing emotions
- Having clear, strong physical and emotional reactions toward certain people, places, or events
- Being emotionally immature
- Living with chronic major depressive disorder
- Not being able to recall anything or nearly anything from your early years
- Having low mental energy all the time
- Experiencing extreme, unexplained anxiety
How do you recover repressed memories?
While recovering repressed memories is a controversial topic in the fields of psychology and children’s emotional development, many mental health professionals offer targeted therapies to unlock and process implicit and explicit memories (explicit memory is when you consciously remember previous episodes in your life, whereas implicit memory is how those memories that you may or may not recall influence your actions and behaviors).
Suppose you believe that you have repressed memories because you can’t recall events in your life or have problems with lifelong learning. In that case, your first step should be to see a doctor to rule out memory deficit due to neurological conditions and ensure brain health. If you don’t have a neurological condition, consider meeting with an in-person or online therapist to discuss these issues. You can also try to reclaim repressed memories on your own by trying a brain training game, meditating, educating yourself on traumatic events during children’s emotional development phases, and journaling.
Why Can't I Remember A Lot Of My Past?
Memory loss and memory deficit can occur for a number of different reasons in young adults and older people. These can include traumatic events during a person’s critical period of development (sexual abuse, emotional abuse, natural disasters, car accidents), including those that occurred in early life or adult years, and a number of diagnosable health conditions. For example, traumatic dissociative amnesia (dissociative amnesia), dementia, and traumatic brain injury can all impact memory, even if in different ways. There are things that can support memory at times. For example, a brain training game, or other mentally stimulating activities.
Not everyone with trauma experiences memory loss, and it’s also very common for survivors of traumatic events to remember what happened. Sometimes, small things may lead to memories of a traumatic event. For example, your childhood neighborhood, a particular smell, or other similar moments and occurrences that serve as a reminder. This can be challenging for individuals who have survived a traumatic event, whether during their early life or at another time. Self-care may be particularly vital if one is reminded of a traumatic occurrence.
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse or is currently experiencing abuse, please contact one of the following hotlines for help and support:
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
What Causes People To Not Remember Childhood?
If you don’t remember your childhood, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder, “Why can’t I remember my childhood? What does that mean?” In some cases, it could be due to repressed childhood memories. It is worth noting that it’s common not to remember the very early years of one’s life, even for young adults. For instance, you may not remember much of your life at two or three years old. However, this doesn’t mean that these years didn’t affect you. Childhood amnesia is sometimes also called infantile amnesia. It’s said that infantile amnesia reflects the existence of a critical developmental period of the hippocampus and that, even if a person does not necessarily remember their early life, it can still impact children's emotional development and can affect the behavior of individuals as adults.
What Is a Fuzzy Brain?
Fuzzy brain often refers to brain fog. Brain fog can make you feel “fuzzy” or “foggy” mentally. It can affect young adults, older folks, and even children. Mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, ADHD, trauma-related disorders, and a wide range of other conditions can cause brain fog or what some might call “fuzzy brain.”
How Do I Know If I Have Childhood Trauma?
You may realize that you have childhood trauma through direct negative memories of the traumatic event, or you may have a repressed memory. Some people with childhood trauma notice that they do not remember portions of their childhood, or much of it at all. The repression of negative childhood memories may contribute to the development of a number of different physical or mental health concerns or conditions, which is one reason as to why it’s so important to seek help. Repressed memories can be a tricky topic at times.
Sometimes, a person may experience false memories, which can be affiliated with persistent and problematic claims of abuse, and it can be tough to parse out the difference between these and genuine memories. From a developmental perspective, it can be vital to note that trauma can impact a person’s life long-term, from lifelong learning to physical or mental well-being. If you experience any mental or physical health symptoms that you wish to address, or if you need to talk about something else with a professional, know that you deserve the help you need.
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