Childhood Memories: The Research Regarding Adult Recall

How far back do your childhood memories go? Ever wonder if they should go farther than that?

Research indicates that as adults we’re unlikely to have recall of our lives before the age of 3, 3 ½. I don’t know about you, but this feels consistent with what I’ve heard from others on this issue.

The lack of earlier childhood memories seems related to brain development. As stated by Daniel Goleman, New York Times, in the early 1990’s: “The ability to fix a childhood memory strongly enough to last into adulthood, psychologists now say, depends on the mastery of skills of attention, thought and language at the level of an average 3- or 4-year-old. People simply do not retain into adulthood memories of specific episodes that took place at 1 or 2, before these crucial abilities emerge…”

Whereas Freud had theorized that this lack of retention, or what he termed “childhood amnesia,” was the result of “repression of perverse lusts and hatreds that seethe during the first years of life,” the research sheds light on a more benign explanation: language skills deficiency.

In order to get a better grasp on this whole issue, there are at least a few different types of memory to understand.

  • Generic: general info about the past, which includes repeated episodes, dubbed “repisodes.” Five or more repisodes will enable generic memory to be stored.
  • Episodic: More specific episodes, e.g., what movie you saw last night. Could include particularly traumatic memories.
  • Autobiographical: the story of your life as recalled by salient aspects of it.

Whereas the first two types of memory come into existence when kids begin to talk, in the vicinity of age two, autobiography doesn’t happen until about 3 ½. “Autobiographical memory seems to take root only as children begin to have conversations with their parents or others about what has happened to them.”

Regarding the idea that we can form solid memories earlier than age three, when do we start to lose them? Recent research has actually determined that recall begins lessening by about age seven.

Janice Wood, Psych Central, quotes a helpful analogy that was offered by lead researcher (of the above study) Patricia Bauer, Emory University.

‘Memories are like orzo,’ she said, referring to the rice-grained-sized pasta, ‘little bits and pieces of neural encoding.’

Young children’s brains are like colanders with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory, she continued.

‘As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo,’ she said. ‘Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.’

Bauer said further research is planned to find the age when people acquire an adult memory system, which she believes is between the age of 9 and the college years.

‘We’d like to know more about when we trade in our colanders for a net,’ she said. ‘Between the ages of 9 and 18 is largely a no-man’s land of our knowledge of how memory forms.’

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