Long Read: Why Can’t We Remember Our Early Childhood? 

There are writers that are worth my while, for their insightful, informative, enthralling posts, which are masterly written.

This weekend I read one about family memories and shared the story with my husband. He became curious to find out how far back in time we could remember events from our childhood. My instinctive reaction was to say that my living memory is not that good, as I rely on my cousin Carla, who seems to have a much bigger memory storage than mine.

As he insisted, I focused a bit more, and the first thing that came to my mind was a scene of a vague recollection of an event that may have perhaps ensued when I was at my first or second year at primary school. But I am not exactly sure if it really happened at that age.

I am half-fascinated with my ‘childhood amnesia’, and half-jealous of my cousin’s ability to retrieve events from my life that I cannot recall.  I seem to only remember the significant ones and that is all.

The scene I mentioned above is this: I remember sometimes entangling my fingers of both hands, simulating a handicap, as if my fingers were a uniform mass. My older sister was born with shorter arms, due to a medicine used for nausea, taken by our mother during pregnancy. It’s called thalidomide if you had never heard about it. We grew up observing my sister’s distress and embarrassment, when other kids or even adults, would stare at her.

Sometimes kids would touch her and ask why she had those arms. We, the five brothers and two sisters, would be less understanding. We would become angry with anyone who would make her suffer for those curious looks as if she was an animal in the zoo. So I guess that I tried to look like her when I entangled my fingers.

Another time, she won the ping-pong school’s tournament. The girl who became second, instead of complimenting her, called her crippled. Needless to say that one of my brothers and I went all over the girl, and so did all of our friends as well. The nuns had to save the girl, as she heard the most horrible things from anyone who watched the scene.

The tragicomic thing was to witness my cousin, spitting with fury the secret story that he and the girl were playing doctor and nurse; a cold revenge for what she had done to my sister, but now I feel sorry for his attitude to hurt her reputation. That girl may have learned a big lesson that day.

But why can’t we remember earlier stories? This subject has always puzzled me. I have studied Psychology before deserting to Business Management. For a while, I have dreaded Sigmund Freud, the father of psychotherapy, and one of the first who had a strong opinion about the phenomenon, coining the phrase ‘infant amnesia’. He obsessed with the belief that we repressed our early memories because they were so heavily charged with psycho-sexual content that we wouldn’t be able to handle them — even as adults.

Yikes! That always sounded like a too limited and too dogmatic explanation; and if that is the main reason for my ‘amnesia’, I should have a trauma or be crazier than what I am now. Oops!

Thanks to diversity, there are also philosophers, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and neuroscientists interested in researching the subject more broadly.

Linguists say that we can’t remember our early life because we couldn’t speak and create stories, and language gives structure and forms the narratives of our lives. But again this is too narrow, as psychologists argue that there is no difference between the age at which children who are born deaf and grow up without sign language recall their memories.

It is getting complicated, right? And no one seemed to agree with anything yet. Then comes those who say that culture also influences the way we talk about our memories.

Psychologist Qi Wang at Cornell University collected hundreds of memories from Chinese and American college students. As the national stereotypes would predict, American stories were longer, more elaborate and conspicuously egocentric. Chinese stories, on the other hand, were briefer and more factual; on average, they also began six months later.”

“If society is telling you those memories are important to you, you’ll hold on to them,” says Wang. Did you know that the record for the earliest memories goes to Maori New Zealanders, whose culture includes a strong emphasis on the past.?  They can recall events which happened when they were just two-and-a-half.

I wasn’t pleased though, with those scientists who attest that those with more detailed, self-focused memories seem to find them easier to recall. I feel another stream of jealousy of my cousin’s memory….

I am grateful to the advancement of neurosciences, as neurologists found evidence that the part of our brain called hippocampus, which is not yet developed enough in babies, is the key to the mystery.

“If you think of your cortex as a flower bed, there are flowers all across the top of your head,” said Patricia Bauer of Emory University in Atlanta. “The hippocampus, tucked very neatly in the middle of your brain, is responsible for pulling those all together and tying them in a bouquet.” The memory is the bouquet — the neural pattern of linkages between the parts of the brain where a memory is stored.

So why do kids usually fail to record specific episodes until the two-to-four age range? It may be because that’s when the hippocampus starts tying fragments of information together, said psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University in Philadelphia.”

I feel relieved now but while I was still wondering about the memory of my cousin Carla, Science found an explanation for that too. Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California’s psychologist, who dedicated her career studying the phenomenon, concluded: “People can pick up suggestions and begin to visualize them – they become like memories,” she says.

Aha. Even if we base our memories on real events, we may have molded and redesigned them – memories shaped through things we heard from others and not our own memories of the real events.

That made me realize that most of the times when I look at childhood pictures, I sometimes recall that moment, and many times, what I heard about it from others.

When recounting some of my early childhood stories, in light of the above perspective, I see that the issue is not why I can’t remember, but if I can believe any of my earlier memories at all. So is better to trust my recollections of my early teens instead. Here are some:

I have a BFF, from babyhood to date. Our parents were best friends and still are. Her father was a pediatrician who assisted all my mother’s pregnancies and deliveries. A strong bond kept the friendship, which extended to many other layers of our families, including one intermarriage of my oldest brother with one of their nieces. We became family.

I clearly remember that my BFF and I would call each other every day after school, as we never exhausted all subjects we wanted to discuss. My father wasn’t approving my ‘excessive’ appropriation of the family’s phone and warned me countless times to stop it. He eventually lost patience and moved the phone to a higher piece of furniture, which I could only reach by standing on a chair.

We changed tactics and would call each other before my father would get home from work. One day, I was probably excited about our conversation, and fell from the chair, bringing the phone to the floor, and many pieces of an expensive antique vase that my father had given to my mother. That was the end of my career as a “switchboard operator”, as he used to call me. I think I was around 10 y/o.

Around the time I was 12 y/o, my mother was following a culinary course. Every time she got home with dessert recipes, I found interesting to learn them, as that was the only food I was into it at that time. One day, after school, and as my mother was still at work, I secretly took the recipe book and chose a banana candy recipe to make it alone. I had no idea on what a pressure cooker was for but chose that pan to prepare it.

After a while, I decided to open the pan and check if the candy was ready. Luckily, a person working in our house passed by the kitchen, just in time to see what was about to happen, pulling me away from harm. It was too late! Hot banana candy decorated the kitchen ceiling and floor, and we got a few skin burns as well.

What a scare! I fondly remember that day as my baptism as a ‘cook’. My mother banned me from the kitchen though, for a long time!


This long read is part of my assignment for Day Thirteen of “Everyday Inspiration Course”: Play with Word Count. I should aim for shorter or longer posts than my usual. I chose a “Longread” as I haven’t done that yet.

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Sharing sights & insights captured with diverse angles. Ex-corporate slave, now my own boss. Cycling, hiking, cooking, reading, yoga, writing and photography, are no longer only hobbies listed on my resume. It's what I do, when I want.

34 thoughts on “Long Read: Why Can’t We Remember Our Early Childhood? 

  1. As both a writer and a psychology major, I am also intrigued by the topic of missing pieces in early childhood memory. I have several thoughts. I, too, struggle with remembering much of anything before the third grade. Vermont, snow, Christmas, drifts ten feet high, sledding down the mountain and into our back yard, my first dog, all come to mind quite easily. Then I hit a brick wall at the second grade. I remember ONE horrid event. I boldly “lifted” an ice cream sandwich from the dessert cart in the cafeteria and was caught by the principal. He picked me up off the ground and slammed me against the wall, saying, “No one steals in my school.” That’s all I got. Nothing else comes to mind. I do know that our earliest memories are pre-verbal and are basically emotional memories. Some theorists think this accounts for deja vu, but I’m not so sure. I do know that bad emotional memories can color present relationships (specifically relative to bonding) without us realizing it is happening. Of course, there is the age-old repression idea. When it comes to writing about our past, I believe we tend to hold back out of fear that we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. This can happen even when our work is fiction. We worry someone will think the smelly, shifty alcoholic in a piece of flash fiction is THEM. A famous editor (whose name escapes me right now) once said we don’t have a writing problem; what we have is a TELLING problem. I really enjoyed this post. It was stimulating.

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    1. Nice to learn that you are a Psychology major.
      Thanks for your equally stimulating comment. The best about writing blog posts is the interactions via comments. Here I can learn if I’m making sense and being understood. Most often I learn new perspectives.
      I simply loved this famous editor opinion and agree with it.
      Thank you so much for taking time to read this big post and for your considerate comment.

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  2. Ah, interesting post. I remember very little of my early life, but there are snatches…. An interesting one is thanks to olfactory memory. The first time I lifted the lid from a pot of Penicillin V tablets in the pharmacy, I was transported back to nursery school, playing with wood blocks…because the paint on those blocks had
    a similar scent to the Pen V
    You

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always wonder whether some of the things I think I remember I only “remember” because our family has talked about them. But I guess it doesn’t really matter, as they’re things that really happened. I’m always suspicious of people who claim to remember something from when they were babies or things like that. My husband remembers all sorts of things from when the girls were little and I sometimes wonder if we were really in the same house with the same girls. 🙂 I really like the photo, BTW.

    janet

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to laugh with your comment because it made me think of someone else whose memories never match with those of the others involved in the scene. How funny!
      This photo was in fact a mistake of long exposure and I ended up liking it.
      Thanks for joining the conversation, Janet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your posts are always fascinating, this one from a quasi-academic one as I am learning about memory in my Coursera online ‘Introduction to Psychology’ course. In addition, as a child I remember the horror in the stories of the Thalidomide issue. And this doesn’t even give credit to you for yet another moving and very personal insight. I wish I had time to write more, but I am enjoying the course, this time by proxy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Andy, I’m grateful that you and all others that commented here, read this long post and joined the conversation, bringing personal experiences and insights.
      You always brighten up my day with encouragement to continue learning to write. Thank you!
      I’m glad that you’re enjoying the course by proxy!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You are welcome. In addition to my work which has kept me busy, and the associated travelling, I’ve also been studying. I took an online course in Psychology which I found fascinating. I learned yesterday that I had passed, I plan to write about the experience, it really was great and has left me wanting to continue my studies.

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  5. Memory is a confusing thing and as you point out, there are so many aspects to it: psychological, social, cultural… I’ve learned I can’t trust my memories entirely because some of them I have created from the stories of others, as you mention too, and others are probably invented. On the other hand, I swear I remember my last ride in the pram because I was told it would be the last time and I was trying to memorise the event. Or maybe it’s invented 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an entertaining and insightful post. I agree with your final scientist, who says that we appropriate memories from others and make them our own. I remember things that happened before I was born because I would sit with my dad for hours as he told me stories. I remember you telling me about your sister before, but I am so very proud of you and your siblings for your vehement defense of her. And I love that you tried to make your hands look like hers – even as a child you were a truly empathetic human and I love you for it. X

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    1. I’m so happy that you made time to read and comment on this mega post, as I know how busy you are. I’m also grateful to you for having led the way by applying for the course, for that brought me back to blogging, and writing again.
      You’re a lucky girl to have heard those stories from your dad. As I had many siblings and was the 5th, there were hardly any pictures or stories to share about me.
      Thank your for spoiling me with the nicest words. I’m just a sister, and you know very well what that means, as you’re a perfect one to your brother. And you’re the best friend one could wish for, and I love you too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for writing this post Lucile; you’ve woven lots of interesting and thought-provoking ideas and information through a deeply personal story. I believe that I have a few very strong memories of early childhood; particularly of a birthday party and the birth of my brother (which was a home birth, and I was woken and taken to see him when he was just a few hours old). I can date these, so I know I was around 2 – 2.5 years old. I have wondered before if they are authentic (for lack of a better word) memories or constructed from stories told within the family. I tend to the former because they always trigger strong emotions, as well as being quite visual. The strongest visual images are of small details.
    When you recounted you and your siblings standing up for your sister, it reminded me very much of the way my brothers and I stuck together and protected each other. A very warm memory — thank you.

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  8. I thought I remembered a batch from my childhood but one Clarence Day I realised that they were not memories but simply situations I had seen on sure-enough(a) photographs.
    When you recounted you and your siblings standing up for your babe, it reminded me very much of the manner my brother(a)s and I stuck together and protected each other(a).

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