Good news: all that melting down you did during the toddler years? Your kid will mostly have forgotten about it by the time she starts 2nd grade. The bad news? That trip to Disneyland you couldn't wait to take with your preschooler? Yeah, that memory is well on its way to fading to black, too. It's all normal, and known as childhood amnesia, and researchers have begun to pinpoint not just the when but the why of it. (Now you really regret renting the tiger cub for baby's 2nd birthday!)
Emory psychologist Patricia Bauer led a study in which 83 3-year-olds were interviewed by their parents about six recent events—trips to the zoo or birthday parties, for example. The same kids were then asked about these events at the ages 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. Based on these followup interviews, researchers found that a majority of these 3-year-old memories tended to fade into oblivion around the age of 7.
Sigmund Freud theorized that childhood amnesia was a way for babies to forget all the psychosexual trauma of birth and early babyhood. But modern researchers think the reasons are less charged. Babies are using memory all the time to develop language and make sense of their world, but that their brains aren't wired up in a complex enough way to hold on to more complicated things like past events. Their brains are still making neural connections and so on, but by the time neurological pathways are complex enough to, say, remember their first steps or 3:30 a.m. viewings of "The Wire," the elements of those events are too disconnected to be anything resembling a memory.
This loss of memories tends to start fading early on, even for those kids who can recall events from when they were 3. The 5- and 7-year-olds could recall between 63 and 72 percent of the event. The kids who were 8 and 9 remembered around one-third of the events. Interestingly, the memories that the older group did hold on to from those times tended to be richer in detail.
So is it good or bad that humans experience childhood amnesia?
In her report, Bauer likens the memory of children to a colander with wide holes. If memories are like orzo pasta, a lot of the orzo is going to slip through the colander and down the drain. As we get older, the colander becomes more like a net—and our memory holds on to more of the events for recall.
So is it good or bad that humans experience childhood amnesia? It's not bad, since it's universal and it just is. But, early memories nonetheless play in important role in the development of the self. "Knowing how autobiographical memory develops is critically important to understanding ourselves as psychic beings," Bauer says. "Remembering yourself in the past is how you know who you are today."
The research team's next project is to try to figure out when the so-called colander memory becomes more like a net. Results of this early memory study, which appears in the most recent issue of the journal Memory, indicates that it probably happens sometime after kids turn 9 years old but before they become an adult—a phase of memory formation about which she says science actually understands very little.
It's all rather bittersweet, huh? They'll never remember that beautiful nursery you put so much effort into creating when you were pregnant. Then again, that time you had sex next to the co-sleeper? Yeah, this kind of dials down the volume of Freud's scolding voice, now, doesn't it?