Why can some people recall their childhoods and others can't?
December 1, 2004 8:09 PM   Subscribe

fff asked a really good question about how children think. Many responders wrote that they have no memories from their childhoods. This freaks me out. I remember my childhood more vividly than my college years. I have a childhood friend who also has no memories from when she was a kid, which is really odd, because I remember all sorts of things we did together. Have there been any studies that shed light over why some people can recall their childhoods and others can't?
posted by grumblebee to Grab Bag (16 answers total)
define: childhood and I might have an answer.
posted by Cryptical Envelopment at 8:42 PM on December 1, 2004

Ahhh. I can't point to any specific studies, but I do remember reading one that theorized that it's really hard to form memories before we start talking, if that helps direct your search...

Memory is a very very tricky thing - it's part what we perceive and part what we rehearse later. I have always assumed that people who can remember their childhood vividly simply rehearsed these memories more when they were kids, or heard about these events when they were a little bit older. On the other hand, I knew a young child (around 4 or 5) who could remember being in the womb and being born - and he didn't even know what a womb was!

I mean, I have vivid memories of things that blatantly didn't happen, and memories that seem like I was floating in the corner watching myself, so there you go.
posted by muddgirl at 8:43 PM on December 1, 2004

i remember more about my childhood because i didn't spend it binge drinking.
posted by fishfucker at 8:54 PM on December 1, 2004

I have a lot of memories of childhood, but they lack temporal context because I lived in one place with the same friends for my first 10 years. Things that happened after I moved at age 10 are more effectively rooted in time.

By contrast, my partner also has lots of memories of childhood, but because she moved almost every year growing up, she is able to place them in time quite effectively.

Not that this answers your question, exactly, but maybe gives a little insight.
posted by me3dia at 9:03 PM on December 1, 2004

My sister and I had virtually identical childhoods, four years apart. I remember mine vividly, hers is a haze.

Equal experience with alcohol and drugs, the only real difference I can think of is that our major traumatic experience happened to us when I was much older and able to process it better.
posted by padraigin at 9:15 PM on December 1, 2004

Going along with what muddgirl said, I remember reading somewhere that early childhood memory formation is linked to language development -- so, in theory, the earlier you start talking, the more you'll remember of your early childhood. This jives with my experience -- I started talking really early, and I have really early memories. The earliest ones I have are from when we were living in our first house, and we moved out of it when I was still a year old.

However, my mom also started talking really early, but most of her childhood memories are from, say, 5 or 6 on, and they're patchy. But then, she grew up in the sixties and seventies, with all that entails.
posted by fricative at 9:34 PM on December 1, 2004

I once had almost no memories of my childhood. As I go along through therapy, I find very vivid memories of my childhood are available to me once again. Repression and denial appear to be woven throughout my defense mechanism quilt.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:39 PM on December 1, 2004

My childhood is mostly a blur, but then when I see something like this MeFi FPP, it comes rushing in. (in this case, all good stuff) I need others to relate stories that resonate, and then I remember. Very rarely, I have spontaneous memories, but my childhood was mostly uncomfortable (waah waah), so I think I quashed most of the memories.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:52 PM on December 1, 2004

I have a few very clear memories from infancy, when I was clearly prelingual. I'm pretty sure they aren't planted by stories since I remember quite vividly what it was like to try to put myself to sleep -- alone -- as an infant. I freaked my mom out last year when I said "Do you remember that mobile you put over my crib in the downstairs house? The butterfly in the middle used to scare me and make it hard to get to sleep, something about the thick black border around it."

We only lived in the downstairs apartment for about 7 months before moving upstairs, and apparently the mobile was removed when I could stand up in the crib, well before then.

Anecdotal evidence isn't worth much, but it's a data point: Some people retain memories, as adults, going back to infancy.
posted by majick at 10:57 PM on December 1, 2004

My understanding is that there is, within the brain, what could almost be referred to as a low-level background 'noise' of neural activity that slowly reclaims unused memory portions of the brain. Thus I suspect if you don't think very often about your childhood, you're not going to remember it as clearly as someone who spends more time actively reminiscing. I suspect this applies to individual events as well - I have an especially nasty memory from Kindergarten that I would give anything to forget, but can't because at least once a month it gets dredged back up. Also, my first conscious decision to disobey my parents is pretty burned into my brain.
posted by Ryvar at 12:06 AM on December 2, 2004

I have no idea, but I'll say this:

Most of my childhood memories involve senses other than sight. I remember waking up around the age of four, and I associate that feeling with the sensation of sunlight on my skin. I remember going to grade primary, and I associate that memory with the peculiar smell of elementary schools. I even remember certain books, which I associate with the smell of their binding, and something, the imaginary taste of some food described in the book.

In many of these memories, the actual visual is gone, or reconstructed, haphazardly. The smell/taste/sensation, however, remains quite strong.
posted by stray at 12:48 AM on December 2, 2004

*sometimes, not something
posted by stray at 12:49 AM on December 2, 2004

I have some memories of when I was three which may have been implanted. I'll never know.

I definitely remember some events around my brother's birth at the age of 4.5.
posted by grouse at 2:27 AM on December 2, 2004

I have very clear memories of when i was a child beginning at a very young age, also linked to my dormant senses (not only sight). So vivid they are, that many of my memories play back in my mind as being the actual height of a toddler. For instance: when i think of certain memories, i can only see them from the height advantage of a little kid...like recalled images of skimming the bottom of the kitchen floor cabinets, bottom halves of doors, and head-level with our old radiators. disorienting, but peculiar.
posted by naxosaxur at 8:48 AM on December 2, 2004

I just have to say that I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one with a fuzzy childhood. (And yeah, I could probably stand to have some therapy myself...)
posted by squidlarkin at 9:43 AM on December 2, 2004

Before you immediately jump on this, she IS a recently graduated psychology major from Harvard - Natalie Portman was just on Inside the Actors' Studio talking about how she has no memories from her childhood (I think from before her teen years) and how that propelled her into studying psychology. She believes that it's because she was an only child with no friends and that your memories are made through the repetition of stories with other people who shared events with you. I don't know if I buy this - I am an only child and I have many memories - at least one from before I could speak - that included no one else but me. I have, however, verified some memories' authenticity by sharing them with my parents who were able to say that, based on key facts that I would have no way of knowing otherwise, I wasn't just manufacturing memories.
posted by amro at 10:06 AM on December 2, 2004

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