All coming back to me now
November 19, 2010 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Why am I suddenly remembering my childhood?

I'm 42 years old. I don't have very clear memories of my teenage years - my friends are always reminding me of things that I can't recall. My memory of early childhood is a little bit clearer, but not too much. But now I've started frequently remember random bits - mostly objects as opposed to experiences. About an hour ago, just sitting here at my desk, I got an image of the suitcase I used as a child. I'll be walking down the street and suddenly remember one of my favorite dresses. I'm not complaining. It's actually kind of nice. But why now? Has anyone else experienced this as they age?

Not sure if this is connected, but in the last couple of years I've also started remembering my dreams from the night before as soon as I walk into my bedroom in the evening and look at my bed. I don't always remember them when I wake up in the morning, but fourteen hours later, there they are.
posted by Evangeline to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
did you have a troubling childhood? this is a well known part of dissociation. i've found that with me, it's not the abuse memories that usually come back, but the other little physical objects - like you, a suitcase or a dress or a cassette tape...
posted by nadawi at 1:43 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

is it at all triggered by smell?
posted by The otter lady at 1:44 PM on November 19, 2010

If you're otherwise feeling normal, it's probably Just One of Those Things. I'm a musician, and for some reason practicing, especially the mindless sort of practicing of advanced, yet repetitious, things we have to do to maintain proficiency (like scale patterns, tricky fingering patterns, etc.) often trigger the most random crap. It's not musical nor related to music (ex. I'm not thinking of the practice room or lesson where I first learned this particular task), it's just odd stuff. I often think while practicing, for example, about the time I attended the funeral of the brother of a friend of mine. The funeral was over ten years ago, and I didn't know the guy, so it's not even on the top ten distressing things I've ever done.

Not to probe or create problems where there aren't any, but are you experiencing anything particularly unusual (good or bad) now, like an impending marriage, divorce, job change, sick parent, etc.? Or did you have a stressful childhood?
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:44 PM on November 19, 2010

I've had this happen all the time since I was 13. I don't think about my early childhood very often -- it was, on the whole, unpleasant, and I hardly have reason to think back to it -- but when I do it's usually triggered by a little something: deja vu or the smell of an old book. And that cascades a whole bunch of memories I totally didn't know were stored up there. They just all start linking up like that Barrel of Monkeys game.
posted by griphus at 1:48 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: I was sexually abused once, by my grandfather, when I was around eleven or so. I didn't tell my parents about it, but I honestly feel like it hasn't had a signficant impact on my life. I know a lot of people will argue with me on that one, and who's to say it hasn't affected me in ways I'm unaware of? But I don't think so.

As far as current stress - no, nothing major. Job is a little busier than usual these past few months, and I tend to get angry about little things when I'm under pressure. But really, nothing serious.

I guess I should mention that I have bipolar disorder, but I haven't changed my meds in a few years, and they seem to be working fine.
posted by Evangeline at 1:53 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and other than the molestation bit, my childhood was relatively happy. Well, my dad had a couple of heart bypass operations, and that was very upsetting to me as a young child, as you can imagine. My folks were older than most parents, and I was always just a little worried about them dying.
posted by Evangeline at 1:55 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: Good grief, my childhood is starting to sound worse and worse.
posted by Evangeline at 1:56 PM on November 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

OK, well, a few 1,000 psychologists would disagree with you on the impact of being sexually abused. Doesn't mean it has to ruin your life, but it's a factor. :-)

If you're on meds, I assume you're under some kind of routine psychiatric care? If this behavior is changing enough for you to notice it, I would think it would be worth mentioning to them on your next visit.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:06 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: Just want to make clear that I'm not minimizing the trauma of sexual abuse, just reporting on my feelings, so please don't think I consider sexual abuse "no big thing".
posted by Evangeline at 2:09 PM on November 19, 2010

Don't sweat the trauma part. It may be a factor in the big picture, but not necessarily important for what you're asking. It could be that you're indeed being triggered by something like smells or sounds without knowing it. Otherwise, perhaps your mind is working on something that hasn't surfaced yet.
Why not write these things down? Maybe you'll find some sort of pattern.
posted by Namlit at 3:29 PM on November 19, 2010

I'm 37, no history of abuse, and I've noticed that I'm recollecting my childhood a lot more as I get older. I don't much like it but I just figure it's an oddity of the aging process.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 4:25 PM on November 19, 2010

I think it is indeed an aging thing, to some extent. That is, in general, if not necessarily in your particular case.

All the old people I know (and I mean old-old, i.e. 85+; much bigger numbers than 42) seem to have crystal-clear memories of stuff from their youth, while anything from last week might as well have happened to somebody else. Heck, I'm not even 30, and that's how my memory works.

I'll also posit that random memories like these may have popped up all the time throughout your life, but you're just now becoming conscious of it happening. Confirmation bias, basically.

And, yeah, smells definitely trigger this sort of thing for me.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:37 PM on November 19, 2010

When I started writing fiction a lot (in my late thirties), I went through a period of remembering things from my childhood. Part of it was that some writing exercises actually ask you to write about objects from childhood. I found it a lot easier at first to remember things with negative associations, but the pleasant memories came at odd moments later on.

The other, more troublesome, part was wanting to write characters based on myself and wondering why I behave the way I do. I started seeing events from my childhood and teen years in a different light -- not always a rosy one.

I just wonder - are you embarking on any creative projects or resume updates? If so, maybe you're just thinking about yourself and your origins more.
posted by rw at 4:39 PM on November 19, 2010

I'm trying to remember what this is called, but there's long been thought to be a "memory bounce" or "memory spike", in which childhood memories start coming back unexpectedly around 40-50 years old. I've been googling but so far no luck. I've seen some term of art (neither of the above, apparently) in a lot of psychology books, though. Maybe somebody else will know.
posted by Beardman at 5:00 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. This is all really interesting.

In regard to smell triggering memories - this has certainly happened to me before, but in this case it doesn't seem to be a factor.
posted by Evangeline at 5:09 PM on November 19, 2010

I've definitely found that these things snowball - I remember one thing, then that triggers another memory. Often the next memory isn't even in the same day. It's almost like in noticing the memory that popped up you're training your mind to remember something else, even if that isn't what you were trying to do.

I like the idea above about writing down the items. Not necessarily even for therapy reasons, but just to be able to remember as it happens more often.

I do the dream thing, too, but it's after I've gotten into bed and start getting sleepy. Again, I think it's just a pattern that the brain falls into.
posted by ldthomps at 5:57 PM on November 19, 2010

I get random places that I've been to in the past pop into my head in exactly the same way, though they're rarely from my childhood, but more often from my twenties and thirties (I'm 43 now). There doesn't seem to be a link through smell or anything else triggering it, but they are quite vivid but fleetig impressions. Usually they're not particularly significant, just streets that I've walked down, for example, sometimes only the once.

They feel to me like little memory bubbles rising to the surface and bursting.
posted by Chairboy at 7:01 PM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are there kids around you recently? Your own, other people's (at school, work, a nearby park, etc), on TV?

As my kids enter various stages I've been like "oh yeah, I remember what that was like!" (mostly followed by "boy am I glad I'm a grownup now"). If you've been observing other kids you might be doing something similar unconsciously.
posted by DU at 7:13 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: Oh no, don't have any kids. Not around any usually, though I love them.
posted by Evangeline at 7:49 PM on November 19, 2010

Evangeline, wasn't trying to pick on you - I was just commenting on the fact that most people would consider your experiences a Big Deal. You have a right to have feelings about them, even if they were a long time ago.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2010

I started having lots of vivid sense-memories of my childhood when I was in my late thirties. I don't think it's that unusual? Other friends have mentioned it in conversation to me as well. I'd be interested to see the research Beardman mentions, but my anecdata is certainly confirmatory.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:37 PM on November 19, 2010

Have you taken up any kind of new physical activity lately? Exercise, sports, taking a new route to work? I believe that memories are stored everywhere in the body, not just in the brain, and often paying more attention to your body can trigger their "release."
posted by Paris Elk at 2:09 AM on November 20, 2010

Response by poster: Nope, no new physical activities.

Thanks for all the answers. I'm going to do some more research on this idea of a memory bounce. I'll post if I find anything.
posted by Evangeline at 3:49 PM on November 20, 2010

If your grandfather molested you, it's likely that he also molested or was otherwise inappropriate with one of your parents. So you may have been dealing with more fallout from abuse while growing up than you realize, and perhaps it would be worth talking about it with your parents, if they're still around.
posted by Scram at 5:36 AM on November 21, 2010

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