Childhood amnesia

Childhood amnesia

On average, people’s memories stretch back no farther than the age of three and a half.

New science suggests that when we move into adulthood, the brain must let go of much of our childhood.

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  • In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud gave childhood amnesia its name. The most commonly accepted explanation for childhood amnesia was that children couldn't form stable memories until age 7 - even though evidence for this idea was lacking.
  • In the late 1980s, experiments revealed that children three and younger keep their memories, although it is limited. At 6 months of age, infants' memories last for a day, and by age 2, for a year. At around age 6, children begin to forget many of their earliest memories.

From birth to our early teens, we have far more links between brain cells. The excess brain mass is very adaptable and allows children to learn very quickly.

But the adaptability comes with a price. The large and complex network in the brain is still busy growing and not as capable of forming memories efficiently as in adulthood. Consequently, long-term memories created in our first three years of life are the least stable and prone to be forgotten as we age.

Studies revealed that the circuits of neurons that store our earliest memories are not eliminated by neurogenesis—the growth of whole new neurons - but that they are wholly restructured, making it difficult to recall first memories.

This means that some childhood memories are missing while others persist in a patchy way.

Even if we do have a few distinct memories that survive the cycles of growth and decay, we can never fully trust them. Some may be entirely fabricated.

The research demonstrated that our earliest memories are a blend of real recollections, stories we copied from others, and imaginary scenes dreamt up by the subconscious.

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RELATED IDEAS

Any memory before the age of three is likely to be false or having some fictional details, while memories that are fluid, coherent and detailed, like watching a documentary, can also be made up.

But whether they are true or false, memories have the ability to bring us happiness and shared experiences with our loved ones.

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IDEAS

Baby Yoda has captured the imagination

Baby Yoda is the star of the television series, The Mandalorian, in the Star Wars film universe. It is a small, green-skinned, big-eared alien who can wield "the force."

The ways in which Baby Yoda's creators have modelled him on human attributes can give us insights into how and why people think certain beings and behaviours lovable.

When we recall a memory, many parts of the brain share information, including regions that do high-level information processing, regions that deal with our senses' new inputs, and the region that help coordinate the process, the medial temporal lobe.

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