As your child runs around the house with the energy of a train at full speed, you wonder, “Will she remember this?” Will her childhood memories include you giving her a piggy back ride? Or will the magic of that moment fade and disappear?
Sometimes it’s not a question of what your child will remember, but when they’ll start remembering. We accept that infants forget almost everything, but at what point do children start making long-term memories?
Forgetting childhood memories
A study suggests that kids start to forget their childhood memories between the ages of 7 and 8 years old, in a phenomenon called childhood amnesia.
At first, experts theorised it might have something to do with language development. But further studies showed that even rats and animals without language abilities exhibit signs of childhood amnesia.
Canadian researchers suggested a few years ago that the reason for childhood amnesia may be a phenomenon called neurogenesis.
Neurogenesis is the sudden growth of new cells in the hippocampus during infancy. During this stage, brains don’t store memories that would otherwise be long-term when they are too busy growing lots of new cells.
The nature of memory
Memory is complex and consists of different types.
- Procedural memory. A form of memory that helps my fingers know how to move and help me type this article.
- Declarative memory. This type of memory comes in two forms: semantic and episodic.
- Semantic memory lets me remember general things, like how the sea is salty and deep blue.
- Episodic memory contains our ability to frame certain facts in our personal experiences, like how my parents once took me to the beach as a kid. This type of memory requires putting together the bits and pieces of an event, or semantic memories.
Imaging studies of the brain have shown that the same region that “writes” the “episode” in our brains is also active when we recall that memory. Basically, we mentally “time travel” or replay the memory in our heads.
Never truly lost
Evidence suggests that kids have episodic memory during infancy but lose them later. For example, a six-year-old can remember what happened before her first birthday. However, she will probably forget the party by the time she reaches adolescence.
Even toddlers are able to create long-term memories, but these childhood memories fade after a certain stage of brain development. Our ability to bind, store, and recall events improves after a certain time in our childhoods, so any memory made after that time is more likely to stick.
Since our recollection of memories differ between two stages of development, the more vivid memories tend to outshine the hazier childhood memories (barring any childhood trauma).
However, childhood memories are never really gone. A memory is a unit of experience, and every experience shapes the brain, forming the fabric of our identities. They don’t disappear, they’re just very poorly recalled.
Help them remember
Dr. Renee Spencer, a licensed counsellor with a doctorate in counselling psychology, encourages repetition and routine for all children, especially between the ages of 3 to 7.
“Recall and repetition will make things go into long term and stay because it becomes more of a categorised and organised piece of data that is stored into your memory,” she said.
Patricia Bauer, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, supports this. She said that asking questions (like “Tell me more” and “What happened?”) and allowing your children to guide the description will help them have stronger memory recall.
“The more you start to recall something, the easier it will be to pull it back up,” Dr. Spencer said. “Kids who have parents who talk to them are able to pick up on memory skills early on.”
She also explained that early memory and brain development are important especially before the age of 5.
“The brain is so pliable while they’re little that it’s the best time to teach them things because they can absorb it all. The more you repeat, the more they repeat,” she said.
It also helps to take a lot of photos. These pictures can help jog your child’s memory as an adult.
“They are much more inclined to remember things from a younger age by seeing something like a picture or visualization,” Dr. Spencer said.
Apart from repetition and pictures, there’s one other thing that helps childhood memories stick: a bad memory.
“We’re more inclined to remember something that was traumatic because it hurt us,” Dr. Spencer said.
“We want to remember what we did that caused us pain versus something exciting we experienced. We try to prevent things from happening, so we remember the things that cause us hurt in order to prevent it from happening again.”
However, bad memories don’t necessarily obscure good ones. Professor Bauer said that the earliest memories are more likely ones where children felt strong emotions, whether they’re positive or negative.