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childhood amnesia

What’s your earliest childhood memory? Do you know how old you were at the time?

Chances are it dates from when you were at least 3 years old; you’re in the minority if it’s otherwise. Typically, adults are unable to recall anything from infancy and early childhood, and from the ages of 3-7 have far fewer memories than would be expected. This experience is known as ‘childhood amnesia.’ A friend recently sent me an article about this widespread phenomenon, and the latest research being done to understand it better.

The experience of childhood amnesia was first noted by Caroline Miles in an article published in the American Journal of Psychology in 1893. Further studies were conducted, and the average age of first memory among adults in Western cultures was found to be age 3 to 3.5 years. Interestingly, this finding still holds, over one hundred years later.

I have childhood amnesia, and have no clear idea what my earliest memory is. When I go searching for early memories, my mind draws a blank and I am immersed in a mental fog. I do have snatches of memory here and there – picking strawberries in the garden, riding in a child seat on my mother’s bicycle, falling down and hitting a concrete ledge – but I have no idea which memory came first, or how old I was when any of this occurred.

Researchers have found that this amnesia begins, not in adulthood, but in childhood itself, between the ages of 7 to 9. It’s not known why memories up until the age of 3 to 3 ½ are so fragile, but scientists think it may have something to do with brain development, with the structures and circuits that store events for future recall. There’s much scope for future research in this area.

From a therapist’s perspective, I think the general paucity of memories from early life is curious, because this gap in memory coincides with a highly important period of time in a person’s life. From the moment we’re born until we reach the age of 3, we are in a crucial, critical stage of development: forming bonds and attachments with our primary caregiver(s). Naturally, these attachments directly impact on the child’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. But their power and influence doesn’t end there. How well we are looked after, and loved, during this time period becomes an internal blueprint for how we interact with others in future relationships. It’s incredible, but the kind, quality, and intensity of attachments we form in the first 3 years of life have an enormous bearing on how we experience the world as adults. And the majority of us can’t recall any of these early memories of bonding at all; I find that kind of amazing.

You may wonder, does it matter that most of us have childhood amnesia? I say it depends. We may not be able to consciously recall these early memories, but make no mistake, they’re still with us, influencing our lives. As a therapist, I’ve noticed that even if these memories can’t be directly contacted, they can still be recalled in a powerful indirect sense. I experience this a lot in the therapy room, where early memories tend to make themselves known perhaps more frequently than elsewhere.

You may wonder what these look and feel like, and how to know that they’re present. I can give you some of my personal impressions. These early memories, or ‘attachment memories’ as I sometimes think of them, are subtle things, and initially (at least until they are made more conscious) announce their arrival through the intuition. They are not usually ‘memories’ in the usual sense of the word, more like deep impressions that emerge to the surface of expression. Sometimes they are somatic in nature, and felt in the body. Other times they can emerge as highly intense emotional states. On rare occasions there will be imagery involved. I will sometimes perceive a shift in the facial features and expression of the person, where he/she will actually look younger to me. The voice may alter, becoming as a child’s. The energy in the room abruptly changes.

One time I asked a client about what was going on in his family of origin during his first year of life. A feeling of abject terror and heaviness descended upon the room, and there was a momentary inability to speak on either of our parts. The client began to cry and rock in the chair. He had no idea what had been going in his family at that time, but later discovered that his mother’s best friend had died a few months after he was born. His mother admitted she had been terribly depressed and grieving for many months, and perhaps had not been there for him as she should have. Of course he never directly remembered any of this, but something, perhaps from that time period, had been released.

These early memories are not always painful. Another client entered a deeply loving and content state of being when asked to imagine what it was like to be two years old. As the two year old, she felt utterly loved and cared for by her parents, and surrounded by a great sense of wellbeing. She found some healing in connecting with this early felt sense, because life became more difficult later on when her parents divorced.

Are these early memories? I have no proof, but possibly. In her book Molecules of Emotion, neuroscientist Candace Pert shows how our cells hold and retain the imprint of memories. Even during cellular regeneration, old cells pass on their imprints to new cells, allowing the continuance of our behavioural patterns and thought schemas. Cellular memory can either block emotional energy or encourage it to flow in the body. Pert discovered that the chemical reactions associated with cellular memory can change once trapped memories are re-membered and expressed. Health and wellbeing can increase when we release what’s holding us back. Her findings offer a way of deepening our understanding of early memory, attachment, and why these things matter.

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