THE BLOG

Whatever Happens to Childhood Memories?

22/01/2015 09:32 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Apparently, most of us have little or no recall about our existence before the age of three, though one of my earliest memories puts me at about two and a half, hand in hand with my aunt, visiting my mother and new baby sister in the hospital. I think we were there to bring them home; I'm not sure. But I vividly remember being there, seeing my mother in a wheelchair, cradling the baby.

Honestly, I do. Perhaps, over the years, I have added to this, invented bits that weren't there, but I'm pretty sure I remember it. And my father, when he was nearly three, now eighty, has a memory of his brother, about two and a half years older than him, teasing the family mule and being kicked for it.

But we are exceptions to the memory rules.

My husband hasn't a clue of what his earliest memory might be, and my godson, now nineteen, doesn't remember a thing about his first road trip with Auntie Sonja when he was a toddler, or even staying with us in London, without his parents, when he was about five.

Another young acquaintance in his mid-twenties understands this completely, and thinks it is a difficult question in the first place. He wondered out loud how he would even know if it was his first memory.

Eventually, however, he remembered back to about age three, when his eight-year-old brother gave him and his four-year-old brother a shot of rum, masked as 'secret medicine', creating instant tears and a fiery chest.

'I remember my chest burning,' he said, smiling.

Who could forget that? I thought, wondering if recall had anything to do with the nature of the event, the scope of it.

According to Dr Patricia Bauer, Emory University psychologist, who led a 2014 study on earliest memories, memories that stick around longer might have richer detail associated with them than those that fade into the background.

No wonder my father remembers the mule incident! And why one friend remembers flying to Jamaica with her father at age six, and observing a flamboyant runway fashion show on the airplane, models and all.

Still, most of us forget early memories long before adulthood, according to the Emory research, mainly because young children lack the brain structure to reconstruct complex experiences.

In an article on PsychCentral, Bauer used the analogy of draining pasta to explain the difference in childhood and adulthood memory recall.

'Memories are like orzo,' she said, referring to the rice-sized pasta, 'little bits and pieces of neural encoding. Young children's brains are like colanders, with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory,' she continued. 'As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo. Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.'

Further to this, in their study Bauer and her colleagues found that at about aged seven, children experience childhood amnesia, owing to their immature brain structure. They interviewed eighty-three children at about three years and then talked to them later in life, some at around aged five and six years, and others eight and nine years. The younger children had a higher recall, albeit more sketchy, than the older children, who only had about thirty-five per cent recall. Their memories, however, were more filled-in.

So much then for the little girl who calls me 'Soma' remembering our exciting adventure to Hamleys, Britain's oldest and largest, and arguably most loved toy store, before she was even two. That day she raced around with vigorous toddler energy, but every so often she looked over her shoulder into the jungle of toys and strangers for her safety net; me.

After an hour of extraordinary excitement, we left the store with a Cloudbaby, a Thomas the Tank Engine umbrella and a CD with several songs, to which her name had been added.

On the way to reconvene with her mother, my stepdaughter - hence 'Soma', my name for 'g-ma'. Clever, isn't it? - I do recall wondering, if only fleetingly, would she carry this fairy-tale-like memory into her teenage years, even her adulthood.

More than a year later, I'm pretty confident of the answer, considering Emory's study and also the missing Cloudbaby, which strangely disappeared, unless I am mistaken, within weeks, maybe days. The CD has gone mute, too. Make no mistake about, I'm not offended. quite the opposite; I'm delighted that my gifts got as much time as they did, especially the umbrella, which for a time appeared rain or shine, and got me name recognition alongside Hamleys. Who could ask for more? But come to think of it, it has been months now since I have heard tell of the umbrella or even the store.

Perhaps, they are already somewhere in the orzo of her memories, but will they survive the draining and the fading? Only time will tell. In any case, however, such childhood memories can be fun to conjure up, if only for a laugh, for a feel-good moment. Also, they can be like a treasure trove for adults to remember the innocence, the delicacy of youth in a hectic world, where it is all too easy to forget.