Infantile Amnesia: Why Childhood Memory is Like An Adult’s On Martinis

I can flyOur six-year-old daughter comes bounding into the room. (She is a bounder.) Which may explain the following exchange:

“Mom let’s play a guessing game where we run around and do fun things.”

“Ok. How do we do it?”

“Well, there’s twelve steps. We have to say we’re sorry.”

Really? What the hell?! Where did she pick that one up? The only explanation, other than some off-color adult humor snuck into an episode of Phineas and Ferb, is just pure osmosis.

It’s fitting because there are endless comparisons on cutesy, gif-heavy websites between small children and the chronically drunk. It is pretty funny when you think about it: They fall asleep in unexpected places and positions, they say anything they want to anyone, they’re uncoordinated and they have zero impulse control.

But one aspect of the Toddler Gone Wild phenomenon is bothering me: just like the drunk uncle at the never-to-be-repeated family picnic, they won’t remember A THING! (And they’ll ask for money again, but that’s another post.)

So that means all the care, the physical exhaustion, the chauffeuring,  the endless rounds of “wheels on the bus” and the mind-numbing tedium of the same playground day after day after day counts for diddly squat. Oh! and I will have one more additional task added on: It will be my job to remember it all. And I may even have to offer this memory as evidence one day.

A new study from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience shows that drunk toddler syndrome, aka infantile amnesia,  may be “due to the rapid growth of nerve cells in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for filing new experiences into long-term memory.” So it’s like an inverse relationship to adult drunks, where loss of memory is due to the rapid destruction of nerve cells in the hippocampus.

The study, unsurprisingly, holds the disclaimer, “But nobody really knew the details of what happens in a toddler’s brain.” Toddlers, apparently, are just like a Salinger character — an unreliable narrator, though pretty charming. So when they hate us later in life, they might even remember all those rides to karate which they claimed to hate once they hit puberty — but imagined you coerced them into the whole debacle.

If I’m to be honest though, my real issue with my children’s faulty memories isn’t that they won’t give me credit for the back-breaking work I’m doing now, it’s that they won’t remember all the exquisitely joyful times. I wish both our daughter and son would remember that she gave him his first belly laugh by dancing in her skivvies around the kitchen table. Or ice skating and hot chocolate at Wollman rink on New Year’s Day. Standing with my son at the beach, toes in the surf and watching Tom toss our daughter so high into the air she claimed she was flying. I want them to retain the same happiness from their childhood that I am privileged to have access to, both in real time and as memories. In some ways the latter are more sustaining.

The good news: according the same Canadian Association for Neuroscience,  childhood memory is like imprinting. They do store the memory, they just didn’t catch where they put it. This is because their brain was too busy growing new connections. So perhaps a wonderful memory can be triggered later in life by a similar event. Maybe our son will remember his first laugh when he’s at a table with a cute blonde in her skivvies, dancing and then bending over to say, “kiss me!” … Umm, oops. Scratch that.  Perhaps it’s a good thing everything before seven is a blur.

Tagged as: , , , ,

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, profile photo and other personal information you make public on Facebook (e.g., school, work, current city, age) will appear with your comment. Learn More.