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Why We Don't Remember Early Childhood: Blame the Hippocampus

Human brain glowing lateral viewWhat is your earliest memory? Can you remember something from you childhood when you were as young as four or three? The earliest I can recall is of hiding in the attic of my house and taping together pieces of fabric to make a “dress” for my mother. I must have been about four, and the dress was completely unwearable (but my mother seems feigned awe). I often wish I could remember more of my childhood, but this “infantile amnesia” is very common and just a side effect of one’s overloaded and growing brain.

“Infantile amnesia”, as NBC News reports, “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.” This was part of a study that was presented at the Canadian Association for Neuroscience recently.

Young children,”can’t form stable memories of what happens in the first few years,” study co-author Paul Frankland says. “I have a daughter who is 4 years old and because we were working on this study, I would always ask her questions about her memories of places we visited 2, 3 months ago. It’s clear that she can form memories with quite some detail. But four years from now she won’t remember anything.”

So, back to this hippocampus thing. The “hippocampus matures slowly and probably doesn’t reach any reasonable maturity until we’re 3 or 4,” Dr. Eric Kandel says. “While 2- and 3-year-olds can remember things for a short time, the hippocampus is required for long-term storage of those memories.” And it has to do with circuitry. As the hippocampus matures, “new neurons come on line and need to be hooked into existing circuits,” and that with all this reorganization of thoughts, “the brain “forgets” where it stored the memories.”

This makes me wonder, can these memories be accessed someday with a wee bit of “rewiring.” As a parent, you have to wonder what memories our children will be able to recall. That first trip to Disneyland? Their first time building a snowman? Or perhaps sleeping in their crib. What was the first thing you remember?

Photo Source: iStockPhoto

 

 

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