Why We Can’t Remember Our Earliest Years
Infants form memories, but may not be able to recall them later.
Posted April 11, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Most adults can't remember anything from before they were 2 or 3 years old.
- Autobiographical memories often involve a sense of time passing, which isn’t something infants can think about until much later.
- Any memories we claim to recall before the ages of 2 or 3 might have been constructed by someone else’s retelling of an event.
The very first thing I can remember happening in my life is my baby brother coming home from the hospital for the first time. I remember my parents walking up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and placing him in a lacey blue bassinet. I recall thinking to myself, “I’m 2 and a half,” possibly comparing my many learned years to his mere days on earth. The memory is super hazy, but it’s there, and it’s brief. Other memories around the same time are even more hazy and brief, and memories from before I was 2 and a half years old are nonexistent.
My first memory is typical of most people’s first memories. They tend to start at ages 2 or 3 at the very earliest, and they are usually autobiographical memories or memories of things that happened to you. They also tend to be tied to some important or emotional event, which, for me, was the day my baby brother entered my world. No one can really remember anything before they were around that age—a phenomenon psychologists call infantile amnesia. But why do we experience infantile amnesia? And why can’t we remember anything before the age of 2 or 3?
We don’t know for sure, but there are lots of theories. One previously debunked theory is that babies can’t form memories at all. We now know that this isn’t true. Babies can of course remember things. They can learn to remember their mother’s face within hours of birth. Similarly, most parents know that their babies can remember them—by 2 or 3 months of age, babies smile at the faces that are familiar to them, showing that they recognize and remember the most important people in their lives.
To study what infants can remember, a researcher from my own Rutgers University named Carolyn Rovee-Collier designed a fun and clever task appropriate for infants younger than 6 months of age. For the task, she placed infants on their backs in a crib with a mobile hanging overhead. The mobile had several toys hanging from it, designed to hold the infants’ attention. While the infants were lying there, she measured how much they naturally kicked their feet. Next came the clever part: She tied a string from the infant’s chubby leg to the end of the mobile, so that every time the infant kicked, the mobile would bounce up and down. She quickly found that even very young infants learned that they were in charge of this scenario, and every time they kicked, the mobile moved. Pretty soon they were kicking a lot—much more than before the mobile was tied to their legs—showing that they learned the relation between kicking and the mobile moving.
But Rovee-Collier wasn’t all that interested in whether the infants learned that they could make the mobile move—she wanted to know whether they remembered that they could make the mobile move when tested a day or two later. She found that infants as young as 2 months of age remembered what they learned and started kicking as soon as they saw the mobile again, even after a day or two (Rovee-Collier, 1999). The youngest infants can only remember for a few days, but as they get older, infants can remember for longer and longer periods of time. This suggests that, from early in life, infants can form memories. So, the inability to form memories isn’t what keeps us from remembering things from when we were babies.
Importantly, the type of memory that is being tested in the mobile-kicking study is different from the kinds of memories we come up with when we try to remember our past. Remembering that kicking can make a mobile move is called a procedural memory, or memory for how something works. Like I mentioned before, when I recall the day my brother was brought home from the hospital, I’m recalling an autobiographical memory, or a memory of something that happened to me in my life. Autobiographical memories are different from procedural memories, or even semantic memories, which consist of facts, or things like words, numbers, or the capital of New Jersey. Autobiographical memories often involve a sense of time passing, which isn’t something infants can think about until much later in life. Autobiographical memories also require a sense of self, or the ability to reflect on yourself and your own behavior as it relates to others.
This isn’t something that even begins to develop until about 18 months of age. In fact, before about 12 to 18 months, infants can’t even store information with language. Can you imagine trying to remember a story about yourself without the ability to use language? Finally, the part of our brains responsible for storing memories—what’s called the hippocampus—isn’t fully developed in the infancy period. Any one of these factors or combinations of them could account for why we have trouble creating or recalling autobiographical memories before the ages of 2 or 3. Scientists still don’t know for sure exactly which of these factors is responsible for infantile amnesia.
What we do know is that any memories we claim to recall before the ages of 2 or 3 might have been constructed by someone else’s retelling of an event. It is even possible that some parts of my own first memory are real, while others are constructed from my mom’s stories about that day; it’s impossible to tell for sure. As much as we’d like to think of them this way, memories aren’t like tiny folders that we file away in our brains. And memories aren’t always exact replicas of what actually happened to us; they can be constructed and reconstructed over time. In fact, children are especially susceptible to suggestion in their remembering of events.
In some classic research in this area, Stephen Ceci and his colleagues looked at how reliable preschoolers’ memories are. In one classic study, they told preschool-aged children about a clumsy guy named Sam Stone who would get into several funny mishaps. Soon after, a man named Sam Stone visited their classroom, sitting mishap-free and quietly in the corner. Later, children were asked about Sam Stone’s visit to the classroom and what he did. Ceci found that preschool-aged children provided tall tales of the silly things that Sam did when he visited the classroom—none of which were true. Asking misleading questions exaggerated children’s responses, as did simply repeating questions over and over again (Bruck and Ceci, 1999). The authors concluded that children’s memories, especially during the preschool years, are quite malleable and susceptible to suggestion. However, although younger children might be most susceptible to creating false memories, older children and adults do it too (Ghetti, Qin, and Goodman, 2002).
So, although we can’t remember much from our infancies, babies can form memories, just not necessarily the kind that we usually like to tell and retell at family gatherings. Even as we get older, our memories don’t get filed away into our brains like video clips; they can fade, and they are susceptible to change, especially when we share these memories with others who might retell them from a different perspective. That means if we want to remember more from our earliest days, the best thing we can do is to talk to other people who were there—our loved ones. And if we’re lucky, talking about those times will perhaps help us make some new memories.
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Bruck, M., & Ceci, S. J. (1999). The suggestibility of children's memory. Annual review of psychology, 50(1), 419-439.
Ghetti, S., Qin, J., & Goodman, G. S. (2002). False memories in children and adults: Age, distinctiveness, and subjective experience. Developmental Psychology, 38(5), 705.
Rovee-Collier, C. (1999). The Development of Infant Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(3), 80–85.